John Kerry
(Nicholas Kamm /AFP/Getty Images)
March 05, 2013

Kerry: We're Trying To Offer Syrian President A Rational Choice

Secretary of State John Kerry is wrapping up his first official overseas trip to Europe and the Middle East. He's shifted U.S. policy on Syria, offering direct assistance to the opposition coalition and non-lethal aid to fighters. He's also offered Egypt's Islamist government $190 million to avert a budget crisis and he's warning Iran that talks can't go on indefinitely.


People walk down a market street in Eastleigh
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
February 23, 2013

Fighting Stream Of Terrorist Capital, Kenya Cracks Down on Somali Businesses

U.S. counterterrorism efforts include choking off the flow of cash to extremists, and urging friendly countries to help. But in Nairobi, Kenya, suspicion of Somali money — and an increase in terrorist attacks — has prompted a country-wide crackdown, with Kenyan police accused of extortion and arbitrary arrests of thousands of Somali refugees.

But how do you tell the difference between tainted money and honest cash?

Take Eastleigh, a neighborhood in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Depending on whom you're talking to, the Eastleigh market is either a tangle of back alleys where Islamist terrorists and pirates go to launder money, or it's one of the brightest spots of African capitalism, a dynamic 24-hour shopping center that's the only place for hundreds of miles where you can buy new jeans and sneakers at 2 in the morning.

Part of the reason Eastleigh attracts such investment, and such suspicion, is that Somalis make up the majority of people doing business there.

"When you come to Eastleigh, you feel that you are in Mogadishu or in other parts of Somalia, so you don't feel that you are an outsider," says Mohammed Shakul. "You feel at home."

Parallel Financial System

Shakul was born in Mogadishu, but he fled the war in his country in the 1990s and managed grocery stores in Nashville, Tenn. Seven years ago, he moved to Kenya and opened a hotel in Eastleigh aimed at other American Somalis and British and Canadian Somalis who like him want to come to the Kenyan capital and invest the money they've saved up in immigrant jobs as taxi drivers and shopkeepers and airline stewards.

Shakul also manages another hotel, two shopping malls and three housing complexes and is in the process of building four more. How did Shakul raise enough cash to go from running grocery stores in Tennessee to managing a minor Kenyan real estate empire?

He did not walk into a bank and fill out a loan application. Rather, he made a few phone calls: to a second cousin in London, a brother-in-law's uncle in Dubai.

"This money, mostly it came from Somalis in the diaspora and also local here, and it's based on trust," he says. "I know you ... you're related to my mother's uncle or so on."

Known as amanah, it's a system for raising and moving money through clan networks, and it's about as old as the nomadic Somali people. And it's informal: Shakul called up relatives, explained the details, they were in or out. No courts, no contracts.

That's just the beginning of the problem for counterterrorism experts like Juan Zarate, former assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes under George W. Bush.

"These are networks that run parallel to the formal financial system, based on trust," Zarate says. "The question becomes when those very networks have been used by groups like al-Qaida."

In some instances, that happens without anyone in the trusted circle knowing that terrorists are using their money.


$2 Billion Of Somali Funds

Parselelo Kantai is the East Africa editor for The Africa Report.

"The Kenyan government started to actively question what is the nature of this money," Kantai says. "And part of the questioning was motivated by the American counterterrorism push in East Africa."

He says what a Kenyan audit uncovered was $2 billion being quietly piped into Eastleigh through Somali channels — this in a year when Kenya's total GDP was about $40 billion.

"In this way, the Kenyan government began to understand the size of Somali capital. And one of the reactions, and this is a natural reaction from any government, was absolute panic," Kantai says. "It's like, how is it possible, that there is this kind of money, floating about, and we don't know about it?"

He says Kenya's reaction did not have to be one of fear — it did, after all, discover that its economy was 5 percent bigger than originally thought.

But this was in 2009, when Somali pirates were claiming multimillion-dollar ransoms. And in 2010 the radical Somali group al-Shabab declared jihad on Kenya with terrorist attacks.


Crackdown Begins

It wasn't too long before the Somali business people in Eastleigh began to be seen as a collective national security threat.

Rukia Abdi Hadele used to sell kids' clothes from her kiosk in Eastleigh. Police confiscated her inventory, saying she didn't have the right to sell because she wasn't a Kenyan citizen.

"I was a good-living person," she says. "Now I feel helpless and hopeless."

Hadele's problems really started this December, when the Kenyan government announced that all refugees in Nairobi — at least 50,000 people — would be rounded up and driven to refugee camps or deported. That included refugees who were legally operating shops, paying taxes and employing Kenyans.

Three days earlier, two policemen showed up at Hadele's house.

