Western Union profiles Muslim names
AP Jul. 2, 2006
Money transfer agencies like Western Union have delayed or blocked thousands of cash deliveries on suspicion of terrorist connections simply because senders or recipients have names like Mohammed or Ahmed, company officials said.
In one example, an Indian driver here said Western Union prevented him from sending US$120 to a friend at home this month because the recipient's name was Mohammed.
"Western Union told me that if I send money to Sahir Mohammed, the money will be blocked because of his name," said 36-year-old Abdul Rahman Maruthayil, who later sent the money through UAE Exchange, a Dubai-based money transfer service.
In a similar case, Pakistani Qadir Khan said Western Union blocked his attempt this month to wire money to his brother, Mohammed, for a cataract operation.
"Every Mohammed is a terrorist now?" Khan asked.
Western Union Financial Services, Inc., an American company based in Colorado, said its clerks simply are following US Treasury Department guidelines that aim to scrutinize cash flows for terrorist links. Most of the flagged transactions are delayed a few hours. Some are blocked entirely.
In many cases, would-be customers like Maruthayil simply find another way to send the funds - often through informal exchanges with less stringent monitoring.
But critics of the program say it is far too broad. The number of people inconvenienced in the Emirates alone, which closely cooperates with US counter-terror operations, is thought to be significant. One Western Union clerk said about 300 money transfers from a single Dubai franchise were blocked or delayed each day - none of which ever turned up a terrorist link.
In Washington, US Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said foreign banks have used the department's list of terrorist names to freeze US$150 million in assets since it was released after Sept. 11. Millerwise didn't know the value of money transfers blocked using the list, but she said frustrations endured by those with certain names were regrettable but necessary.
"We have an obligation to do all we can to keep money out of the hands of terrorists," Millerwise said.
The list of names, available on the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control Web site, contains hundreds of Mohammeds.
Western Union's caution is perhaps understandable. Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta sent money from two Western Union agencies in Maryland before boarding a plane he helped crash into New York's World Trade Center.
The money transfer crackdown comes amid revelations that the US Treasury and CIA have tracked millions of confidential financial transactions handled by the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT.
In Dubai, a Western Union branch manager said he was forced to obey US rules he and others consider too broad.
"Mohammed and Ahmed have become problematic names because they are so common on the list of terrorists," said Nixon Baby, who runs a Western Union franchise in Bur Dubai, a neighborhood packed with South Asian businesses. "These are regulations that Western Union is required to obey. We do not have any control."
At another Western Union office, an executive who deals with security measures said about 1 percent of the store's 30,000 daily money transfers - about 300 a day - are delayed or blocked because of suspected terrorist links. Thus far, all have proven false, the executive said on condition of anonymity, because she wasn't permitted to speak to the press.
Western Union routinely delays or blocks transfers between customers whose names even partially match names on the Treasury list. The money is usually released once suspects can show identity documents that prove they are not on the list, the executive said.
The US regulations apply to Western Union money transfers made anywhere, said Marc Aubry, the company's Dubai-based Mideast marketing director.
But the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is one of seven city-states, is especially susceptible to the Treasury's restrictions because it is home to more than a million foreign laborers who sent home a collective US$14 billion last year, according to a government report.
The US Treasury Department has worked with the Emirati government in tightening oversight after a 2004 US investigation found that most of the US$400,000 spent on the Sept. 11 attacks passed through bank accounts in the Emirates, a Mideast banking hub.
The Treasury Department says the Emirates has taken a "lead role" against terror financing, but the agency still brands Gulf banks high risk. Officials in the region have long pointed out that terrorists have also had few problems using US banks and money transfer agencies.
Dubai expatriates like Khan and Maruthayil say Western Union, which says it earns US$3 billion annually from its operations in 200 countries, have no valid basis for delaying or blocking much-needed cash meant for families back home.
They say Treasury guidelines are sending more people to informal money transfer networks called "hundis" or "hawalas" that circumvent government and bank scrutiny. Hawala networks are known to have been used by gangsters and terrorists.
"Sending money by hawala is cheaper and it does not get checked by banks, so it is quicker," said a Pakistani taxi driver who called himself Munir Ahmed. "They say it is not legal, but it is a reliable alternative to Western Union."