14 Charged With Supporting Somali Terrorist Group

The Justice Department announced the arrests of more than a dozen Somali-Americans on Thursday. The action is part of a lengthy investigation into the recruitment of young Somali-American men by a terrorist group. Over the past two years, more than two dozen people have disappeared from their homes and turned up in Somalia with a group called al-Shabab. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

There was a major development today in a long-running terrorism investigation. It involves a Somali group's operations in the United States. The Justice Department unsealed indictments charging 14 U.S. citizens with providing money, personnel and services to a Somali militia called al-Shabab. Here's U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Attorney General): These indictments and arrests in Minnesota, Alabama and California shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to al-Shabab from across the United States.

BLOCK: I'm joined by NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who has been following this story for two years now. Dina, 14 people indicted on these charges today. That's a lot of people. Are people you've talked to surprised by the scope of this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is one of the largest terrorist recruiting efforts we've ever seen in this country. You know, it's unclear exactly how many young men have left the U.S. to go and fight for this group, al-Shabab, but we think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen, and that number is growing. You know, when I first started reporting this story for Minneapolis two years ago, which is where a lot of these kids initially were missing from, there was a sense that it was a small sort of freelance-like operation in the U.S. wanting to help this group.

And, in fact, the group wasn't even on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations at the time. So these indictments today show that the recruitment effort was actually a lot more sophisticated than that.

BLOCK: More sophisticated meaning what exactly?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, to get young men to join al-Shabab from the U.S., there were people here who were trying to find the young men and convince them to do so. There were finance people. There was one woman from Minneapolis. Her name's Amina Farah Ali. And she is accused of having raised over $8,500 for the group in less than a year. And allegedly she and other people went to door to door asking for money for al-Shabab. And she held these little mini fundraisers, a kind of teleconference in which she would speak for a while about how important it was to support the group and then ask for pledges that she'd later collect. And then she'd allegedly, you know, wire the money to al-Shabab in Somalia.

And you have to understand that $8,500 from this community is a huge amount of money. A lot of the Somali community in Minneapolis is really living hand to mouth. And a lot of the people there are holding down two or three jobs just to make ends meet.

BLOCK: Is it clear, Dina, how many people from these communities in fact went to fight in Somalia?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's a little unclear. I mean today the indictment listed 10 names and the number that we've heard is more than two dozen. And we know that at least six of the young men who left Minneapolis died in the fighting in Somalia and they aren't on the indictment. But this is the first time we've actually seen dates of departures and flights laid out.

It looks like it all started in December 2007. That's when the first group left Minneapolis for Somalia. And then there were other groups that kind of left like clockwork. There was a group in February 2008, then another in August, then another in November. And then another again in October of last year. So this is a really a steady stream, a jihadi pipeline, like what they've had to deal with in immigrant communities in Europe.

BLOCK: And we heard Eric Holder mention not just Minnesota, but also Alabama and California.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. One of the big surprises was the indictment of this young American from Alabama named Omar Hammami. He's been all over the Internet in a recruitment video from al-Shabab. And the attorney general said for the first time that Hammami wasn't just a member of this group, but that he was a ranking member and apparently had operational responsibilities. Now, he didn't say what that meant exactly.

But when they use that kind of terminology, they generally mean the running attacks or maybe actually training recruits.

BLOCK: And, Dina, is there more to come on this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: There's more to come. The investigation is still open. Ten of the defendants in the case still aren't in custody. And there's been this new trend of non-Somalis suddenly wanting to join us with al-Shabab. So I think we'll be seeing more of that.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York. Dina, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Youre welcome, Melissa.

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