Last week, Bell State Bank in North Dakota announced that it would stop doing business with companies that remit money to Somalia. The move follows decisions by Minnesota banks in 2011 to stop providing Somali remittance services, and an attempt by Barclays last year to cut off its partnership with Dahabshiil, a money transfer company with primary operations in Somalia. The banks have been challenged in courts on both sides of the Atlantic, and advocacy groups have heavily criticized the banks’ decisions on humanitarian grounds.
Indeed, humanitarian considerations are of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, money transferred to Somalia, particularly through Dahabshiil, all too often falls into the wrong hands and perpetuates the cycle of violence in Somalia. Banks should stand fast in their original decisions, and here are five reasons why:
1. The risks are real. The frequency of cases involving Somalis in the West transferring funds to al-Shabaab over the last few years presents genuine concerns to financial institutions. For instance, four men in California were found guilty last year of transferring money to al-Shabaab through Shidaal Express, a Somali hawala business. Two Somali women in Minnesota were sentenced in 2013 for sending money to al-Shabaab through several remittance channels including local hawala dealers and Dahabshiil. A Saudi-American was also indicted last year for wiring money to al-Shabaab. In 2012, a man in London admitting transferring £8,900 to fighters in Somalia. Danish intelligence revealed in 2012 that the equivalent of thousands of dollars a day is sent to terrorist organizations outside of Denmark—mostly to Somalia, and often unwittingly.
Apart from the risks on the ground in Somalia, Western banks have real reasons for concern that if they continue relationships with Dahabshiil, they could subsequently be fined by regulators at a future date if political winds change. U.S. banks are surely aware, for example, that decisions on whether to fine, settle with, or prosecute banks with lax compliance programs have a great deal to do with the shifting political and prosecutorial priorities of whoever happens to be in charge at the Department of Justice and the financial regulatory agencies. One official may take a very friendly view toward facilitating Somali remittances this year, but a different person will be calling the shots two years from now.
2. The risks are not decreasing. Gone are the days of 2012 when al-Shabaab appeared to be on the ropes in 2012 both financially and militarily. Al-Shabaab was able to turn around its financial situation after the fall of Kismayo by cutting deals with occupying forces. Al-Shabaab continues to profit from imposing taxes on commodities such as charcoal and sugar, and their role as ivory trade middlemen between poachers and buyers appears to be growing. Al-Shabaab is still capable of carrying out devastating strikes such as the Westgate Mall attack and the recent assault against Somalia’s presidential palace that left 11 dead.
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A.D. Kendall has been blogging about terrorist financing since 2009 at moneyjihad.wordpress.com Follow him on twitter @MoneyJihad