Three years ago, armed agents from a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force crashed through the door of a Seattle apartment where Habibo Jama, a Somali refugee and U.S. citizen, lived with her brother, uncle and cousins. Jama, startled awake, opened her bedroom door in her nightshirt to find herself facing several men in black pointing guns at her and ordering her to the floor.
Almost simultaneously, at an apartment 20 miles away in Kent, Ali Dualeh, his wife and their seven children — ages 4 months to 17 years — jolted from bed when they heard a loud noise. Both parents made it to the hallway before they were tackled by agents from the Valley Narcotics Enforcement Team who had broken down their front door.
The raids were part of "Operation Somalia Express," a national crackdown on the smuggling of "khat," a leafy herb that is illegal is the United States but as commonplace as a cup of coffee in the Horn of Africa, where it has been chewed for centuries for its effect as a mildly euphoric stimulant.
Agents conducted 17 searches in Seattle alone, along with dozens of other raids in New York, Minnesota and Ohio. In all, 44 people were indicted on charges of conspiracy, money laundering and other federal drug-related felonies, many carrying prison sentences of 20 years. In Seattle, 19 men were indicted, including Ali Dualeh and Mahamoud Jama, Habibo Jama's uncle.
By almost any measure, however, Operation Somalia Express was a failure.
In Seattle, prosecutors eventually dismissed charges against 15 of the 19 men, including Ali Dualeh. Mahamoud Jama served three months for a reduced felony charge of importing a prohibited plant — the longest sentence given to any of the Seattle defendants.
Prosecutors in New York obtained 10-year prison sentences against two ringleaders of the operation, but most of the defendants there went free, as well. Jama and Dualeh are now suing the DEA and several local police agencies, including the Seattle and Tukwila departments, that helped in the raids. The suits allege the violent entries into the Dualeh and Jama homes by armed SWAT teams were unnecessary and violated their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. (More)