AP Exclusive: Somali Banker Accused of being Al-Qaida Money Man in Legal Limbo Two Years after Millions in Assets Frozen

MOGADISHU, Somalia: Oct. 23, 2003 (AP) _ The former Somali refugee had it all: a group of international companies with millions of dollars in revenues and a handsome home on the Persian Gulf. Then the U.S. government froze his assets and accused him of being al-Qaida’s main money mover.

Two years later, Ahmed Nur Ali Jim’ale has been deported to Somalia, his al-Barakaat Group of Companies’ $8.5 million remains frozen and he’s caught in limbo, not charged with a crime, but not cleared of funding Osama bin Laden’s bombers either.

The case of Jim’ale, who claimed his innocence in an Associated Press interview _ his first since his deportation last month _ is an example of how the U.S. government has used powerful administrative tools since Sept. 11 to freeze more than 1,400 accounts with roughly $136 million in assets belonging to alleged al-Qaida and other terrorists, U.S. officials say.

The Treasury Department has placed Jim’ale, two of his managers and every business he has registered on a list of people and organizations banned from making financial transactions with the United States. The department sent the list to the United Nations and now any government, corporation or individual doing business with Jim’ale faces severe sanctions or criminal charges.

Neither Jim’ale, nor any of his employees have been charged with a terror-related crime. Jim’ale and his top managers all deny they have had any dealings with terrorists. And Jim’ale insists he never met bin Laden.

“We cooperated with the FBI and Treasury, and we answered all of their questions, and they had all the data. They checked all of that,” said Jim’ale, who wears a traditional Muslim cap and has streaked his beard and hair orange with henna in traditional Somali fashion. “We want to go to court; otherwise all of this needs to be lifted.”

A Treasury official said that the criminal investigation into al-Barakaat is continuing, but that seizing the company’s assets was an end in itself.

“The action to block the assets of the al-Barakaat network was a direct attempt to cut off that network and the use of that network by al-Qaida to move funds and to raise funds,” the official said in Washington.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Jim’ale had met with investigators and added that he must prove through an appeal process to the U.S. government that he shouldn’t be on the list.

The Treasury Department alleges Jim’ale talked with, worked with and helped bin Laden. The al-Barakaat network financed al-Ittihad al-Islami, a Somali Islamic group on a list of organizations believed to have links to bin Laden, the official said. Israeli and U.S. officials suspect al-Ittihad was involved in the attack last Nov. 28 on a hotel outside Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 11 Kenyans and three Israelis.

The U.S. government, which must have evidence before freezing assets, doesn’t have to publicly detail its findings _ some or all of which could be from classified materials or intelligence sources that could be compromised. Such evidence could be used to defend administrative actions as well as in a criminal court. The evidence often is shown to other countries when the U.S. government wants them to add people or groups to the nations’ own terror-financier lists.

Nearly two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush accused al-Barakaat of helping al-Qaida transfer $25 million around the world using a traditional, largely unregulated Islamic money system. Sometimes called hawala, it is commonly used in the Middle East to transfer small sums cheaply.

Of the 62 people and organizations placed on the U.S. Treasury’s Terrorists Exclusion List that Nov. 7, 2001 day, 47 were associated with Jim’ale’s al-Barakaat Group of Companies, then the largest corporation in Somalia.

Paul O’Neill, then U.S. treasury secretary, said al-Barakaat’s directors were “the money movers, the quartermasters of terror. They are a principal source of funding, intelligence and money transfers for bin Laden.”

Jim’ale said he was surprised when, while driving home in Dubai, he got a phone call from an employee in the United States about the announcement. United Arab Emirates authorities were waiting at his office and house.

He spent the night in jail. The police released him the next day, but all of his computers and records were confiscated by authorities.

Jim’ale now survives on the money from the sale of his mobile phone company and other assets he had in Mogadishu, which he declined to reveal. While he still has bodyguards, like all businessmen in Somalia, only his quality clothing betrays the wealth he once enjoyed.

Jim’ale fled Somalia in 1975 to escape the Soviet-backed government, and was smuggled into Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia before moving to Saudi Arabia, where he took an aptitude test and scored well enough for a job at a British bank in Jiddah.

