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U.S. charges 14 with giving support to Somali insurgent group

By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; A05

Federal authorities unsealed terrorism-related charges Thursday against 14 people accused of providing funding and recruits to a militant group in Somalia with ties to al-Qaeda, part of an expanding U.S. effort to disrupt what Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called a "deadly pipeline" of money and fighters to al-Shabab.

It is the first time that the Justice Department has publicly revealed criminal charges against two U.S. citizens, Omar Hammami and Jehad Mostafa, who have risen through al-Shabab's ranks to become important field commanders for the organization.

The indictments were unsealed in Alabama, California and Minnesota, the latter being home to the largest Somali population in the United States.

In Minnesota, officials said, FBI agents arrested two women on Thursday on charges that included soliciting donations door-to-door for al-Shabab, which the United States designated a terrorist organization in 2008. The other 12 suspects were in Somalia or were otherwise at large.

The indictments "shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to al-Shabab from cities across the United States," Holder said. "We are seeing an increasing number of individuals -- including U.S. citizens -- who have become captivated by extremist ideology and have taken steps to carry out terrorist objectives, either at home or abroad."

For years, al-Shabab was seen primarily as an insurgent group struggling to topple Somalia's weak government and to impose strict Islamic law. But the group's focus "has morphed over time," a senior FBI official said. Al-Shabab has attracted a growing number of foreign fighters to its camps and has demonstrated a new ability to export violence, and it has been praised by Osama bin Laden.

Last month, the group claimed responsibility for bombings in Uganda that killed at least 76 people. A State Department terrorism report released Thursday said al-Shabab and al-Qaeda "present a serious terrorist threat to American and allied interests throughout the Horn of Africa."

Holder said none of those charged is accused of plotting attacks against U.S. targets. Most are accused of sending money or signing up for a war aimed at ousting the U.S.-backed government in Mogadishu. Even so, al-Shabab's ties to al-Qaeda and its ability to tap support inside the United States have caused concern that the group could be used to carry out a domestic attack.

"What it reaffirms is that we do have a problem with domestic radicalization," said Frank J. Cilluffo, an official in the George W. Bush administration who heads the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

The indictments follow the arrest last month of Zachary Adam Chesser, 20, of Fairfax County, who was detained in New York while attempting to depart for Africa. Authorities said he planned to join al-Shabab.

As part of a multiyear FBI investigation, 19 people have been charged in Minnesota with supporting al-Shabab. Nine have been arrested, including five who have pleaded guilty; the others are not in custody.

But the most significant figures indicted are the two Americans who have emerged as battle-tested leaders of al-Shabab.

Hammami, 26, is a native of Alabama and a key player in al-Shabab's efforts to recruit supporters in the United States and other Western nations, officials said. Hammami, who goes by Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, or "the American," appeared in a rap-themed video this spring that attracted widespread attention online.

"He has assumed an operational role in that organization," Holder said.

Like Anwar al-Aulaqi, the Muslim cleric in Yemen tied to recent terrorist plots, Hammami is seen as a "bridge figure" who uses his familiarity with U.S. culture to appeal to Western audiences. But Aulaqi is known primarily for his radical online sermons, whereas Hammami has earned credibility as a fighter in Somalia's civil war, counterterrorism experts said.

"This guy actually has operational experience," Cilluffo said. "He is one of the top jihadi pop stars."

Mostafa, 28, is also an increasingly important figure, officials said. A U.S. citizen and former resident of San Diego, Mostafa served as a top lieutenant to Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaeda and al-Shabab operative killed in a U.S. military strike last year. Since then, Mostafa "is believed to have ascended to the inner circle of al-Shabab leadership," a U.S. counterterrorism official said.

Mostafa is believed to have met Aulaqi about a decade ago in San Diego, the official said, although it is unclear whether they have remained in contact.

The only suspects taken into custody were Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, both naturalized U.S. citizens from Somalia who resided in Rochester, Minn. The two women are accused of working with counterparts in Somalia to hold conference calls with Somali natives in Minnesota, urging them to "forget about" other charities and focus on "the Jihad," according to charges filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

The records indicate that the women collected more than $8,000 in donations since 2008. They routed the money to al-Shabab recipients in Somalia through "hawala" transfers widely used in Third World countries to move money and bypass traditional banks. Hassan is also accused of making false statements to the FBI; she had denied that she was involved in raising funds for al-Shabab.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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