WASHINGTON — The Justice Department announced Thursday that it's filed terrorism charges against 14 people accused of supporting the Somali extremist group al Shabaab and said that two of the suspects had been arrested in Minnesota.
The indictments stem from an ongoing federal investigation into what authorities called "a deadly pipeline" between U.S. cities and the increasingly brutal Somali militia, which is thought to have carried out last month's bombings in the East African nation of Uganda, which killed more than 70 people who'd gathered to watch the World Cup on TV.
Twelve suspects, including at least six U.S. citizens, were accused of leaving the United States to fight alongside al Shabaab. FBI officials say the men — hailing from Minnesota, San Diego and Daphne, Ala. — are in Somalia.
In announcing the charges, Attorney General Eric Holder said that authorities were discovering "a disturbing trend" of Muslim Americans being recruited to fight with or support terrorist groups. In Minnesota, which is home to some 50,000 ethnic Somalis, authorities have charged a total of 19 defendants in connection with the investigation into al Shabaab.
"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," Holder said.
An annual State Department report on global terrorism released Thursday called al Shabaab the "second deadliest group," saying it was responsible for more attacks last year than any group except the Taliban in Afghanistan. The militia is one of al Qaida's most active affiliates, the report said, and has grown rapidly in size and ambition since 2007, when it began battling a weak interim government for control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
The Uganda bombings were thought to be al Shabaab's first attack outside Somalia, and the group has attracted an unknown number of foreign fighters to its ranks. It practices a cruel, Taliban-style form of Islamic law, chopping off the limbs of rule-breakers and reportedly whipping women for wearing bras, which it associates with Western indulgence.
Authorities identified the individuals arrested as Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, naturalized U.S. citizens living in Rochester, Minn. The women were charged with conspiring to raise money for al Shabaab through the Islamic money-transfer system known as hawala.
According to the indictment, Ali, Hassan and others allegedly went door to door to raise money for al Shabaab in Rochester, Minneapolis and other cities in the United States and Canada, sometimes under the pretext that the money was for charity.
In February 2009, Ali allegedly hosted a teleconference in which she told listeners to "forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad." At a teleconference in October 2008, Ali and Hassan reportedly secured $2,100 in pledges.
Authorities also charged Ali with 12 counts of providing material support to terrorists for allegedly making a dozen money transfers to al Shabaab, totaling $8,608, from September 2008 to July 2009. Each count carries a potential 15 years in prison.
In separate indictments, the Justice Department added six names to the list of U.S. citizens who've allegedly traveled to Somalia to join al Shabaab. Five of the men are from Minnesota, and they left the United States in 2008 and 2009; the other is a 28-year-old from San Diego.
While Holder praised American Muslims for providing "critical assistance" to the investigation, the two-year FBI investigation has deeply unsettled Minnesota's Somali community, many of whose members came to the United States in the early 1990s, at the start of a violent civil war from which their homeland has yet to emerge.
Omar Jamal, who runs the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, welcomed the federal investigation and predicted that it would yield more arrests.
"What you see now, these 14 and others, are really the foot soldiers. They are not the big fish," Jamal said.
"Who's behind this recruitment? Where do they get the money from? The minds behind this are still at large."
The State Department report noted that terrorist groups in recent years have succeeded for the first time in recruiting U.S. citizens, with some, such as Yemen-based preacher Anwar al Awlaki, gaining positions of prominence.
Human rights groups charge that Awlaki is thought to be the first U.S. citizen on a CIA "targeted killing" list. U.S. officials wouldn't say Thursday whether any of those charged with supporting al Shabaab are also on the list.
"The assumption that Americans have some special immunity to al Qaida's ideology (has been) dispelled," said Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator.
Benjamin said the numbers were small compared with the overall U.S. population and said recent developments offered "a cautionary note. We're fortunate we haven't seen greater radicalization."
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
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