Al-Barakaat, which opened in the mid-1980s, was Jim’ale’s first venture. While working for Citibank in Saudi Arabia, he helped Somali importers in his free time transfer money to their suppliers while dodging the expensive financial procedures required by Mohammed Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator at the time.

When Barre was overthrown in 1991 and the country collapsed, Jim’ale began offering money transfer services to the one million Somalis living overseas who wanted to help their relatives back home. Al-Barakaat developed into Somalia’s main banking institution and Jim’ale expanded into a mobile phone company and other services despite the absence of a central government, he said.

More than 5,000 people living in Somalia had accounts with al-Barakaat and the service handled $12 million a year in transfers, he said. But since most of the transfers were less than $200, al-Barakaat offices in the United States, Sweden and other countries would collect money until they had around $10,000 and then would make a bulk transfer using normal banking procedures.

Since the money transfers were made in the name of al-Barakaat, instead of using the names of the people who gave them the money, U.S. officials suspected al-Barakaat of fronting for terrorists. Al-Barakaat employees also tried to keep transfers just under $10,000 to avoid federal reporting requirements, according to an indictment against two employees in Virginia.

But al-Barakaat representatives kept records to make sure the system wasn’t used by criminals, Jim’ale said. He said almost all of his customers were Somalis or aid agencies _ including the United Nations _ working in Somalia. Most of the money seized belongs to poor Somalis with accounts at his bank, Jim’ale said.

While other transfer companies now operate in Somalia, thousands of Somalis lost their meager savings when al-Barakaat’s assets were frozen.

Jim’ale said he had faith that he would be cleared by U.S. authorities. He studied English with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, learned banking from Americans, and started his mobile phone business by purchasing equipment from U.S. companies.

In June 2002, a team of 15 agents from the Treasury and the FBI went through eight years of financial records with him and his employees, Jim’ale said.

“The Treasury and the FBI agents have not found any links to terrorism,” Jim’ale said. “After sitting with them for 15 days, I could see they were amazed by the false allegations against us. The team promised they would respond within 45 days with a decision.”

Jim’ale called the agents in Washington, hoping to hear his name had been cleared. In the fall of 2002, Jim’ale said the agents told him to stop calling.

During this time, two al-Barakaat employees in Alexandria, Va., and one in Boston were convicted of violating minor state banking regulations, while employees in Minnesota and Ohio were released without charge. Two employees in Sweden and one in Canada were taken off the Treasury Department list after their governments protested there was no evidence against them.

In Luxembourg, four of al-Qaida’s alleged financial backers asked the European high court on Oct. 14 to release their assets, arguing they had no links to bin Laden’s terror network. The case, the first of its kind at the European Court of Justice, throws into question the EU’s entire list of al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked terrorist suspects, which mirrors that approved by the U.N. Security Council and includes bin Laden himself.

Jim’ale said he has tried to hire attorneys in the United States three times. He said the first time, FBI agents seized the money he wired to a Washington-area lawyer because it is illegal to receive an international money transfer from Jim’ale. The second attorney he contacted told Jim’ale that the FBI told him it would be illegal to work for Jim’ale, he said. The last law firm he contacted required a large advance fee that he says he couldn’t afford.

Jim’ale’s allegations against the FBI could not be confirmed, and FBI officials didn’t respond to requests for information.

The president of Somalia’s transitional national government, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, said he sent representatives to deliver Jim’ale’s Mogadishu files to U.S. investigators. He said he had seen no evidence connecting Jim’ale or al-Barakaat to terrorism, but told AP he thinks he knows why they remain on the list.

“Simply because the president of the United States made those comments, no one can correct the mistake,” Abdiqasim said.

Jim’ale said his frustration is made worse by the fact that U.S. authorities have proven that the Sept. 11 hijackers used mainstream banks, not hawala networks, for their financial transactions, yet those banks have not been penalized.

“Anything after (Sept. 11) you could justify,” Jim’ale said. “But now they know the truth … we have a saying that admitting you made a mistake is noble, but insisting on a mistake is injustice.”
Associated Press reporter Jeannine Aversa contributed to this report from Washington.
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U.S. Treasury Department: http://www.ustreas.gov

"Simply because the president of the United States made those comments, no one can correct the mistake," Abdiqasim said.
October 23, 2003
Associated Press