A post-9/11 American nightmare

Garad Jama was branded a terrorist. His business was shuttered, his assets frozen. He couldn't support his family. Nine months later the U.S. government said, "Never mind."


Jake Tapper
September 5, 2002 7:18AM (UTC)

Somali immigrant turned naturalized U.S. citizen Garad Jama, 28, had the bad judgment to name his business "Aaran Money Wire Service, Inc." The double-A made Jama's hawala, a money-wiring service that catered to immigrants, easier to find in a Twin Cities, Minn., phone book, but it also meant that Aaran showed up first on a list of allegedly al-Qaida linked businesses closed by the U.S. government in November.

"They present themselves as legitimate businesses," Bush said of Jama and Aaran, along with the other 60 individuals and companies he was shutting down. "But they skim money from every transaction for the benefit of terrorist organizations. They enable the proceeds of crime in one country to be transferred to pay for terrorist acts in another."

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Quickly Garad's name and face were plastered all over the Minnesota newspapers and airwaves, his office was raided, his professional and personal assets were frozen. His first-place listing on the government's terror roster made him an early call for many national journalists -- messages from all the network news organizations, from CNN, from the Washington Post jammed his answering machine. For almost half a year, he wasn't permitted even to get a job to feed his family. His daughter Ayan cried, his wife Fartune fretted, and Garad hid in his house, terrified for his life. Friends shunned them, lest they be labeled terrorists themselves. All the while Garad swore to anyone who would listen that the charges were false, that he had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden, that he loves his country and that he is innocent. No one listened.

"I feel my life was destroyed," Garad Jama says.

And then he and another friend who'd been labeled a terrorist, Abdullahi Farah, owner of Global Services International, got a lawyer. In April they sued the government to release $500,000 in combined assets that had been frozen and to take him off their terrorist list.

After nine months of hell, the government was forced to admit that it didn't have any real evidence against Garad Jama. On Aug. 27 President Bush said "never mind" and Jama was taken off the terrorist list.

To Garad Jama, it's all a sign of how America lives up to its promise. "I'm very happy," he says today, sitting in his modest two-bedroom apartment on 15th Street in Minneapolis. "The Constitution is working, the system is working." This attitude makes sense for a man who was raised in Somalia, where such accusations against him might more naturally crescendo with the business end of a machete. But to those of us perhaps less hung up on the merits of the American system relative to the barbarism of most of the rest of the globe -- to anyone concerned that the U.S. may be headed toward a civil-liberties My Lai, where our freedoms are being destroyed in order to preserve them -- the saga of Garad Jama won't provide reassurance that in this difficult time the system is "working." Indeed, Garad Jama's tale might make you wonder if behind the curtain there's really much of a system at all.

Garad and his wife Fartune's 6-year-old son, Yonas, was born four months premature, and is severely mentally and developmentally disabled. He can't talk, he can't walk, he can't feed himself. "He no OK," Garad says sadly one August afternoon as he tries to play with the boy, who lies in his crib, a tube providing him with nourishment.

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Last Nov. 7, Fartune Jama, clad in her colorful Somali garb, complete with hijab covering her head, returned home from Children's Hospital with Yonas.

As she brought him into the apartment, Fartune was disturbed to find messages on the voice mail -- from CNN, ABC News, CBS News, the Washington Post, ad infinitum -- all asking to speak to her husband.

The reporters had good reason to want a comment: President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had just held a press conference calling Fartune's husband a key player in the al-Qaida financial network.

It was not even two months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and the four U.S. leaders appeared at the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network offices in Tysons Corner, Va. President Bush said that Garad and Aaran Money Wire Service were among "62 individuals and organizations connected with two terrorist-supporting financial networks, the Al Taqua and the Al-Barakaat."

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"I was scared, confused, I don't know what to do," Fartune recalls with the help of an interpreter. "Every newspaper call me and ask me, 'Your husband is connected to terrorists.'"

Before Sept. 11, Fartune had never even heard of Osama bin Laden, she says. Raised in Central Somalia, she and the man she would marry have similar stories of how they ended up in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes. As horrific as life in Somalia was during the reign of brutal Soviet-allied military dictator Siad Barre, things for the country somehow managed to find a way to descend into an even lower circle of hell after Barre's government collapsed and he was exiled in 1991. Civil war destroyed the nation, and within one year a quarter of all Somali children had died of malnutrition.

