CITY HEIGHTS — Members of the local Somali community met with law enforcement representatives Wednesday to begin a dialogue intended to foster better understanding between the two groups.
The meeting was called in light of the recent arrests of four local people suspected of aiding a Somali militia group, which U.S. authorities have designated a terrorist organization.
San Diego U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, Keith Slotter, FBI special agent-in-charge of the San Diego office, and other officials fielded questions for about two hours from roughly 50 members of the local Somali community, which is centered in City Heights.
The officials declined to speak specifically about the allegations against the three Somali men and one woman that have been filed in federal court since October. One of the men is an imam, or spiritual leader, at a City Heights mosque.
The defendants face charges of providing support to al-Shabaab, which U.S. authorities say has ties to al-Qaeda.
A fifth person, a former San Diegan who is not of Somali descent, was charged in August with providing support to al-Shabaab. Authorities believe he is in Somalia.
Several community members spoke positively about the meeting Wednesday, saying this was the start of a concerted effort to communicate, which they hoped would continue.
“I think that we, both law enforcement and the community, had different perceptions about each other,” said Abdi Mohamoud, executive director of Horn of Africa, a social service agency.
“This is a great way for us to move forward,” he said.
The meeting was held at the San Diego Police Department’s Multi-Cultural Community Relations office in City Heights.
Many questions from the community members focused on how and when authorities can file charges, and whether law-abiding people risk violating federal law if they send money to relatives and mosques overseas.
“It is certainly not illegal to send money back to the homeland,” Slotter said. “I respect and understand that.”
Slotter said the FBI typically looks at three issues in these types of investigations: whether a suspect is planning or attempting to carry out an act of terrorism, recruiting for a terrorist organization or knowingly providing financial support to a terrorist cause.
Duffy noted that some may be frustrated because her office has shared little information about the pending cases. She said she would support the idea of hosting training sessions workshops to explain some basics of U.S. criminal procedure.
“We haven’t gotten to the point in the process where evidence is publicly presented,” she said.
San Diego has the nation’s second largest concentration of Somalis, behind Minneapolis-St. Paul. Local community leaders estimate the population here of 15,000.
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