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Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

14 arrests upset local Somalis

Seattle Times staff reporter

For the area's growing Somali community, a recent federal bust of an alleged khat-smuggling ring didn't just lock up 14 fathers, brothers and husbands. It also broke a trust in the U.S. government that had helped some 15,000 expatriates flee war-torn Somalia for Seattle.

The arrests late last month targeted an international operation that smuggled the illegal plant into the U.S., according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But many local Somalis fear their culture also was targeted.

Parts of the khat or qat (pronounced "cot") shrub have been used for centuries as a mild stimulant in countries like Somalia and Yemen, where users compare the effect of chewing on the fresh plant to drinking a strong cup of caffeinated coffee.

For the mostly Muslim populations of those nations, alcohol use is a religious taboo. Instead of drinking, many will chew on khat, kick back with friends and family, and talk.

But here in the U.S., khat's two active chemicals, cathine and cathonine, are scheduled, controlled substances, making them illegal to possess and consume — and the DEA doesn't make cultural exceptions in enforcing federal drug laws.

That cultural difference is just one of the problems facing Somali-Americans across the nation and in South Seattle, Tukwila and SeaTac neighborhoods, said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Somali Justice Advocacy Center.

"What we have here is a classic clash between two different cultures and systems," said Jamal, who recently flew to Seattle to meet with community leaders and law-enforcement officials. "The community here is still in shock."

Community leaders talk about it at the Somali Community Services community center on a gritty stretch of Rainier Avenue South in Mount Baker.

Diners in Tukwila's Marwa Restaurant — a gathering point for many area East Africans — say they're afraid to pick up the phone or answer the door for fear another law-enforcement agency might be getting ready to target their community.

"Our husbands and brothers were taken away," Ruqiya Ahmed told three law-enforcement agents through a translator during a meeting earlier this month with Somali community leaders. "How will we eat? How will we pay the rent?"

Ahmed remembers being brought "to a big land on big planes" after the Somali government collapsed despite international intervention in 1991. Since then, her homeland has been split by continually sparring warlords, whose militias have only added to the country's degradation.

But now, she said, the foreign government she trusted with her life and well-being is targeting her loved ones.

The bust, which netted 44 alleged khat sellers nationwide, came after an 18-month DEA investigation that targeted mostly immigrant communities in Seattle, along with other cities with sizable Somali populations, including Minneapolis; New York; Columbus, Ohio; and Boston.

The sting involved months of extensive interviews with members of the Somali community and their neighbors as well as phone taps, according to the DEA. Over the course of the investigation, DEA agents said, 25 tons of khat — worth about $10 million — was illegally imported for use by Somali immigrants.

The DEA said an international network used human smugglers and commercial shippers to transport khat from its native habitat in Africa to the U.S. Now, the 14 arrested in the Seattle bust are waiting for trials that could last years. If convicted under the felony drug-trafficking charges brought against them, they could face decades in federal prison.

Abdulwali Abdullahi fled the violence of the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2002 and settled in Seattle. In the 1980s, as a science professor at Copenhagen University and at Somalia National University, the country's premier higher-education institution, he used to research the effects of khat. Abdullahi is now a public-school teacher.

"It doesn't have the effect of street drugs," he said of khat. "But if I were to drink alcohol, nobody would speak to me."

Still, he and other Somali-Americans acknowledge that khat has a downside.

In Somalia, some workers will chew khat socially in the afternoon and evenings, sometimes staying up all night under its heady haze. And while it doesn't possess the same addictive qualities as heroin and cocaine, khat use can lead to family frustrations if grocery and rent money starts disappearing.

Abdullahi said khat use is prevalent in Somalia but less so in immigrant communities here.

According to the DEA, khat sells for about $40 to $50 per bundle in Seattle's Somali community. Each bundle of khat contains about 40 trimmings, which are typically wrapped in banana leaves to preserve freshness and moisture.

Law-enforcement officials have been unapologetic about the raids. Seattle police Lt. James Koutsky, along with two FBI agents, met with community leaders earlier this month at the Somali Community Services building. He said closing the cultural divide and regaining the Somali community's trust are key to keeping the neighborhoods safe.

Mark Meinecke, one of the FBI agents, agreed. He explained that the khat bust was less about the drug itself and more about preventing funds used to buy khat from ending up in terrorists' hands.

Meinecke said that money used to purchase drugs in the U.S. often is laundered and sent back to terrorist cells in countries with governments that either support the groups or turn a blind eye to their activities.

Ahmed said it was unfair to assume money being sent back to Somalia and other countries in the region was targeted for terrorists' hands.

Now, as the 14 arrested begin a potentially long legal battle, Jamal and local Somali community leaders are gearing up for what could become a high-court challenge to the legitimacy of the DEA's arrest for possession of khat and the scheduling of its psychoactive compounds, cathonine and cathine.

Because the khat plant is not scheduled under federal law, the defendants in the upcoming khat trials may have some case law working in their favor. A 1978 Florida Supreme Court decision ruled that while possession of the active chemicals in magic mushrooms, psilocybin and psilocin, is illegal, having the mushrooms themselves isn't necessarily in violation of the law.

Duniya Hersi, a community advocate assisting in the preparation for court proceedings, said the Somali community will do everything it can to prove khat isn't harmful.

Others are concerned about the long-lasting impact the arrests could have on current and future immigrants.

"The law is the law and we know that," Abdullahi said. "But there are people here being used as scapegoats. Our trust is broken."

Nathan Hurst: 206-464-2112 or nhurst@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published August 15, 2006, was corrected August 16, 2006. IN a previous version of this story, a wrong first name was listed for Seattle police Lt. James Koutsky.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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