WASHINGTON — The government announced Thursday that it has charged 14 people as participants in "a deadly pipeline" to Somalia that routed money and fighters from the United States to the terrorist group al-Shabab.
The indictments unsealed in Minneapolis, Minn.; San Diego, Calif.; and Mobile, Ala., reflect "a disturbing trend" of recruitment efforts targeting U.S. residents to become terrorists, Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference.
The attorney general credited Muslim community leaders in the United States for regularly denouncing terrorists and for providing critical assistance to law enforcement to help disrupt terrorist plots and combat radicalization. "We must ... work to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold," Holder said.
At least seven of the 14 people charged are U.S. citizens and 10 of them, all from Minnesota, allegedly left the United States to join al-Shabab. Seven of the 10 had been charged previously in the probe.
Al-Shabab is a Somali insurgent faction embracing a radical form of Islam similar to the harsh, conservative brand practiced by Afghanistan's Taliban regime. Its fighters, numbering several thousand strong, are battling Somalia's weakened government and have been branded a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida by the U.S. and other Western countries.
Terrorist organizations such as al-Shabab continue to radicalize and recruit U.S. citizens and others to train and fight with them, said Sean Joyce, the FBI's executive assistant director for the national security branch.
One of two indictments issued in Minnesota alleges that two Somali women who were among those charged, and others, went door-to-door in Minneapolis; Rochester, Minn., and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada to raise funds for al-Shabab's operations in Somalia. The indictment says the women raised the money under false pretenses, claiming it would go to the poor and needy, and used phony names for recipients to conceal that the money was going to al-Shabab.
The indictment alleges that the women, Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, also raised money by making direct appeals to people in teleconferences "in which they and other speakers encouraged financial contributions to support violent jihad in Somalia."
During one teleconference, the indictment says, Ali told others "to forget about the other charities" and focus on "the Jihad."
The indictment says Ali and others sent the funds to al-Shabab through various hawalas, money transfer businesses that are a common source of financial transactions in the Islamic world.
Ali is accused of sending $8,608 to al-Shabab on 12 occasions between Sept. 17, 2008 through July 5, 2009.
After the FBI searched Ali's home in 2009, she allegedly contacted an al-Shabab leader in southern Somalia and said: "I was questioned by the enemy here. ... they took all my stuff and are investigating it ... do not accept calls from anyone."
Abdifatah Abdinur, a Somali community leader in Rochester, Minn., said Ali was known in the community as the go-to person if local Somalis had clothes or other goods to donate.
"If you have clothes, you give them to her," said Abdinur. "If you have shoes, give them to her." Abdinur said Ali was also a religious speaker who preached to women in the area. "I was surprised, as almost everybody was (to learn) that she was sending clothes to al-Shabab," Abdinur said.
Roughly 20 men from the U.S. — all but one of Somali descent — left Minnesota from December 2007 through October 2009 to join al-Shabab, officials have said.
On Thursday, a newly released State Department annual report on worldwide terrorism noted with concern that al-Qaida, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, appeared to be attracting growing numbers of radicalized Americans to its cause.
Omar Hammami, who is now known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, was charged in Birmingham, Ala. Hammami grew up in the middle-class town of Daphne, Ala., and attended the University of South Alabama in Mobile, where he was president of the Muslim Student Association nine years ago. Hammami, 26, enrolled at the university in 2001 but left in 2002; school officials said they have been unaware of his whereabouts since then.
Hammami's father Shafik is an engineer with the state highway department who also has served as president of the Islamic Society of Mobile. Shafik Hammami confirmed his relationship to Omar Hammami in e-mail exchanges with The Associated Press earlier this year but declined further comment.
Al-Shabab members began pledging allegiance to al-Qaida last year. One of its most famous members is al-Amriki, or "the American." He appeared in a jihadist video in May 2009.
In San Diego, Calif., prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging Jehad Serwan Mostafa, 28, with conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab. Mostafa is believed to be in Somalia.
Somali-Americans have been recruited and have taken part in suicide bombings in Somalia, and U.S. officials fear trained Somali-American terror plotters could return to the United States.
Al-Shabab last month claimed twin bombings in Uganda that killed 76 during the World Cup final, the group's first international attack. Uganda and Burundi both have peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu, and al-Shabab has vowed to continue attacks against the two countries.
The U.S. government, including the Pentagon, has been looking for ways to expand the training and equipping of African forces to help battle al-Shabab. The U.S. military maintains troops at a base in the nation of Djibouti, but has largely worked through the African Union, saying that sending U.S. or other foreign troops into Somalia could fuel resistance and anger among the Somalis.
Forliti reported from Minneapolis. Contributing to this report were Associated Press correspondent Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., and AP reporters Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington.