Early on November 7, a dozen armed U.S. Customs agents swooped into a working class neighborhood of Seattle and seized the assets of four small businesses and proceeded to padlock their doors.
"We were trying to open our own tiny mall, and all of a sudden this big hammer came and took everything in sight," says Abdinasir Nur, owner of the Maka Mini Market and Halal Meats.
Nur, who drove a cab sixteen hours a day for five years to start his business, sublets his office space to two other companies. Abdinasir Farah runs a gift shop called Amana there. Nur also sublets to Barakat Wire Transfer. And that appears to be the one the Customs agents were interested in. They took in for questioning the owners of Barakat, Hassan Mus Farah and Mohamed Osman, and released them a few hours later.
A common name for a Somali business, Barakat, with various English spellings, means "blessing." But Al-Barakaat is one of two major international consortiums which the U.S. government says are skimming money for Al Qaeda. Farah says his wire transfer business, Barakat, has no relationship to Al-Barakaat.
Farah and Osman's services are widely used by community members, who send sums as low as $20 and often not more than $100 to relatives in Somalia. But these customers are now out of luck. President Bush's Executive Order 13224, signed on September 23, allows the government to freeze the assets of presumed money-launderers and businesses believed to skim a percentage off the top of transactions for Al Qaeda. Federal authorities estimate that some $25 million laundered from wire transfers to Somalia may have been used to support terrorism. Since September 11, $60 million has been seized or blocked, $27 million of that in the United States.
The same day that agents raided Barakat, Customs cracked down on other wire transfer companies in Boston, Minneapolis, and Columbus, Ohio. Raids also occurred in European countries, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Wire transfer services, or hawalas, enable U.S. residents to send money, for a fee of as little as 5 percent, to recipients in other countries, especially where there are no banks or reliable financial services. Without the remittances that often come on a monthly basis, whole families could perish. The United Nations estimates that Somalia receives about $500 million annually in remittances, a sum greater than that from any other economic sector, and "ten times the amount of foreign aid it receives," according...