On January 1, 2014 a spectacular explosion and fire occurred at a building in the predominantly Somali émigré area of Minneapolis located in Congressional district of US Rep. Keith Ellison. A Gates of Vienna (GOV) report noted what occurred:
At 8:16am a catastrophic fire broke out at 514 Cedar Avenue South in a predominantly Somali neighborhood of Minneapolis. The blaze began when an explosion blew out the windows in an upstairs apartment, propelling window frames and plywood debris into the street. The resulting fire sent flames twenty feet above the roof. Residents of the building were blown out the windows or jumped from them into the street. Fourteen people were taken to area hospitals.
The explosion occurred in an apartment on the second floor, immediately above the Otanga Grocery in the southeast corner of the building.
A city police unit was on the scene when the fire broke out. Contrary to later media reports, it had been called there because of an earlier theft, and not because of any “electric shock” or smell of gas.
Immediately adjacent to and behind the damaged building is the “Islamic Civic Society of America and Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque”, whose website declares its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and other people and groups associated with radical Islamism.
The building was gutted by the blaze. Two bodies were found in the rubble, and fourteen people were hospitalized, one of whom died later. Within 72 hours, the building had been pulled down into a heap of rubble by a backhoe.
Two days after the blast, before any real investigation occurred — which could never be conducted, anyway, with the potential crime scene destroyed — Greg Boosalis, the supervisory special agent with the FBI in Minneapolis, told the press that there was “no evidence of terrorist activity”.
As firefighters fought to contain the blaze, Fire Chief John Fruetel said the cause of the explosion was not yet known, and was under investigation. The gas utility CenterPoint Energy announced that there were no gas leaks in the Cedar-Riverside area.
GoV, working with local investigators in the Twin Cities, have uncovered evidence that this was not the typical New Year’s conflagration. Moreover, the findings raise serious questions about the handling of the aftermath of the event by city and federal officials from local fire, police, and US Department of Homeland Security, ATF and the FBI. The GoV team has briefed Members of Congress about the peculiar circumstances of the blast. The treatment of the event by local officials and the swift destruction of the building without adequate forensic investigations raise serious questions about the rising political influence of the Somali Muslim community. Their visible role was seen in the election of Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim US Congressman, Abdi Warsame, an elected Somali émigré city council member and Mayor Betsy Hodges whose recent election relied heavily on their votes.
The GoV investigative team, in another report, has also unearthed documentation about the shadowy background of the owner of the building, Garad K. Nor, who was identified as a possible money launderer for al Qaeda by the European Council based on 2001 US Department of Treasury information cited by UPI. The EC listing highlighted Nor’s Hawala money transfer operations in two major population centers for the US Somali émigré community, the Twin Cities and Columbus, Ohio:
Jama, Garad (a.k.a. Nor, Garad K.) (a.k.a. Wasrsame, Fartune Ahmed, 2100, Bloomington Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America; 1806, Riverside Avenue, 2nd Floor, Minneapolis, Minnesota; date of birth 26 June 1974.”;
Aaran Money Wire Service, Inc., 1806, Riverside Avenue, Second Floor, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America.”;
Barakat Enterprise, 1762, Huy Road, Columbus, Ohio, United States of America.;
Global Service International, 1929, 5th Street, Suite 204, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America.”
Nor had somehow negotiated a deal to evade federal prosecution. The nexus for Nor’s indictment was the alleged funneling of funds to al Qaeda via the Al-Barakat Hawala money transfer system. As the latest GoV report on the unfolding investigation notes:
Garad Nor is recorded as a “Registered Agent” of Wadani Properties, the company that owned and managed the apartments of the Cedar-Riverside building located at 510 and 512 Cedar Ave South that exploded and burned on January 1st.
The address for Wadani properties is 2200 E Franklin Ave, # 204. One of the other tenants is the Minnesota Republican Party headquarters.
There is more in the GoV report about Nor’s money laundering involvement:
Garad Nor is also the Chief Executive Officer of Dar Al Tawakul General LLC. Dar Al Tawakul General LLC is one of the companies listed in the indictment against the two Rochester citizens found guilty of money laundering for al-Shabaab.
Dar Al Tawakul General LLC is also located at 2200 E Franklin Ave, # 204.
Garad Nor, the owner of the destroyed building on Cedar Avenue South, acknowledged his place on Treasury’s list of indicted persons and companies. According to an article published in 2012 by The Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
“Nor, who also goes by the name Garad Jama, was in Dubai the day he learned through CNN that his name was listed among 62 individuals and organizations that the U.S. government said had helped fund Osama bin Laden.”
Why might Garad K. Nor have been in Dubai, of all places?
Here’s a possible reason:
Mr. Nor works for Tawakal Express, an international hawala money-transfer company headquartered in Dubai. Tawakal Express is a globe-spanning enterprise.
Back in 2007 we published a report on a similar Hawala transfer indictment for Abdizirik Hassan, the head of the Somali Nashville Community Center who like Nor was also caught in the Al-Barakat web of money transfer indictments in October 2001. He was fined and somehow had his prosecution dropped five years later. Despite the executive director’s indictment, the SNCC received a $500,000 grant from the Office of Minority Health Programs of the US Department of Health and Human Services. That became a subject of further investigations on allegations of fiscal abuse of a women’s health program.
