Sam Skolnik: Federal Agents Steal $300,00 Inventory from Mom and Pop Convenience Store

Thousands of dollars' worth of perishable goods seized from a Rainier Valley market during a terrorism-related crackdown this week have been destroyed, a federal official confirmed yesterday.

Maka Mini Mart -- stripped bare and shut down since Wednesday's raid -- was targeted because authorities say it's connected to a business that sends money overseas for Somali immigrants.

Somalis in front of Seattle's Immigration and Naturalization headquarters protest a terrorism-related federal raid on a Rainier Valley market.

The government's focus was clearly on Barakat Wire Transfer, one of several similar businesses in five states whose assets were frozen by the Treasury Department.

President Bush has called them fronts for funding global terrorism, asserting that evidence shows that a chunk of the money being sent to impoverished families in Africa was being skimmed off the top by al-Qaida, the terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden.

Members of Seattle's Somali community have reacted angrily to the raid, especially the forced closure of the market, calling it a bruising of civil liberties. More than a hundred protesters marched across the city yesterday afternoon. One carried a sign reading, "FBI Stole Our Milk and Food."

Besides seizing business records and items belonging to the wire service, agents were seen hauling off everything from lettuce and yellow onions to milk, fruit juice and dinner rolls.

The inventory, valued at about $300,000 by the Somali American owner, was loaded into trucks and hauled away. One truck driver told a reporter he was taking the goods "to the dump."

Why were the items seized if they were simply going to be destroyed and held little if no value to a criminal investigation?

U.S. Customs Service officials who conducted the raid insist they were following orders from a sister Treasury Department agency, the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

"Our special agents were acting under the direction of the (OFAC), who had personnel on the site," said Cherise Miles, a Chicago-based spokeswoman for Customs. "And it was at their direction that they seized what they seized."

A government source said it is the policy of the company hired by the agency to haul off the goods to destroy any perishable items that are seized.

Richard Newcombe, OFAC's director in Washington, D.C., did not return calls yesterday.

It was unclear whether the government would reimburse the owner, who was not arrested, for the lost inventory.

Barakat may not be the last hawaladar, or dealer, in the Seattle area to be raided and shut down for suspected links to al-Qaida, one law enforcement official said yesterday, on condition of anonymity. Additional raids could occur within the next two weeks, the source said.

There are other wire-transfer businesses operating in this region, but the exact number could not be immediately determined.

Abdul Elmi, the owner of one recently opened store -- Karama Money Transferring on Ranier Avenue South -- referred a question about whether he had been contacted by federal agents to his company headquarters in Minneapolis. No one there could be reached.

Somali immigrants and their supporters gathered yesterday afternoon outside the building at Rainier Avenue and South Brandon Street that housed Maka Mini Mart, the wire-transfer service, an Islamic meat market and other businesses.

They marched up Rainier, turned west on South Dearborn Street and ended up at the district offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Airport Way South near the International District. Many chanted "Being a Muslim's not a crime" and "FBI, INS, open the door."

Mohamed Farah's placard read: "I will continue to send money to my father and children in Somalia. This is not an act of terrorism."

Farah, who has been in the United States less than a year, said he sent money home monthly to support five family members. He used Barakat Wire Transfer. He said he knows of no other business from which he can send money home, and he's not sure what his family will do.

"Maybe starve," Farah said with a shrug.

The marchers included several women in long dresses and scarves and a few children.

Mahdy Maaweel, who owns a travel business in a building on the same lot as the market, said many people came out to support the market's owner, Abdil Nasi Nur. "He just got caught up in the other stuff," Maaweel said, referring to agents closing the separate wire business.

"The FBI and Immigration, they said they made a mistake," Nur said.

"They say this is the land of freedom and democracy. Where is it?" asked Omar Abdul Alim, whose wife is from Somalia.

In front of the INS offices, Maaweel told those gathered that they would be peaceful but they would protest. "Nobody's going to shut us up. You might take our assets," he said. And he poked fun of the idea that the meager sums his countrymen send home was helping international terrorism.

"We're struggling to pay our rent, let alone support terrorism," he said.

Seattle Post Intelligence

PHOTO: Somalis in front of Seattle's Immigration and Naturalization headquarters protest a terrorism-related federal raid on a Rainier Valley market. Gilbert W. Arias / Seattle Post-Intelligencer