MINNEAPOLIS – Tens of thousands of Somalis living in Minnesota might be forced to find another way to send money to relatives in their homeland after a bank that handles the majority of the community's wire transfers said it was halting the service amid fears some funds could go to terrorists.
Sunrise Community Banks plans to close its accounts with several Somali money transfer businesses after determining it could be at risk of violating government rules intended to clamp down on terror financing. Without Sunrise, many money transfer businesses known as hawalas signaled they would close Friday or next week because they can't execute transactions on their own.
Somalia, a country racked by war and famine, has not had a functioning government since 1991 and has no banking system. The U.S. Treasury says it's estimated that Somalis in the U.S. send $100 million back home each year, and Minnesota represents the nation's largest Somali population.
"It will touch every community member," said Dahir Jibreel, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. "Everybody is scared. Everybody is worried. And they don't know what will come."
Because there are no financial institutions in Somalia, members of the diaspora rely on sending money through hawalas, which require little paperwork and reach even the smallest towns. But the hawalas need banks to do the wiring for them, said Aden Hassan, a spokesman for the Somali American Moneywiring Association.
Many big banks stopped the transfers in recent years, saying they didn't have the manpower to keep up with the complex record-keeping required under rules designed to crack down on terror financing. Banks face huge penalties for violations, and many decided it wasn't worth the risk.
Sunrise Community Banks, a group made up of independently managed banks including Franklin Bank, stepped forward to fill the need.
Sunrise and its affiliates are focused on community development and have branches in the heart of Minnesota's thriving Somali community. Sunrise chief executive David Reiling said when the large banks stopped the wire transfers, the community approached Sunrise, which worked with law enforcement, to come up with a system to keep the lifeline to Somalia going.
But a recent terror financing trial in Minnesota led Sunrise to reconsider. In that case, two Minnesota women were convicted in October of conspiracy to provide support to al-Shabab. Evidence showed the women, who claimed they were sending money to charity, used the hawalas to send more than $8,600 to the terror group, which has ties to Al Qaeda.
Reiling said the bank wasn't involved in that case but realized it was vulnerable. Reiling said his bank wants to continue wiring money to Somalia but has to find a way to remove the risk.
"The sheer magnitude of the human need, it weighs very heavily on my shoulders," Reiling said. "Yes, we have a banking issue and we all want to ensure that money does not get into the wrong hands. I think it's up to all of us to try to find a solution."
Reiling has met with representatives of Minnesota's congressional delegation to discuss remedies, including a possible waiver for banks.
It's difficult to quantify the scope of the situation. Hassan's association represents 14 money-wiring services with multiple locations inside and outside Minnesota. He said the majority of the hawalas in Minnesota have accounts with branches of Sunrise Community Banks, and risk closure. One or two smaller hawalas have arrangements with small banks, he said, but they also fear they could lose their accounts at any moment.
Hassan, who manages Kaah Express, a Minnesota-based hawala with locations in six other states, used his company to illustrate the problem. He said the hawalas already have trouble getting bank accounts in other states -- and Ohio banks don't accept accounts with hawalas at all. All the Kaah Express locations nationwide route their money through Sunrise, in Minnesota. With no bank account, all of the branches are at risk of closure, he said.
Kulane Darman, president of Virginia-based Qaran Financial Express, said his company has offices in Minnesota and has long banked with Franklin Bank, one of Sunrise's affiliates. Darman said Franklin understands the group's business model better than any other bank, and while Darman recently started working with another bank, he isn't sure how long that relationship will last.
"This is a very serious matter," Darman said. "This may happen to me with my other banks the next day, or the day after."
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has written to the State and Treasury departments asking officials to tell Minnesotans about other options. Franken spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said those agencies believe there are still ways for Minnesotans to use banks to send money to Somalia.
The State Department did not return a call seeking comment, and the U.S. Treasury said money transmitters have indicated they have accounts with other banks.
The hawala system has been under scrutiny since 2001. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, several money transfer businesses were closed because of security concerns, though most eventually reopened. The hawalas also feared closure years later when the major banks got out of the business.
Hassan said his Somali clients are worried and asking a lot of questions about what will happen. Jibreel said the mosques plan to talk about the issue as well, to keep the community informed.
Jibreel said if he can no longer send money directly to Somalia, he'll have to find another way to get money to his mother, who lives in central Somalia. He said she is in her 80s and in frail health, and depends on the $100 or more he sends each month to help her pay for medical bills and food.
Jibreel said he could send money to a bank in Kenya or another country, ask a third person to pick it up, then have it re-sent from there to an agent in his mother's small town. The process will cost more and take longer, he said.
"That's the only money she gets," he said. "If she cannot get that, probably she will starve to death."