ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — For a woman accused of supporting the Somali terror group al-Shabab, Hinda Osman Dhirane began her trial with an unusual admission: she is an ardent al-Shabab supporter.
Dhirane’s attorney, federal public defender Paula Deutsch, began her opening statement Monday reading parts of a poem Dhirane had written as an ode to al-Shabab fighters.
“We make no bones about the fact she was a supporter of al-Shabab,” an al-Qaida affiliate centered in Somalia that claimed responsibility for the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya that killed 67 people, among other attacks, Deutsch said. “But it’s talk. It doesn’t prove that she necessarily provided substantial assistance to al-Shabab.”
Prosecutors, though, say Dhirane, 46, of Kent, Washington, and Muna Osman Jama, 36, of Reston, did more than just talk about supporting al-Shabab. The two were charged in 2014 with funneling small amounts of money — ultimate less than $5,000 — to al-Shabab fundraisers. Even small amounts of money in U.S. dollars can provide significant buying power in Somalia for weapons and the like, prosecutors said.
Prosecutor Danya Atiyeh said in her opening statement that the women sought to hide the payments in remittances that members of the Somali diaspora regularly send back to their homeland.
The remittances, she said, “make an ideal cover for disguising money,” Atiyeh said. She quoted Jama from an online conversation in 2012; “If you work with the women and pretend that you are supporting your family, can the infidels and the animals who work with them find out what is in your heart?”
The women used coded communications to hide their intent, referring to al-Shabab as “the family” and truckloads of supplies as “camels,” prosecutors said.
Deutsch, the defense attorney, said that understanding Dhirane’s support for al-Shabab requires an understanding of Somalia’s history of corrupt and at times nonexistent government. She said Somalis “saw al-Shabab as the hope to establish peace and order and a Sharia system of law.”
Jama’s attorneys made no opening statement.
Federal prosecutors across the country have targeted al-Shabab’s supporters in the United States. In 2013, two Minnesota women were sentenced to 10 and 20 years, respectively, on similar charges. In fact, prosecutors said Jama and Dhirane watched that case closely and took note of the outcome, spurring them to be even more secretive in their dealings.
At the Alexandria courthouse, where Jama and Dhirane’s trial is being held, Muslim convert Zachary Chesser was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2011 for trying to travel to the Horn of Africa to join al-Shabab, among other crimes . In 2012, more than a dozen members of northern Virginia’s Somali community were convicted in a large-scale investigation of a smuggling ring that imported large amounts of khat, a leaf that some Somalis chew that produces a mild high for users. The investigation initially raised concerns about whether the money from the ring was being used to fund al-Shabab, but no such evidence emerged.
The trial, in which Jama and Dhirane waived their right to a jury and agreed to have their guilt or innocence decided by U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga, is expected to last up to two weeks.