MINNEAPOLIS — Two Minnesota women convicted of conspiring to send money to al-Shabab in Somalia were given prison sentences in federal court Thursday, ending a week of punishments tied to long-running investigations into recruiting and financing for the terrorist group.
Amina Farah Ali, 36, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on 13 terrorism-related counts, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 66, received a 10-year term on one terror-related count and two counts of lying to the FBI.
Ali insisted during her 3 1/2-hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis that she was only trying to help the poor in her war-torn homeland.
"Everything that I have done, I have done because I was trying to do good," Ali said. "My intention was to alleviate the suffering of people."
But prosecutors have said Ali and Hassan were part of a "deadly pipeline" that sent funds and fighters to al-Shabab. Authorities said they went door-to-door in the name of charity and held religious teleconferences to solicit donations, which they then routed to the fighters.
Defense attorneys painted the women as humanitarians who gave money to orphans and the poor, as well as to a group fighting to rid Somalia of foreign troops. At the time, Ethiopian troops brought into Somalia by its weak U.N.-backed government were viewed by many Somalis as invaders.
Ali's attorney, Dan Scott, told the court Ali learned that she needed to work with those in power if her money was going to reach its destination.
"This was not a choice between good and evil. This was a choice between evils," the lawyer said.
He added: "It's not terrorism. She backed the wrong horse."
Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis asked Ali whether her donors knew the money was going to al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked group that has been at the heart of much of the violence in Somalia in recent years.
"I did not send the money to al-Shabab. Al-Shabab was a vehicle used to get the money to the needy. It was not used for their own purposes," Ali said.
Hassan also spoke to Davis and apologized for her crimes, saying she accepted responsibility. She said she supported al-Shabab's efforts to rid Somalia of the Ethiopians, but once Ethiopian troops were gone, she disagreed with the violence.
"It's clear she was a cheerleader for al-Shabab at one point in time," her attorney, Randy Daar, said. "I think that has changed."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Paulsen disagreed. "She supported al-Shabab to the bitter end," he said.
Both defense attorneys were disappointed. Daar said he anticipated an appeal and Scott planned to recommend an appeal, saying "there's no excuse for that sentence."
Ali and Hassan were among nine people sentenced this week for their roles in the federal government's long-running investigations into terrorism recruiting and financing for al-Shabab.
Since 2007, at least 22 young men have left Minnesota in small groups to join the group – a phenomenon that has been called one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters for a foreign terrorist organization.
In the women's case, authorities said they conspired to funnel more than $8,600 to al-Shabab from September 2008 through July 2009 – after Al-Shabab was declared a terrorist group.
The government's key evidence included hundreds of hours of recorded phone calls, obtained from a wiretap on Ali's telephones. In one call, Ali told others to "forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad." In another, she said, "Let the civilians die."
In court papers filed before the hearings, prosecutors wrote that a significant sentence would warn others, "lest they believe that similar grass roots fund raising on behalf of a designated terrorist organization is a viable avenue to bringing stability and humanitarian relief to Somalia."
Some members of Minnesota's Somali community – the largest in the U.S. – were shocked by the sentences.
"What happened here is injustice. It's unacceptable," said Abdikali Warsame, of St. Paul.
"Whatever they did, they did to aid the poor, needy, vulnerable and others," said Hassan Mohamud, the imam at Minnesota Da'Wah Institute in St. Paul.
In addition to the women's case, 18 men have been charged in the government's investigation into terrorism recruiting and the travels of young men who went to Somalia to fight.
Seven of those men were sentenced this week, receiving prison terms ranging from two to 20 years. Another man was sentenced in 2010 to four months in prison and four months of home confinement for obstruction of justice.
The rest of those who face charges are either at large, dead or presumed dead.
The FBI says the investigation is ongoing.
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