Operation Somalia Express, a national crackdown on the smuggling of the illegal herb "khat," was a failure and may have poisoned relations between law enforcement and local Somalis at a time when federal agents are looking for help. In Seattle, charges eventually were dropped against 15 of 19 men indicted, and lawsuits have been filed against the Seattle and Tukwila police departments.
Three years ago, armed agents from a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 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, 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 euphoric stimulant.
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 Abdigafar Ali Hassan, 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.
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 seizures.
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 outreach."
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."
Jama and Dualeh's wife, Jawaher Shreh, are both devout Muslims and say they were humiliated by officers who refused to let them cover their heads in accordance with religious tenets that require women to wear a hijab -- or head scarf -- outside the home and in the presence of men they do not know.
The lawsuit alleges Jama repeatedly asked for clothes, but was photographed by officers wearing only a sheer nightdress and forced to sit, handcuffed, on a curb for more than five hours in front of her neighbors and passers-by.
Forced Entry Challenged
The Jama lawsuit also seeks a court finding that the Seattle Police Department's (SPD) policy for using forced entry during a raid is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police must "knock and announce" unless there is a real threat to officer safety or that evidence might be destroyed.
The lawsuit, filed by Seattle lawyers Tim Ford and David Whedbee, alleges SPD has a "dynamic entry" protocol to use force in all narcotics searches, with not more than a 10-second delay between announcing themselves and breaking in.
"The SPD maintains an unconstitutional practice ... where officers automatically use force in every instance, including violent restraint and threat of deadly force, without having to balance the need for force" with the particular circumstances of the search, the lawsuit alleges.
The city, in a response to the lawsuit, denies its practice is unconstitutional and said its officers were acting under the direction of the DEA. The DEA referred all inquiries about the lawsuit to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The agency, in court filings, said it can't be held liable for what the Seattle police officers may have done in leading the raid on Jama's apartment.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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