Agents wouldn't say whether the raids were connected to several missing Somali men.
Federal agents raided three Minneapolis money transfer businesses that mainly serve the Somali community Wednesday, seeking records of financial transactions to several African and Middle East countries.
E.K. Wilson, a special agent for the FBI in Minneapolis, confirmed that agents searched the businesses on the city's south side to track money transactions, but wouldn't disclose any further details.
The businesses are Qaran Express and Aaran Financial, both in the Karmel Mall, near W. Lake Street and Pillsbury Avenue S., and North American Money Transfer Inc., also known as Mustaqbal Express, at the Village Market Mall, at E. 24th Street and Chicago Avenue S.
While it's not clear that the raid was directly connected to a continuing federal investigation into the possible link between terrorist groups and the disappearances of seven to 20 young Somali men in the Twin Cities over the past two years, it appears to be part of an effort since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to crack down on financial connections to terrorist networks and operations overseas.
Two months after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, federal agents froze the assets of five Somali-related operations at three locations in Minneapolis because of suspicions that they were laundering money to Osama bin Laden or his terrorist organization Al-Qaida. In the end, none was the subject of federal criminal indictments.
Somali residents had bemoaned the shutdowns, saying that the businesses were their only way of getting money to impoverished relatives in Somalia.
"We've been through this before," said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul. "What happened today is the beginning of a long story, so we don't want the community to panic."
The search warrant executed at North American Money Transfer originated in the Eastern District of Missouri and was filed under seal on April 3. It states that FBI agents were seeking any documentation regarding money sent to "any person, business or entity where such transfers were destined for locations in: Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and United Arab Emirates" between January 2007 and the present.
North American Money Transfer is based in Atlanta and has locations in Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia. Its Mustaqbal Express location in the Village Market Mall is one of five Minnesota branches and it serves as the central headquarters for money sent from the other locations across the country.
According to the company's website, it has been in business since 1999. "With our partnership of African Horn, one of the largest network in money transfer services, we are able to deliver your money to regions around the world where traditional financial institutions do not exist," says the website.
Abdirahman Omar, the general manager of Mustaqbal Express, was opening up shop at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when about 15 agents arrived. They spent about 5 hours combing through records and interviewing employees, Omar said.
"They were collecting every receipt, money wires and banking statements," Omar said. "It's been confusion and nervousness all day."
Omar said his location also houses a computer sales and repair shop and an income tax service. He's not sure why his location was targeted, but recalled a raid at the company's branch in St. Louis about a year ago.
"The community knows we don't have any connection to any political group," Omar said. "We help our community to support their families."
After the raid, Omar said he was focused on getting his business back to normal and reassuring customers that he was still open. "This creates a bad image," he said. "I don't want my customers to fear."
An employee at Aaran Financial's Village Market location, which was not searched by authorities, said the company also has branches in other parts of the country, including Nebraska, Maine, Washington and Arizona.
Wednesday's raids come as local Somalis anxiously await the outcome of a federal investigation into allegations that terrorist groups are recruiting young Somali men in the Twin Cities.
That probe became public in November after Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student from Minneapolis, blew himself up in Somalia in an October attack killing up to 30 people.
Over the past few months, more than a dozen people within the Somali community have been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. Dozens more have been questioned.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) announced that it had sent letters to area high schools, colleges and universities asking that they provide legal support and assistance to Somali students who have been questioned on campus by FBI officials.
In a statement, CAIR said Somali students have reported that federal agents have approached them in libraries and while they are walking to class. Some have said they have received phone calls from FBI officials instructing them to leave class to talk.
In one instance, CAIR said, a Somali student leader at the University of Minnesota was asked by a campus police officer to attend a meeting with FBI officials "under the guise of outreach."
CAIR said the FBI asked the student questions about the missing Somali men without a lawyer being present.
The FBI's Wilson said Wednesday that all of its interviews have been voluntary.
"Under no circumstance has any conversation we've had with anybody or any interview we've done been coerced or forced," Wilson said. "All conversations we have had have been voluntary. That's the way we conduct our interviews and that's the way we'll continue to conduct them."