As a child, Noor Dubow fled war in his homeland of Somalia. Growing up, he fought constantly against hunger while living in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. Today, he wears a tie to work, goes to school at night, and lives in a tightknit Somali community in America’s heartland. But Dubow, 29, still struggles with fear — not for himself, but for relatives left behind who are about to be cut off from his financial lifeline.
Since moving to Columbus five years ago, Dubow regularly has sent money to his family through an ever-dwindling number of banks willing to wire funds to private financial firms in Somalia. The last major bank in the United States to do so abruptly stopped this month, worried about prosecution or other liabilities should the money be seized by militants who are ravaging the East African country.
That means Dubow and the thousands of other refugees in Columbus — home to the second-largest Somali population in the United States — have no way to support relatives who wrestle with starvation, illiteracy, and violence.
Some may turn to al-Shabab, the Somali-based militant group, which feeds on desperation as a recruiting tool. That could directly threaten U.S. national security by helping to breed a new generation of terrorists eager to attack American allies across Africa and, potentially, targets within the United States as well.
Others, like Dubow’s 90-year-old grandmother, simply may not survive without the funds he and other Somali immigrants dutifully send back each month.
“If they don’t get this money, some people will die for sure. For sure,” Dubow said.
He says this matter-of-factly, with little emotion. It’s just the latest life-or-death situation he has had to face.
It is a quandary that Washington also is grappling with as U.S. officials weigh the risks of allowing financial streams to remain vulnerable to terrorist groups against policies that, ultimately, could further destabilize Somalia and empower al-Shabab.
Since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. law enforcement has cracked down on the use of bank transfers to fund terrorism abroad. In turn, banks have grown increasingly wary of small and usually local firms that transfer money overseas.
To be clear, the U.S. government has not explicitly prohibited money transfers to Somalia. But banks are spooked at the prospect of violating sanctions — and incurring multibillion-dollar fines — should the funds fall into militants’ hands.
Somalia has been plagued by chaos and lawlessness since the 1991 overthrow of President Mohammed Siad Barre. The country was ranked by the Fund for Peace as the world’s most insecure state for six straight years until last summer, when it was edged out by South Sudan. The United Nations reported in 2014 that nearly 82 percent of people in Somalia live in poverty, and life expectancy is 55 years.
Meanwhile, the violence continues: On Thursday, Feb. 26, mortars hit the presidential compound in Mogadishu. And last week, at least 10 people were killed in suicide bombings at a hotel in the capital. Worryingly, the Islamic State — a relative newcomer to Somalia — claimed responsibility for that attack.
The current Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is backed by the United States in his effort to restore even a shaky stability to Somalia. But improving the rule of law and banking oversight remain distant aspirations for Mohamud as he tries to pull together a functioning government in Mogadishu while waging a drawn-out war against al-Shabab.
The lack of regulation, combined with corruption, has made Somalia a too risky destination for international bank transfers. Western Union and other big money transmitters refuse to operate in Somalia.
So the diaspora of Somali immigrants — in Ethiopia, Kenya, Britain, Australia, and the United States — relies on smaller money senders to help support their families back home. They include firms like Dahabshil, Kaah Express, and Tawakal, which specialize in getting money to the Horn of Africa.
Across the world, banks’ unwillingness to work with money transmitters has increased costs and caused delays from Pakistan to El Salvador. The specter of unwittingly funding the Islamic State has added to the caution.
This month, Bosnian refugee Ramiz Hodzic was charged in St. Louis with sending almost $9,000 to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq through Western Union and PayPal. Cases like that often don’t involve a lot of money. But they have increased regulatory scrutiny on money transmitters.
Not since 2008 has there been a bank in Columbus willing to wire money to Somalia. One by one, banks in Seattle, Minneapolis, North Dakota, and elsewhere around the United States stopped the cash transfers until Merchants Bank, based in Carson, California, was the only big bank left. That gave Merchants an 80 percent share of wire transfers to Somalia.
But in a Jan. 27 letter, Merchants Bank informed Somali money-transfer companies that their accounts would be closed because their business was too complex to meet its regulatory burden to “detect potential violations of the law.”
Merchants Bank declined to comment on its decision or on the letter, which was viewed by Foreign Policy.
On one of the few recent nights he is neither working nor studying, Dubow heads to a brightly lit Somali cafe in Columbus. He and his friends play dominoes as they drink gingery sweet Somali tea and eat samosas, a triangular meat-stuffed pastry. But lately, they mostly talk about what they are going to do as the end of the month approaches, helplessly knowing their relatives anxiously expect financial help.
