Starving Somalia to Fight Terror

Tapping the wire: Two Somali women at Dahab-shil, a Minneapolis money transfer service

Tapping the wire: Two Somali women at Dahab-shil, a Minneapolis money transfer service

    "As they lost weight, the men became lethargic in both body and spirit. They became increasingly irritable. Concentration became difficult. They were appalled by their lack of physical strength and coordination, and many suffered blackouts when they stood up quickly. Their limbs swelled. They lost their sexual desire and would indulge instead in a kind of 'stomach masturbation,' describing favorite meals to one another and poring over cookbooks for hours at a time."

    --from In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick


By the end of the month, thanks to ham-fisted federal agents and skittish bank executives, it will be even tougher for members of Minnesota's sizable East African community to send money back home. As a direct consequence, according to Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, countless men, women, and children back home will face starvation. "It will be a disaster," he says. "Beggars will flood the streets. Men will literally lose their minds. People will die."

Initially this story, which piqued mainstream Minnesota's post 9/11-paranoia, was fodder for front-page headlines. Last November, in the name of smoking out terror, the government shut down five Somali-owned wire-transfer services (known as hawalas) that immigrants in the Twin Cities counted on to aid impoverished relatives in their war-torn country. Two months later, the Minnesota Legislature hastily passed a licensing statute to widen the net, and four other Somali-run money-transfer businesses that could not come up with the fees or meet drop-dead deadlines shuttered their doors.

All along, activists organized press conferences, correctly criticizing the government for a lack of due process and pointing out that without the hawalas, innocents in an already ravaged region of the world would waste away. Their protestations barely registered. We were at war, after all (with Afghanistan, remember?). Everyone everywhere would have to make sacrifices to protect the red-white-and-blue--especially those who had just come here to bask in its shadow. And, hey, if those entrepreneurs caught up in the fray weren't funneling money to Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya--a Somali organization said to be loosely linked to Al Qaeda--they would be exonerated. In Ashcroft's America, only the guilty have reason to fear.

Ultimately, of course, the feds' fishing expedition turned out to be yet another episode of ass-covering. There was no evidence linking any of the local businesses to criminal activity here or abroad, and there were no arrests made or charges filed. By the time August rolled around, two Somali-born men whose money-wiring services had been closed finally managed to convince the government to remove their names from a U.N. blacklist of some 260 individuals suspected of supporting Al Qaeda. Never mind that they had to file a federal lawsuit to force exoneration, and nearly a half-million dollars of their assets were frozen for nine months. That wasn't the story. No, the happy ending, reported in both metro dailies and repeated on the nightly news, was that honest, hard-working immigrants could once again send their bounty back home. The system worked. The presumptively guilty proved their innocence.

The bad news is that the few hawalas to survive the crackdown are overworked, understaffed, and have been systematically abandoned by the local banks they need to complete their transcontinental transactions. Consequently, the people back home still get nothing.

According to Omar Jamal, there are just two large wire services properly equipped to serve the area's nearly 30,000 Somali immigrants: Dahab-shil (which, in the past year, went from six Minnesota offices to just one, located at 20th Street and Nicollet Avenue South) and Amal Express, in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. (Western Union, which most people associate with money wiring, is not a viable option, Jamal says, because it has been instructed by the federal government to automatically freeze assets earmarked for Africa until customers jump through a maze of bureaucratic hoops.)

Yakub Issa, who owns Amal Express, explains that when customers hand over their checks, he takes a percentage and makes a deposit at a local bank, which waits for the documents to clear and completes the actual wire transfer. Over the past six months, Wells Fargo, US Bank, and Western Bank have refused to do business with Amal Express. Issa has found only two "smaller, local banks" to work with, but the arrangement is problematic. "We handle up to a million dollars a week," says Issa, who won't name the smaller banks for fear of scaring them away. "It's too much for small banks. They don't have the mechanisms or security in place to move swiftly. So we get behind, our customers get frustrated, and we lose money. I don't think we will be able to work with these smaller banks for more than one or two months without going out of business."

Wells Fargo is still working with Dahab-shil, according to Mohamed Nor, manager of the Minneapolis office. That relationship terminates at the end of the month, however--again, for no discernable reason. "I must go to the community and ask for some help to convince the banks to change their mind," Nor says. "If nothing changes, the flow of money will stop and people back home won't have anything."

Both businessmen, along with Jamal and more than one attorney, have asked the larger banks why they refuse do business with the hawalas. Both Nor and Issa have cooperated fully with federal investigators, are licensed by the state, and have no ties to terrorism. "They don't give us a reason," Issa says. "They just don't want to deal with us. And I guess they don't have to."

Diplomacy dictates that both Nor and Issa bite their lips when asked about motives. "I think they are just afraid," Nor postulates. Jamal is less diplomatic. "Even though the government has cleared their name, these people are still seen as terrorists. That's what happens when you make accusations without any proof: It becomes almost impossible to overcome the criminal suspicions or convince both the banks and the customers that the federal government won't come up with some reason to once again freeze assets."

"The real impact is going to be back in East Africa," Nor concludes. "I just don't think people realize what that means. I just don't think they know what it means to be hungry, really hungry."