SEATTLE, August 29, 2009 – Three years ago, armed agents from a Drug
Enforcement Administration task force crashed through the door of a
Seattle apartment where Habibo Jama, a Somali refugee and U.S. citizen,
lived with her brother, uncle and cousins. Jama, startled awake, opened
her bedroom door in her nightshirt to find herself facing several men in
black pointing guns at her and ordering her to the floor.
Almost simultaneously, at an apartment 20 miles away in Kent, Wash., Ali
Dualeh, his wife and their seven children -- ages 4 months to 17 years
-- jolted from bed when they heard a loud noise. Both parents made it to
the hallway before they were tackled by agents from the Valley Narcotics
Enforcement Team who had broken down their front door.
The raids were part of "Operation Somalia Express," a national crackdown
on the smuggling of "khat," a leafy herb that is illegal is the United
States but as commonplace as a cup of coffee in the Horn of Africa,
where it has been chewed for centuries for its effect as a mildly
Agents conducted 17 searches in Seattle alone, along with dozens of
other raids in New York, Minnesota and Ohio. In all, 44 people were
indicted on charges of conspiracy, money laundering and other federal
drug-related felonies, many carrying prison sentences of 20 years. In
Seattle, 19 men were indicted, including Ali Dualeh and Mahamoud Jama,
Habibo Jama's uncle.
By almost any measure, however, Operation Somalia Express was a failure.
In Seattle, prosecutors eventually dismissed charges against 15 of the
19 men, including Ali Dualeh. Mahamoud Jama served three months for a
reduced felony charge of importing a prohibited plant -- the longest
sentence given to any of the Seattle defendants.
Prosecutors in New York obtained 10-year prison sentences against two
ringleaders of the operation, but most of the defendants there went
free, as well. Jama and Dualeh are now suing the DEA and several local
police agencies, including the Seattle and Tukwila departments, that
helped in the raids. The suits allege the violent entries into the
Dualeh and Jama homes by armed SWAT teams were unnecessary and violated
their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and
Some law enforcement officials and Somali community leaders are saying
the fallout from the operation has poisoned relations between law
enforcement and the communities at a time when federal agents are
looking for help.
Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali men have disappeared from
Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., apparently recruited in area mosques to
wage jihad in their own country.
Some have turned up fighting for a radical Islamic group in Somalia
called al-Shabaab, which U.S. intelligence sources have tied to
al-Qaida. One American youth blew himself up at a U.N. checkpoint last
October, according to federal investigators.
The Department of Justice recently revealed that a 25-year-old Somali
refugee from Seattle, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, has pleaded guilty to
providing support to terrorists in connection with U.S. recruitment
efforts by al-Shabaab.
"It is a very difficult community to walk into," said one law
enforcement official assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in
Seattle who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does not have
permission to talk to the media. "There is a lot of mistrust there and
part of it is because of these raids."
Omar Jamal, who operates the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul,
said the khat arrests damaged a relationship that already had been
strained by Treasury Department raids on small, informal Somali money
exchanges, called "halawas," in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks. Fears that the halawas were being used to finance
terrorism proved unfounded, and no criminal charges were ever filed.
"It seems that the only relationship we have with law enforcement is
when they come to arrest us," Jamal said. "There is very little
Jama, who is now 31, is also seeking damages against Tukwila police for
seizing her life savings -- $5,700 in cash scrimped from her job
cleaning hotel rooms. The city moved to forfeit the cash as the proceeds
of drug crimes, even though no drugs were found in the home.
Jama got her money back 10 months later, but only after a federal judge
said he was "troubled" by the runaround and wondered why a local police
department was forfeiting property seized as part of a federal
investigation and prosecution.
Jama also alleges that officers took gold jewelry from her bedroom and
never returned it.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Cohen, who is defending the government
in the lawsuit, said there is no evidence jewelry was seized and the
agents question "whether there was ever any jewelry in the first place."
Source: Post-Bulletin/The Seattle Times, August 24, 2009