Fartune, like Garad, fled Somalia, lived in a refugee camp in Kenya, and finally was permitted to move to the U.S., where in San Diego she met Garad, who worked with her on her English. They wed in 1993. In 1994, Fartune came to Marshall, Minn., where she -- like many Somali immigrants before her -- worked processing turkey for Heartland Foods Co. A few months later, Garad joined her in the Twin Cities region, which is said to be home to the largest Somali community outside of East Africa, up to 25,000 Somalis by some estimates. They relished their lives here -- especially the freedom, and the medical care they could get for Yonas.

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"To look for a life," Garad says when asked why he came to the U.S. "For education. Freedom."

But then the land he loved accused him of supporting terrorism.

Aaran Money Wire Service was a hawala -- Arabic for "trust." He had started it informally in 1994 and incorporated it a few years later. Hawalas make up an informal and unregulated money-wiring system thousands of years old. Somalis, Kenyans and Ethiopians would give Garad money, plus a fee, and request that the same amount be received by another individual served by another hawala in another location -- often in refugee camps and places where there are no banks.

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"It's a hardship for people looking to send money back home," Garad explains.

People would come to him, give him $100 and tell him the name of their loved one, his or her tribe and his or her location. Garad would then call a hawala in the refugee camp. Or maybe he would contact another larger company, Amal Express, and transfer the $100 to its account at the Bank of Dubai, and Amal Express representatives would find the hawala closest to the recipient. Garad would usually charge customers a commission of 5 percent, two-thirds of which he sent on to the other hawala brokers, one-third of which he kept. He made about $1,500 a month.

"I was big guy," Garad recalls. "People like me. Always they call me, nighttime. I was the first guy who started this business" in the area.

Most hawala transactions are completely innocent. But officials say that terrorists often make use of hawalas -- which are prominent in the Middle East and East Asia -- because of the anonymity they provide. The deal is agreed to between halawa brokers, often with the use of a code word, and when it is completed all records are disposed of. A 1999 study by the Treasury Department identified hawalas as having been used by terrorists to fund terrorism in India, and as the principal means of money laundering from East Asian heroin trafficking.

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That November press conference featuring Bush, Powell, Ashcroft and O'Neill was an attempt to combat the hawala network Al-Barakaat, which Bush said "is a group of money-wiring and communication companies owned by a friend and supporter of Osama bin Laden," and Al Taqua, an association of offshore banks and financial management firms that he said had helped al-Qaida shift money around the world.

Garad Jama's co-plaintiff in his April 2002 lawsuit, Abdullahi Farah of Global Services International, was indeed dealing with Al-Barakaat, though he maintains that he was not aware of its involvement in any terrorism-related activities.

But Garad Jama did not deal with either Al-Barakaat or Al Taqwa. Still, was it possible someone used him to send money used for nefarious purposes? Garad doesn't think so. His customers all have references. Besides, they are mostly Somali, some Ethiopians. "We don't deal with people from the Middle East." The relatively small sums sent would also seem to undermine the government's case that Jama was a big-time al-Qaida supporter.

But bin Laden has bragged in the past that he trained and provided arms for the Somali fighters under warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, the infamous soldiers from "Black Hawk Down" who were involved in the Oct. 3, 1993, battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, that left 18 U.S. Army Ranger and Delta Force soldiers dead and 84 wounded.

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Garad says he doesn't know anything about that, but argues that al-Qaida's international interests don't fit in with the Somali character. He doesn't think the men from Amal Express would get involved in such things; they're Somalis and good Muslims. "Somali is trouble," he says. "Have you heard of any Somali suicide bombers? Have you of any Somali who hijacks a plane? No. In Somalia they kill each other. They don't focus on other peoples."

From the very beginning there was reason to question the government's case. The Treasury Department's "Designation and Blocking Memorandum," listed Fartune's maiden name -- Fartune Ahmed Wasrsame -- as one of her husband's aliases. I discovered this after just one phone call to Fartune on Nov. 7; you'd think maybe the government would have known enough about the Jamas to have avoided such an error. But no one from the government had even interviewed Garad Jama before President Bush quite publicly called him a terrorist.

"No one talked to me before, or even after," Jama says.

But that didn't matter right then. Fartune was terrified. And alone. Garad had left for Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on Oct. 11, to meet with some representatives from Amal Express, Inc., and to do some shopping for his family. Fartune called him there on a friend's cellphone he was using. "She was yelling to me, 'Your office has been raided and your business is shut down! Listen to messages!'" So he called into his voice mail back in Minneapolis. "I got CNN, I got NBC: 'Call us, call us.' Washington Post: 'Call us.'"