"I was fearing. I'm a single mother; I didn't know what to do," she recalls.

Hadele says she prepared her documents and opened the door. The police demanded she identify herself.

So she showed the police her ID, a refugee paper stamped by the U.N. The police told her she had to show them Kenyan citizenship or they were taking her to the police station.

What about my children? Hadele asked.

"They said, 'We're not interested in your children. Bring money.' Which I told them I don't have," Hadele says. "Then they said, 'If you don't have money, and you don't have an ID card, then we need you as a woman.' "

Hadele screamed, and a neighbor scared off the cops, who probably knew what they were doing was illegal. A Kenyan court has banned the government from relocating refugees, for now, as a violation of international law.

'Wherever The Money Is, We'll Go'

But ever since the government announced its intention to relocate people — and ever since Eastleigh began to be seen less as an economic boon and more as a terrorist den — Kenyan police have been accused of arbitrary arrests and abuses against the Somalis living in the area.

And the 24-7 shopping mecca is now a lot more quiet. Rents are down. Thousands have fled. Shakul says his hotel used to have a waiting list; now it's half empty.

Although business is down, Shakul is nothing if not an optimist. He thinks Somalis will once again feel at home in Kenya, maybe when tensions ease after the presidential elections in March. But, he says, if it is time for him to pack his bags, that's OK.

"We are a nomadic business culture," Shakul says. "Wherever the money is, we'll go with it. We'll follow the honey just like the bee."

Following the honey, in this case, may lead him back to the place he was born. Mogadishu is experiencing its first real security in two decades. And the real estate market there is booming. Shakul might have occasion to make a few more phone calls.


February 11, 2013

North Korea Says It Has Conducted 3rd Nuclear Test

North Korea successfully detonated a miniaturized nuclear device at a northeastern test site Tuesday, state media said, defying U.N. Security Council orders to shut down atomic activity or face more sanctions and international isolation.

The underground explosion could take North Korea a big step closer to its goal of building a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile that could threaten the United States.

Official state media said the test was conducted in a safe manner and is aimed at coping with "outrageous" U.S. hostility that "violently" undermines the North's peaceful, sovereign rights to launch satellites. North Korea faced sanctions after a December launch of a rocket the U.N. and Washington called a cover for a banned missile test.

The North said it used a "lighter, miniaturized atomic bomb" that still has more explosive force than past tests.

The United States Geological Survey said earlier Tuesday that it had detected a 4.9 magnitude earthquake in North Korea.

The nuclear test is North Korea's first since leader Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and marks a bold statement for the young leader as he unveils his domestic and foreign policy for a country long estranged from the West.

Experts say regular tests are needed to perfect North Korea's goal of building nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on long-range missiles. This atomic test — North Korea's third since 2006 — is expected to take Pyongyang closer to possessing nuclear-tipped missiles designed to strike the United States.

November 06, 2012

Grant to Expand Urbana's Relationship with African City

Urbana has received additional funding to improve the quality of life in its Sister City of Zomba, Malawi.

The grant from Sister Cities International will provide up to $100-thousand to upgrade the African city’s solid waste disposal system.  Urbana has already had ties with Zomba since 2009, recently completing $115-thousand dollars in work.

That includes water and sanitation projects in schools, and laundry and shower facilities for families of patients at Zomba Central Hospital.

Urbana Alderman Dennis Roberts says the new grant involves a new collaborator -  the Haizu District in China.

"This is a prototype - kind of test experience set up by Sister Cities International to find out if they can bring a Chinese city and African City together, working American city," he said.  "(It's) to solve a problem related to health, and sustainability, and public health in Africa."

Roberts says Zomba formerly had one source of water, a single faucet, requiring residents to haul water for bathing, washing clothes, and drinking.

Urbana is only one of three U.S. Cities to receive the new grant.  The others are Ashville-Raleigh, North Carolina, and Denver.

September 13, 2012

Peoria Area Relative Remembers Slain U.S. Ambassador

A Peoria-area musician is remembering former U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died this week as protestors stormed and burned the U-S Consulate in Libya.

David Commanday, who is with the Heartland Festival Orchestra, was Stevens’ step-brother. Commanday said Stevens was a remarkable man, who had a strong commitment to peace.

“One of the comments that really struck me was his ability to be in a room and respond sympathetically to both Palestinians and Israelis at the same time, in the same room," Commanday said. "He was such a genuine man, and I’m really proud that we have people like Chris representing us.”

Commanday said he is grateful his step brother and all those in the military and diplomatic service have committed to making the world a better place, even though they’re paying a real and personal cost.

Meanwhile, there is no word on arrests in Libya related to the attack that claimed Stevens’ life, along with three other Americans.


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