But she and another woman, Hawo Mohamed Hassan, were actually using the pretense of charity to send money to a violent terrorist group in the African country, prosecutors allege. They also claim the women made direct pleas in teleconference calls for others "to support violent jihad in Somalia."
The two women, both U.S. citizens living in Rochester, are among 14 people named in indictments unsealed Thursday in Minneapolis, San Diego, and Mobile, Ala. accused of being part of what the government called "a deadly pipeline" that routed money and fighters from the U.S. to al-Shabab. The Somali insurgent faction embraces a radical form of Islam similar to the harsh, conservative brand practiced by Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
Both women said they are innocent. "We are not terrorists," Ali said after she and Hassan made their first appearances Thursday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.
The indicted also include Omar Hammami, an Alabama man now known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, or "the American" who has become one of al-Shabab's most high-profile members and appeared in a jihadist video in May 2009. The group's fighters, numbering several thousand strong, are battling Somalia's weakened government and have been branded a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda by the U.S. and other Western countries.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the indictments reflect a disturbing trend of recruitment efforts targeting U.S. residents to become terrorists. He credited Muslim community leaders in the United States for helping combat radicalization.
Of the 14 people named in indictments Thursday, at least half are U.S. citizens and 12 of them are out of the country, including 10 men from Minnesota who allegedly left to join al-Shabab. Seven of those 10 Minnesota men named had been charged in earlier indictments or criminal complaints.
Ali, 33, and Hassan, 63, are the only two people indicted Thursday who remain in the U.S. They are both charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Ali faces multiple counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, and Hassan faces three counts of lying to the FBI.
Abdifatah Abdinur, a Somali community leader in Rochester, said many knew Ali as a religious speaker who preached to women, and as a person who would collect clothes for refugees, telling many people to drop off donations at her garage.
"I know a lot of people might send money or goods, without knowing the consequences of what they were doing," Abdinur said.
"If you have clothes, you give them to her. If you have shoes, give them to her," Abdinur said. "I was surprised, as almost everybody was (to learn) that she was sending clothes to al-Shabab."
The women and others allegedly went door to door in Minneapolis; Rochester and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada to raise funds for al-Shabab's operations in Somalia. The indictment says they claimed the money would go to the poor and needy and used phony names for recipients to conceal that it was going to al-Shabab.
They also allegedly made direct appeals to people in teleconferences. 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 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 from September 2008 through July 2009.
The fundraising operation in Minnesota reached into Ohio, where a Columbus resident helped collect donations for al-Shabab, according to the indictment. The document also says that after the FBI searched Ali's home in 2009, she 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."
Prosecutors didn't seek detention for Ali or Hassan, but a federal magistrate set several conditions for their release, including barring travel outside Minnesota without permission.
When asked whether she understood why she was in court, Ali said through an interpreter: "I do not know however, I think maybe because of my faith."
Ali, who works in home health care and has lived in Rochester for 11 years, also said: "Allah is my attorney."
Hassan said she was self-employed, running a day care.
Minneapolis has been the hub of the federal investigation into al-Shabab recruitment over the last two years. The investigation began about the time a U.S. citizen from Minneapolis carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia in October 2008. Roughly 20 young men all but one of Somali descent have left Minnesota for that country since late 2007.
In Mobile, Ala., on Thursday prosecutors unsealed a September 2009 indictment against Hammami. Holder said Hammami has appeared in several propaganda videos for al-Shabab and "has assumed an operational role in that organization."
Hammami, 26, 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. School officials said they have been unaware of his whereabouts since he left the university in 2002.
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.
In San Diego, 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.