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Photographers and TV cameramen somehow having been given notice ahead of time, agents of the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, United States Customs Service and others searched Garad's office on the second floor of 1806 Riverside Ave. in Minneapolis. They took records and locked the door. A sign on the door now read: "All property contained in this building is blocked pursuant to an executive order of the president on Sept. 23 of this year under the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act."

In Dubai, Garad couldn't believe what Fartune was telling him. He ran to Amal Express's office and asked to use a computer. He hopped onto the Internet, punched up CNN.com and the story was front page center. He clicked on, and the name of his business was on the top of the list -- the curse of alphabetical order.

"Designated on November 7, 2001 1. Aaran Money Wire Service, Inc ... "

"This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong," Garad said. "I have to go back."

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He phoned an attorney, David Sullivan, who had done some work for his business.

"You're in trouble," Garad says Sullivan told him. "What do you want to do?"

"I want to come back," Garad said.

Sullivan said he would help him find a criminal lawyer. Soon he did: Rick Petry, a criminal defense attorney with the Minneapolis firm of Frederikson and Byron. They spoke. Two days later, Petry met Garad at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

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"My heart was --" Garad searches for the word. He pats his chest, pound pound pound "-- very scared," he finally says.

Petry spoke to him, interviewed him, found out all he could. He asked Garad to let him know as soon as the government contacted him.

But the government never called.

Meanwhile, Garad Jama couldn't believe what the government was accusing him of doing -- but the media certainly could.

"Terrorist assets seized in raids," one Associated Press story was headlined. "Agents search Minnesota businesses on Bush terrorist list," blared another. The St. Paul Pioneer Press announced: "Cash-transfer offices raided. Local wire services that help immigrants send money home are linked to Osama bin Laden."

"Before Sept. 11, I never heard before of al-Qaida," Garad says. But now his name was "everywhere" as an alleged member of the terrorist group. "I was here Sept. 11. I know people, how they anger, how they feel," he says. A red, white and blue "United We Stand" placard hung in his former office, media reports indicated.

Home sick with a cold, Garad watched the first plane hit the first tower and thought it was an accident of some sort. Then the second plane hit. "I was crying," he says. "I saw people in the towers, innocent people, they are doing their jobs. All the people falling off the building."

To this day, he bristles when asked how he feels about bin Laden or al-Qaida.

"As you know, the No. 1 enemy is al-Qaida," he says. "We are Muslims, we do not support killing innocent people." In the Quran, he says, "it says if you kill somebody innocent you kill all humans."

OK, fine, but there are clearly some Muslims with a somewhat different interpretation of the Quran, who may not think of Americans as innocent.

Garad gets annoyed. "We are not supporting whoever kills innocent people, terrorism. We had a lot of warlords in Somalia who killed innocent people, so we are not supporting anyone else who does it."

Reporters ask him questions like this and it bothers him. "We are Americans," he says. "We don't like any of the enemies. Bin Laden is No. 1 enemy. How can I support him, people who are killing innocent people? There is no way. If I ask you, 'Do you like bin Laden?' that's a foolish question."

"I understand," he finally says. "I am Muslim. That's why you ask me questions like that. But how can you ask if I think bin Laden is doing right? He did Sept. 11."

He has other things to worry about besides geopolitics, at any rate, Garad says. Ayan was born in 1994, Yonas in 1996. "For three years he was always in hospital. He has a heart problem. Sometimes he paralyzed. We focused on our family. We don't have time to support someone who kills people. I try to take care of my family."

He is a devout Muslim, but this does not make him a man of hate, he says. "One of my doctors for Yonas is a nice guy. He is Jewish. And we love each other. We have nice relations. He was helping my son. People understand, people who live here, we have respect."

When Garad got home from the airport, he looked through the newspapers. He had no idea where TV news, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Pioneer Press, got his photo. He couldn't believe how fluent Fartune seemed in the interviews she gave. Suddenly, when forced to defend her husband, "I got English!" Fartune told him. And she was able to converse with reporters in English with a proficiency she didn't know she had. "I don't know where I got these words!" she said.