In early February 2014, The Investigative Project on Terrorism reported a Somali émigré cab driver in San Diego, California, Ahmed Nasir Taali Mohamud from Anaheim, was sentenced to six years for providing material support to Al-Shabaab through a defunct Hawala money transfer system, the Shidaal Express. In November 2013 a federal Judge had sentenced his three accomplices to terms of between 10 to 18 years. The co-defendants included cab driver ring leader, Basaaly Saeed Moalin, Mohamed Mohamud an imam at a mosque frequented by the local Somali community and Issa Doreh who worked at the Shidaal Express money transfer firm. Evidence was presented at a trial in early 2013 that Moalim had been in direct contact with an Al Shabaab commander, Aden Hashen Ayrow who requested money for jihad. Ayrow was killed in a US missile attack in May 2008 in Somalia.
The Hawala money transfer system is a lifeline for war ravaged Somalia. Hawala in Arabic means transfer or remittance. Virtually the only means available for remittances from the Somali émigré community. A July 2013 Oxfam America study indicated that in 2012 more than $215 million was remitted via the Hawala system from the Somali émigré community in America. This was nearly equivalent to the $242 million in US development and humanitarian aid for Somalia. Degan Ali of Adeso, a Somali NGO based in Minneapolis was cited in a TC Daily Planet report saying that the Somali diaspora transmits $1.3 billion annually that supports 40 percent of the Somalia population.
The Tawakal Express franchise owned by Nor is one of four Hawalas that operate in the Twin Cities. The others include Dahabsiil, Amal Express and Amaana Express. Those Hawalas in the Twin Cities rout funds through a California Bank. In light of federal prosecution of Hawala operators and Treasury investigations major banks like Wells Fargo and US Bank have shut down Hawala accounts. David Reiling, CEO of Sunrise Community Bank interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio, in reaction to the two women convicted for money transfers to Al Shabaab via Nor’s Hawala, said:
“We don’t want to be involved in money getting into the hands of the wrong people in any way, shape or form. So the only way we know at the moment to mitigate that risk is to close these accounts, until we can find another solution or work with the government to re-establish those lines.”
So if it is increasingly risky for Somali émigrés to use, why would they still use the system to send funds for both humane and nefarious purposes in war-ravaged Somalia? These and other questions were raised in a joint US Department of the Treasury – Interpol Monograph on the background and opaque functioning of the Hawala money transfer system. Also see the US Treasury Resource information on Hawala and alternatives, here.
The primary reason is that it is cheaper compared with using bank based electronic transfer systems like SWIFT or BAN that charge separately for sending and receiving funds. Hawala transfers are faster than international bank transfers taking less than a few days compared with up to a week for the latter. The Hawala system is more reliable than the international bank routing system which goes through several layers of financial institutions. There is no bureaucracy in the Hawala system, meaning no checks on the senders’ identity or immigration status. Hawala transfers lack a paper trail making it ideal for anonymous illicit transactions. The Hawala system lends itself to tax evasion by making transfers that are free of scrutiny.
Hawala lends itself to operating with low overhead in store fronts or shared business. The operators of Hawalas engage in exchange rate speculation and black market currency dealing. One example cited by the Treasury–Interpol authors was a US based hawala operator engaged in drug money laundering and legitimate transfers who alleged they could make a profit on an exchange rate margin of 2% which is more competitive than via a bank. Hawala operators are also involved in businesses where they have frequent need of foreign transfers. At its core the Hawala system operates on the basis of trust.
The GoV investigative report asked a question about why Nor was in Dubai and why the largest Hawala is headquartered there. One answer according to the Treasury-Interpol authors is that Dubai has a large pool of expatriate workers from South Asia where the Hawala system originated. The other is that Dubai is a major gold trading market the bulk of which is transmitted legally and illegally not only to South Asia but elsewhere in the Middle East, for example, Iran.
We noted the convictions of Somali émigrés in the Twin Cities and Southern California for essentially laundering funds to Al Shabaab in Somalia. The Treasury-Interpol report revealed how so-called “black” Hawala transactions are accomplished for offenses such as narcotics trafficking, fraud and Muslim charity funds devoted to the support of Jihad. That involves a three phased process of placement, layering and integration. In the US, the Treasury requires reporting of cash transaction over $10,000. Hawala operators evade that disclosure by taking amounts that they essentially commingle or place with regular business bank deposits. The hawala operator in the layering stage makes these commingled funds appear as if they came from legitimate sources such as invoices. This is risky as it requires a paper trail and thus can lead to the source of funds and unravel the laundering network. Hawala transfers often leave a limited or confusing paper trail. The Treasury–Interpol report notes:
Even when invoice manipulation is used, the mixture of legal goods and illegal money, confusion about ‘valid’ prices and a possibly complex international shipping network create a trail much more complicated than a simple wire transfer.
In February 2013, Rep. Ellison journeyed to Mogadishu, the first visit by a US Congressman on the occasion of US recognition of Somalia’s new government. It marked a period of relative calm before the Westgate Mall massacre perpetrated by Al Shabaab in Nairobi, Kenya in late September 2013 shattered it. His remarks eerily mirror those of President Obama during his 2012 Presidential campaign when he proclaimed that “bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is on the run.” In this NPR report Ellison said:
Al-Shabaab is definitely on the run. They have been pushed out of Mogadishu; they have been pushed out of Kismayo, which is another very large city. And they have been relegated to the rural areas in the southern part of the country. They are not out, but they are down.
But Ellison was also there to help out Somali émigrés in his Congressional district having remittance problems. He said:
We’re very correctly trying to stop financing getting to Al Shabaab. But our policy may — well, for sure it’s hurting a lot people who have nothing to do with Al Shabaab.
He might start at home with requesting a federal investigation of Garad Nor, the Hawala operator and owner of the property that mysterious exploded in a ball of fire of indeterminate origin at 8:16AM on January 1, 2014.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.