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 Abdigafar Ali Hassan, Habibo Jama's uncle.