But if his wife's loyalty heartened him, Garad was saddened by the way most people looked at him after the news broke. "People are scared of me. They think I'm a terrorist. People who used to call me, they never call me." Garad says he was "waiting for the government to say something." They didn't, but soon a letter arrived:

U.S. Department of Treasury

Nov. 30, 2001

Dear Mr. Jama:

This letter is to inform you that pursuant to Executive Order No. 13224 (66FR49079), issued by President Bush on September 23, 2001 (the "Order"), and under the authority granted by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. SS 1701-06 ("IEERA"), the Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC"), U.S. Department of the Treasury, added your name to the list of persons who commit, threaten to commit, or support terrorism (specifically designated global terrorist ("SDGT")) ...

R. Richard Newcomb

Director

Office of Foreign Assets Control

Specifically designated global terrorist Garad Jama appeared on the government's master list of "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons," as well as in its brochure on "Terrorism."

He couldn't get into his place of business. His professional and personal bank accounts had been legally blocked. There was $166,111.86 in his Associated Bank account, all of which was other people's money on its way to one hawala or another. There was $41,225.35 in his personal Wells Fargo account, which he sometimes used for business transfers as well since Wells Fargo has more branches around the world. That was blocked, too. Several customers got angry at Garad; some threatened violence.

But Garad had no way to repay them. Though he had become an American citizen in 1997, the U.S. government was now telling him he was prohibited from conducting any business whatsoever. Rent, utilities, food, clothes -- he had no way to pay for any of these. Nor was he permitted to buy groceries or spend money on day-to-day expenses.

John Lundquist, who took Petry's place when Petry left the law firm, says that he once asked a government lawyer how it's possible for someone to survive a blocking notice.

"Is Mr. Jama breathing?" the lawyer asked.

"I believe so," Lundquist responded.

"Then he's probably in violation of the blocking notice," the government lawyer said nonchalantly.

Garad's lawyers wrote to the government -- the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC -- on Dec. 14, 2001, asking for limited permission to get some funds from the blocked accounts "necessary to satisfy Plaintiffs' legal fees and expenses." A Dec. 28, 2001, letter to OFAC noted that because one of the blocking orders covered Garad Jama as a person, and not just his business, "it is virtually impossible for him to pay any bills or receive any funds whatsoever. This is an extreme emergency for him that requires immediate attention."

But the government didn't seem exactly on top of the matter. Despite several conversations about it, OFAC never granted the request. Letters were not answered, calls went unreturned. No one interviewed Garad to ascertain his guilt or innocence, to clear him or build a case or get whatever information they could from him. They labeled him a terrorist and then walked away as if it never happened.

On Dec. 14, 2001, Garad and his attorneys wrote to OFAC and said they would reorganize his business in any way they wanted him to. If they wanted him to stop dealing with Amal Express, he would do so. OFAC never got back to them.

On Jan. 7, 2002, Garad's attorneys again contacted OFAC. Any word on Garad's request to get some of his money, to be allowed to seek employment? Nada.

On Feb. 7, 2002, an OFAC official told Garad's lawyers "that he did not understand why OFAC had not issued the requested license and indicated that he would investigate the issue," the lawyers later wrote. They spoke again on Feb. 26, 2002. The OFAC official said he didn't quite know what was going on, but that he would put a "red star" next to Garad's request.

The lawyers, meanwhile, were also urging OFAC to lift the blocking notice altogether since Garad had nothing to do with terrorist activities. They wrote to OFAC on Jan. 10, Jan. 15 and Feb. 14, 2002; they called on Jan. 23, Feb. 20 and March 11, 2002. Nada.

On April 12, 2002, Garad and his attorneys decided they had to take other action. They sued the government for the blocking orders, for labeling him a terrorist -- "and in the process being totally inconsistent with the Constitution," Lundquist says.

"He was denied any due process whatsoever," Lundquist says. "These were actions taken without any notice, without any hearing, without the government presenting whatever evidence they felt they had." Garad Jama, it's worth noting, is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Garad, the lawsuit notes, "operated its business in a fashion similar to other wiring services such as Western Union Financial Services, Inc. Published news reports indicate that in the three days prior to the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the hijackers involved in those attacks sent four payments to the United Arab Emirates using the services of Western Union."

In a motion unsealed in July 2002, in fact, alleged "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui requested a copy of the Western Union money transfer document that prosecutors contend that Ramzi bin al-Shibh, using the alias Ahad Sabet, used to wire Moussaoui money in the summer of 2001. The government has provided no such documentation for any of Garad's money transfers.

The difference between Garad Jama and Western Union, the lawsuit states, is that unlike Western Union, "there is no direct or indirect connection" between Garad's business and terrorism or terrorists. And unlike Garad Jama, Western Union has never been subjected to a blocking notice or labeled a terrorist.

