Wide-ranging sentences handed down in the yearslong federal investigation into recruiting and financing for the terrorist group al-Shabab have kindled a mix of outrage, confusion and relief among members of Minnesota's large Somali community.
Some say the 10- and 20-year prison sentences for two Minnesota women who sent money to the group were too harsh, especially since two men who traveled to Somalia and joined al-Shabab got three years. The attorney for one man sentenced to 20 years in prison has already filed a notice of appeal; more are expected.
But others say justice has been served, and authorities said the nine penalties doled out last week show that those who support terrorism will be held accountable.
"This misguided conduct is unacceptable," U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said in a statement. "It will continue to be prosecuted vigorously."
Prosecutors have said the men and women were part of a "deadly pipeline," sending money and men to al-Shabab, which the U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization for its links to al-Qaida and its tactics that include suicide bombings and assassinations. At least 22 men left Minnesota for Somalia since 2007 in what has been called one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters for a foreign terrorist organization.
Authorities say the conspiracy began in 2007, when small groups of Somali men began holding secret meetings about returning to their homeland to wage jihad against Ethiopians. Ethiopian troops had been brought into Somalia a year earlier by its U.N.-backed government, but many Somalis viewed them as invaders.
That sentiment came up often during the hearings, as Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis gave each defendant unlimited time to say whatever he or she wanted. Davis also asked family and community members to speak, and asked defendants about their time in Somalia and refugee camps.
Hassan Mohamud, the imam at a St. Paul mosque, commended Davis for that approach.
But Mohamud was among several people outraged after two women — Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan — received sentences of 20 and 10 years. Ali and Hassan had gone door-to-door, saying they were raising money for charity; they were convicted of funneling funds to al-Shabab.
"They didn't go back home. They didn't kill anyone. They just helped with the poor people," said Abdiwali Warsame, a St. Paul Somali who was interviewed outside the courthouse. He called the women's sentences an "injustice."
Three men who traveled to Somalia and pleaded guilty to terror-related charges received lower sentences after cooperating with authorities. Two received three-year prison stints; a third who stayed and fought alongside al-Shabab then lied to the FBI got 10 years. One man who admitted helping recruits obtain plane tickets — but was later characterized as a leader in recruitment efforts — received 12 years.
Last week's sentences are in line with other al-Shabab-related cases. In New Jersey, two men arrested while trying to board flights to Somalia for a jihad were sentenced to 22 and 20 years in prison. A southern California woman received eight years for sending money to Minnesota men in Somalia, while a Missouri man received more than 11 years for funding al-Shabab.
The penalties are serious to deter terror-related activity, said Evan Kohlmann, a terror consultant who has assisted government investigations into al-Shabab recruiting. Laws against fundraising are strict because money from the West is the "lifeblood" of groups like al-Shabab, he said.
Abdirizak Bihi, the uncle of a teen killed while fighting in Somalia, said the sentences are the beginning of justice. The man accused of helping young Burhan Hassan and others with their trips was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
"I think it was justice, for Burhan, to see the recruiter, the person who took him to his death, being ... prosecuted here — right here — about a mile from home," Bihi said. "It was really great to go to your neighborhood and see justice happening."
Others raised concerns about potential bias after Davis questioned Ali and Hassan about whether they supported suicide bombings and Sharia law, and asked Hassan about her traditional dress. That led some Somalis to say Islam was under attack.
It also prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to announce Friday that it will file a complaint against Davis, for allegedly linking mainstream Islamic principles with terrorism. Davis does not speak about court cases. His office referred The Associated Press to the court record.
Davis said in court that he struggles to understand what would make young men choose to return to violence in war-torn Somalia, and he wants to make sure it doesn't happen again. It's a theme echoed by authorities.
Chris Warrener, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Minneapolis, said the agency continues to investigate, and is reaching out in hopes of deterring terroristic activities. Among other things, the FBI has partnered with a youth group to form the Somali American Youth Action Committee with the goal of educating Somalis about the FBI and vice versa.
"I think we're off to a good start," Warrener said, adding that a regular dialogue is essential. "I feel in my gut that someday there will be a payoff if we keep at this and we do it right."
But Omar Jamal, first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations, feared the sentences would only embolden al-Shabab.
"All these kids are manipulated, brainwashed," he said. "The big guys, I think, will laugh at this and if anything else, it will encourage them to look for more victims, more kids, to go through the pipe."
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