Travelers pulling suitcases full of cash started showing up at Sea-Tac Airport last year holding tickets for flights headed out of the United States.
Transporting large amounts of cash overseas isn’t illegal. But it was who was carrying the money … and where it was going that caught the attention of security officials.
“It’s not against the law. You can travel outside the United States with as much money as you choose, as long as you declare it,” said Mike Bol, who heads U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations at the airport.
The people carrying the cash didn’t hide the fact from Customs. Just the opposite, they reported it. Anyone traveling out of the United States is required to declare any amount over $10,000 and fill out a one-page federal form.These reports are what caught the attention of terrorism investigators in Seattle.
“The thing was the amount, the staggering amount,” said Glenn Kerns, who was assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) at the time.
The couriers were working for Seattle-area hawalas – businesses that derive their name from the Arabic word for “transfer.” Hawalas are part of a traditional system of informal banking in Muslim communities.
Seattle and King County are home to tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees from East Africa, many of whom use the hawalas to send much-needed money back to loved ones in their homelands. Given the presence of active terrorist organizations in Somalia, investigators worry that some of the money shipped home by Somalis up in the hands of the Al Qaeda affiliate active there.
“(They) have Al Shabaab, which has been designated a terrorist organization, and our concern is how much money is going to them?” said Kerns.
Kerns said the first cash shipment rolled through Sea-Tac early last year. A man carrying $750,000 in cash told Customs officials he was transporting the money overseas. Over the next several months, couriers carrying as much as $2 million boarded commercial flights at Sea-Tac.
“One hawala – Seattle hawala – sent out $20 million last year,” said Kerns.
Hawalas have been under intense scrutiny by the federal government since the Sept. 11 attacks. The...
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