After the lawsuit was filed, suddenly the government found Lundquist's phone number and it finally permitted Garad to work and spend up to $3,200 in living expenses a month.

His business shut down, his reputation in tatters, he finally was able to find a job as a cashier at a local grocery.

"The first five months was very tough," Garad says. "And it was getting worse." He borrowed money and got help from family. But immigrant communities are not wealthy communities, and people feared getting involved with someone whom the president himself had called a terrorist. Life was bleak. "If I was going two years, three years, four years like this ... " His voice trails off.

If the U.S. government says that some guy is a terrorist, he probably is one, right? Otherwise, why would they charge him with such a thing? For kicks? Out of incompetence? Surely not. Our government is hard at work protecting us from evildoers, ensuring that there are no future 9/11s. And there is ample evidence of evildoers around us. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Self-confessed al-Qaida adherent Zacarias Moussaoui. The killers of Daniel Pearl.

So when a bunch of guys in Detroit with names like Karim and Ahmed and Farouk are indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to provide material resources to terrorists -- as happened last week -- we read the news report and thank our government for its vigilance. Our terror and insecurity compel many Americans to believe every word from Ashcroft when he announces our vigilant law enforcement men and women bringing down "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh or "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, despite the far weaker charges and scanter evidence the government ultimately presents once the blustery accusation has morphed into conviction in the court of public opinion.

Sure, other sections of the newspaper are replete with other tales that should jolt us out of our acceptance, of FBI bungling and CIA ass-covering, of DNA evidence last week freeing Eddie Joe Lloyd, 54, from a Detroit jail where he'd been held since 1984 after a conviction for raping and strangling a teenager, a crime he never committed, or over in Boston, poor Joseph Salvati, 69, who spent nearly 30 years in the clink for the 1968 murder of a local mafia hood who was actually killed by snitches whom the FBI did everything it could to protect. Sure, such tales make Kafka's neuroses seem all too reasonable. But we ignore. We endure. We get on with our lives and let Tom Ridge figure out what color code is appropriate.

At 8 a.m. on Aug. 27, Jama and Farah (Farah was also represented by Lundquist) were taken off the United Nations' designation of organizations, businesses and individuals who are believed to support terrorism. Their assets, including approximately $500,000 in area bank accounts, were unfrozen. Most of the money was returned to the customers, primarily Somali immigrants.

Lundquist says that the government hasn't apologized and that a decision has yet to be made about whether or not Jama will drop his lawsuit.

"Certainly the thrust of the lawsuit, what we attempted to achieve, has been done in that Garad and his business have been delisted and the assets unfrozen," Lundquist says. But that's declaratory and injunctive relief, not monetary, so there may be more that Garad and Farah seek. "I think both of these gentlemen and their businesses have been seriously damaged," Lundquist says.

Jama says he thinks he understands what happened. "I was sending a lot of money overseas. The government was trying to protect the country, so they tried to cut all the money going overseas."

He says he wishes the media would devote as much attention to his delisting as they did to the accusation last November. "I want the media to make good news from me. They already have bad news from me," he says, motioning toward a stack of newspapers -- Star Tribunes and Pioneer Presses.

We're sitting in his apartment; paintings of flowers are on the wall. Lying in his crib, Yanos makes a giggling sound. "He in good mood today," Garad says softly. An Islamic art contest certificate for Ayan from last year is framed and hangs from a place of prominence. Ayan listens to her dad talk to me while she devours an ice cream cone, then some candy.

She pours me a glass of ice water.

"I can give forgiveness," Garad says.

Fartune says that she can, too. "Before, I am angry. Because I know my husband is innocent. But now I'm OK."

Garad says he may try to start his money transfer business again, that the work and the humanitarian achievements are important. But one thing he'll do differently: get American investors. That way, he says, "no more can people say, 'You are Somalis so you are al-Qaida.'"

The Department of Justice attorney working on the case, Sylvia Kaser, would not answer questions, referring media inquiries to the Justice Department press office, which did not return a call for comment.

The only official comment from the government has been a statement issued by Jimmy Gurule, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for enforcement. "The individuals and entities have demonstrated that they had no prior knowledge and have taken active steps to cut all ties with those entities funneling funds to terrorism," Gurule's statement read -- which makes sense in reference to Farah, since he dealt with Al Barakaat, but has no relevance to Garad Jama.

"This is how the process was designed to work," Gurule's statement concluded.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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