Government officials raided businesses in Minneapolis Wednesday after President Bush announced a crackdown on two financial networks accused of links to Osama bin Laden. The Treasury Departement has frozen the assets of 62 individuals and organizations in this country. In Minneapolis, police officers and customs officers shut down at least two businesses that many Somalis use to wire money to relatives overseas.
President Bush said the government acted on "solid and credible evidence" linking terrorism to two financial networks, known as Al Taqua and Al-Barakaat. In what Bush called a "new step" in the war against terrorism, police and customs agents shut down businesses in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Washington.
"The entry point to these networks may be a small storefront operation, but follow the network to its center. And you discover wealthy banks and sophisticated technology, all at the service of mass murderers. By shutting these networks down, we disrupt the murderer's work," Bush said.
Law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press they believe money sent overseas by Somali immigrants is being skimmed off by one of the networks and sent to terrorist organizations.
Minnesota is home to the nation's largest Somali population, estimated to be as large as 30,000.
Police and U.S. Customs agents shut down two storefronts in Minneapolis in the Riverside neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, an area with a large concentration of Somali immigrants.
Official reports stated the government was freezing the assets of one Somali man and three businesses listed as the Somali International Relief Organization of Minnesota, the Aaran Money Wire Service of Minneapolis, and Al-Barakaat Wiring Service of Minneapolis. One man was reportedly taken into custody, although an official at the Customs Service could not confirm that.
Officers on the scene referred all questions to Washington. A spokesperson for the Customs Service there did not have details on the number of business shut down.
The sign above one business listed by officals as Somali International Relief Organization of Minneapolis and the Aaran Wiring Service gave a different name, Amal Express. A nearby business owner says it wires money to Somalia. Officials also shut down a money wiring service one block away, inside the Meridel LeSeur Center. The building also houses a Somali women's organzation. Sharifa Mahad and her husband had come there to wire money to their parents in Somalia. Mahad, a small woman in a flowing veil that covered all but her eyes, was soon surrounded by television cameras.
"My mother - this month is Ramadan, the fasting day - and she's old. She's not getting the money I want to send right now. That's not right," Mahad said.
Another Somali man who declined to give his name said officials had seized papers and computers. Mohamed Elmi, the editor of the Somali Star newspaper, says he's surprised at the shutdown. And he says Somalis in Minneapolis now have no way to wire money to family members in desperate need.
"If they don't receive money, definetely they will starve. That's what's going to heppen, if they don't get the help," he says. Elmi adds that he doubts the wire service is connected with terrorism.
"I have to disagree. It has nothing to do with what our government has suspected. That's just the way I see it, you know," said Elmi.
The Somali Justice Advocate Center's Jamal Omar says it's possible a few people among many could be using the service for their own political ends, but he urged Minnesotans in general not to react against the Somali community. Omar and several other Somalis interviewed said they've experienced harassemnt since the Sept 11 attacks, and since a newpaper report charged money from Somali immigrants may be funding terrorism.
"People have been getting physically and verbally harrassed, people have been getting laid off from their jobs, simply because they happen to have the wrong name. What I'm telling the people of this state is to come together and help these people who are victims of civil war. Most of them are traumatized," Omar said.
Next door to the Meridel LeSuer Center, employees of the North Country Cooperative Grocery expressed support for the center's Somali organizations, and said they plan a solidarity vigil for Thursday night.More from MPR