Deeq Farah, a long-haul truck driver who has been in the United States for eight years, wanders up to join the discussion.
“My mom called me a few weeks ago, and she said, ‘I heard the government stopped money transfers — is that true?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is,’ and she cried,” Farah said, shaking his head.
It is impossible for a bank to guarantee that al-Shabab will never obtain any part of funds sent into Somalia from private wire transfers. The militant group is known to steal from local citizens, impose taxes on humanitarian aid, kidnap victims for ransoms, and otherwise terrorize those who live in the territory the group controls across the country.
“What it really comes down to is, how do you differentiate legitimate small dollar transfers from evil money?” said Bert Ely, who runs his own banking consultancy in Washington, D.C. “And the reality is, it’s very hard to do.”
Washington could intervene. Regulators could set up a system of checking on the wire transfers that, if followed, could exempt banks from prosecution or liability.
“They could look at requiring a couple of money remitters to meet a very high standard of due diligence, on both this side and the Somali side, and then give the middleman bank some sort of safe harbor,” said Peter Harrell, who left the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for sanctions in December and is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
The U.S. government could also create its own link to Somalia by using the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as a middleman to make the wire transfers. But Juan Zarate, a former senior Treasury Department official and counterterrorism expert who oversaw sanctions programs during President George W. Bush’s administration, said using the Fed would make for a difficult and, at best, short-term solution. For one, it would task the Fed with sorting out the good guys from the bad — a risk the U.S. central bank is likely unwilling to take.
Still, Zarate said, “the question of how you mitigate the risk of this is not going to go away.”
“So what is that long-term solution?” Zarate said. “The government has to help figure that out.”
That’s how Somalis in the restaurants, tearooms, and barbershops of Columbus see the problem too.
“We believe the banks didn’t stop the money; the government stopped the money,” said Hassan Omar, the president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio. “People believe U.S. foreign policy stopped this money.”
Many refugees here feel they are bound to send money back home to relatives not only out of an emotional duty, but also as part of their purpose for being in the United States in the first place.
Shukri Qalib, 47, and her husband sort mail in a U.S. Postal Service warehouse in Columbus. They have been supporting her parents and five children, who all live in refugee camps in Somalia and Ethiopia, and the couple calls the money-transfer system “life support” for them all. Similarly, retiree Ahmed Ali, 72, sends part of his pension home to Somalia; he says it would be “worthless to be in America while my children are starving.”
The system was at risk even before Merchants Bank stopped the wire transfers this month. With money senders from Virginia to Washington state now closed, agents are driving hundreds of miles, with as much as $100,000 in the trunks of their cars, to deposit the money in the few small banks still willing to wire funds to Somalia.
For the first few weeks of February, some money transmitters tried to find stopgap measures. Ali Farah, a Columbus-based agent with Amal USA, said he was able to operate at 20 percent capacity for a few weeks, sending certified checks to First American Bank, a small bank in Chicago. But First American plans to close his accounts at the end of March.
A few small banks are still willing to transfer limited amounts of money — including one in Minneapolis and one in Atlanta. But agents refuse to identify them, afraid that doing so will lead to their shuttering as well.
On Thursday, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) met with banking regulators and State Department representatives to try to find a way to allow Somalis in America to continue sending money back home without breaking any laws or jeopardizing security, but no solution was reached. More than 25,000 people with Somali ancestry live in Minnesota, which al-Shabab has targeted as a potential breeding ground for new recruits. The militant group also last week launched a new threat against the Mall of America, which is located outside Minneapolis.
In a statement, the Treasury Department said it is aware of “difficulties finding ways to send money to Somalia through the U.S. financial system” and called the lack of regulation in Somalia “a key factor.”
For now, the closed sign is still on the window of the Columbus branch office of Tawakal, which until this month had worked with Merchants to send money to Somalia. Tawakal is one of five closed money transmitters in the Banadir shopping center, an indoor maze of Somali clothing stands, cafes, and a private space in a back corner that is reserved for the five daily calls to prayer.
At a barbershop near the back of the sprawling mall, the lively conversation among the men inside is about how they can no longer send money to Somalia.
“Everybody has a mother, father, brother, sister who depends on this money,” said Sade Guleid as he cut a customer’s hair. He said some Somalis in Columbus are holding out hope that the money transmitters might reopen in a few weeks.
“They can’t think about this stopping for good,” Guleid said. “They can’t even comprehend it.”
Photos by Jay LaPrete