Blaming the Somalis

Given the front-page stories that followed the federal raids on money-transfer services across the nation two weeks ago, it was hard not to get the impression that Somali immigrants in Minneapolis were unwittingly providing a significant source of funding to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

In the days following the November 7 raids, newspapers nationwide reported that the Al-Barakaat money-transfer service had funneled "tens of millions" of dollars to Al Qaeda. Twin Cities readers learned that Al-Barakaat, based in Mogadishu, Somalia, was by far the most popular money-transfer firm for local Somalis, and that the metro area is home to approximately half of the 100,000 Somali refugees living in the United States. In short, it seemed as if millions of dollars--maybe tens of millions--had been flowing from local refugees to bin Laden's coffers every year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Star Tribune reported that at a subsequent town meeting on terrorism held at Bloomington Jefferson High School, an audience member received scattered applause when he "questioned the loyalty of Somali immigrants."

But a closer look at the numbers indicates that the amount of money Al Qaeda allegedly skimmed from wire transfers made by local Somalis is much smaller than what the public has been led to imagine.

On Friday, November 9, Star Tribune writers Greg Gordon and Joy Powell reported that according to a senior official in the U.S. Treasury Department, Al-Barakaat had been passing along to Al Qaeda five percent of each money transfer the company made. (In other words the company, which was vastly undercutting rival Western Union's 15 percent transfer tariff, was allegedly giving away half its gross revenues and remaining a thriving business.)

Gordon says a Treasury Department spokesperson told him that Al-Barakaat may have been responsible for some $400 million of the estimated $500 million wired to Somalia each year, and that five percent of that amount, or $20 million, was diverted to Al Qaeda. Gordon says he was told the terrorists received an additional $5 million annually as a percentage of Al-Barakaat's telecommunications and Internet businesses.

Reached by City Pages, Treasury Department spokeswoman Tasai Scolinos says that Al-Barakaat was doing an estimated $500 million annually in money-transfer business and receiving five percent--or $25 million--in service fees. "Treasury hasn't publicly made an estimate as to how much of that money goes to Al Qaeda," says Scolinos.

Regardless of the precise figures involved, highlighting the involvement of the local Somali community is, at best, a stretch. As the Star Tribune reported, the $400 million Al-Barakaat is estimated to have transferred annually is a worldwide figure, and it includes money sent overseas by relief organizations as well as individuals. For example, one of the largest relief efforts in East Africa has been undertaken by bin Laden's sworn enemy, the United Nations.

A year ago the Star Tribune reported that local Somalis had wired more than $75 million to the Horn of Africa region over a four-year period. Somalis in Minneapolis dispute that figure, arguing that it's much too high. But assuming it is accurate--and that every nickel was wired through Al-Barakaat, and that the Treasury Department assertion that Al Qaeda was reaping 50 percent of Al-Barakaat's revenues is correct--the terrorist group would have received $3.75 million over the four-year period, or less than $1 million annually. (By way of comparison, in May of this year the Bush administration sent $43 million to Al Qaeda's patrons in the Taliban government in order to encourage Afghanistan not to cultivate poppy seeds for the production of opium.)

In the two weeks since Al-Barakaat was raided, local Somalis have found other means of sending aid to their loved ones in the refugee camps and war-torn areas of East Africa. "People are using Dahab-Shiil," says Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, referring to the London-based company that had been second to Al-Barakaat in providing services to local Somalis. "The lines are longer and people have to wait, but that is okay. It is better than we thought at first, when we were worried that all the companies would be closed down."

That, however, is precisely the case in countries such as Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, where, in an effort to aid the Bush administration's war on terrorism, government officials have closed down all money-wiring services. According to a spokesman for the Somali Justice Advocate Center in St. Paul, the situation is especially acute for the approximately 15,000 Oromos (one of the many ethnic groups in Ethiopia) living in the Twin Cities, who are now unable to send money to their loved ones.

Fahia adds that a relatively small but significant percentage of Somalis with family members in Ethiopia and the UAE are also affected. He also feels compelled to emphasize that the Somalis here had no idea any money was going to Al Qaeda. That's something all Somali émigrés have been repeating with a mantralike regularity since September 11. "We have been through a lot of fighting and war and terrible things," says Mohamed Husein, founder of the Somali Benadiri Community of Minnesota. "We came to this country for peace and we love what this country has given us. We do not support the terrorists. Why would we support the terrorists?"

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