Al-Barakaat: The Little Charity That Could Have Saved Somalia

What many Americans don't know about Somalia is that the US worked to undermine a charity that stepped in to provide aid to the chaotic state.
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Most Americans only hear about Somalia if the country's name precedes "is a failed state," or "is a hotbed of pirate activity." But what many Americans don't know is that the US worked to undermine a Somalian charity that stepped in to provide aid to the chaotic state.

After the gross failure of the 1993 Black Hawk rescue mission which left 18 US Army Rangers and perhaps 1000 Somalians dead, the world turned its back on the impoverished country. Somalia was largely supported by a charity group, Al-Barakaat, which accounted for "about half of the country's $500 million remittances."

Al-Barakaat, which literally means "blessings" was "set up to address the needs of Somali immigrants who sent, on a weekly or monthly basis, a significant part of their earnings to their families," writes Ibrahim Warde in The Price of Fear.

Following the 1991 collapse of the Somali government and banking system, Al-Barakaat "assumed a significant role in the Somali government." Warde adds that at the time of the September 11 attacks Al-Barakaat was Somalia's largest business group with "subsidiaries involved in banking, telecommunications, and construction."

The charity's model consisted of wiring money (much like Western Union) from expatriate Somalians to their families in Somalia-- for means of survival -- not terrorism. Warde explains that although the global money transfers understandably raised initial suspicion, accusations that Al-Barakaat was "closely associated with or controlled by the terrorist group Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiya (AIAI)," which in turn gave a portion of money to Osama bin Laden "were dismissed by intelligence professionals, and attributed to political and business rivalries within the community."

In 2001, President Bush accused Al-Barakaat of funding Al-Qaeda. He quickly announced that the Treasury Department would force the Somalian charity to close, and remarked that the termination would "[send] a clear message to global financial institutions: You are with us, or you're with the terrorists. And if you're with the terrorists, you will face the consequences.''

About a year later, the New York Times reported that American officials claimed they had proof that Al-Barakaat provided "as much as $25 million a year to Osama bin Laden's terrorists in weapons, cash and other support," but that "some United States officials now acknowledge that the evidence of Al Barakaat's backing for terrorism is more tenuous."

All of these accusations turned out to be false, and the US government shyly snuck away from the mess. They were able to do so with an assist from the mainstream media, which barely reported on any of this. The wild goose chase not only negatively affected Somalia, but it tarnished the image of the United States. Allies, which had followed the US's lead on Al-Barakaat on good faith, began to doubt the accusations. Warde writes: "[A] Canadian judge, saying that he found no evidence of a link to terrorism, rejected the US request to extradite Liban Hussein, the chairman of Barakaat North America. The man was freed on a $12,000 bond."

Creating a link where there is no link. The mantra should be familiar to Americans by now, particularly in light of the report that Vice President Dick Cheney's office "suggested waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner ... who was suspected to have knowledge of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection."

By the time the US was ready to admit its colossal mistake, it was like watching a bull try to discretely back out of a china shop post-rampage. The mainstream media barely covered it. Worse, Warde writes, the US continued to use Al-Barakaat as an example of "a major victory of the War on Terror."

The closing of Al-Barakaat had devastating effects on Somalia. International telephone service to 25,000 people was cut off. "The company was the country's biggest employer and ran the biggest bank, the biggest phone system, and the only water-purification plant," Warde writes.

Perhaps the most devastating effect is on the psyche of the Somalian people, who feel betrayed that their largest charity was accused of terrorist activities, and that they have been robbed of a valuable human resource without so much as an apology or recognition of mistakes from the United States.

Trust is another casualty of the War on Terror. In the Price of Fear, Warde cites a Wall Street Journal interview with a European diplomat assigned to the United Nations Security Council who said, "In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was enormous goodwill and a willingness to take on trust any name that the US submitted." That trust is gone now. It's gone because the intelligence community, and the government failed both in gathering intelligence during the lead-up to the War on Terror, and in how it has been treating War on Terror detainees, namely torturing them.

An apology and an Obama administration change of course with its inherited War on Terror Overseas Contingency Operations seems like meager largesse considering the devastation the US (along with its propaganda-peddling media) has wrought on the planet, but it would be a small step toward reparations.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.

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