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Something’s up in Louisiana

By Michelle Malkin  •  September 30, 2006 06:24 PM

Reader D.H. sends an interesting news item from WWLTW-TV in New Orleans:

The FBI temporarily shut down and raided a handful of local convenience stores Thursday, leading Arab store owners to decry the search-and-seizure operations as racial profiling.

Terrebonne Narcotics Task Force agents Steven Bergeron (foreground) and Shane Fletcher carry items confiscated by the FBI out of Smoke Plus in the 5500 block of West Main Street in Houma. FBI officials have not said what they confiscated or why they were at several Terrebonne stores Thursday.

The government agents targeted clothing and smoking materials during their searches, store owners said, but authorities did not reveal the reasons for the searches or whether any arrests were made by late Thursday afternoon.

Agents on the scene referred questions to the FBI field office in New Orleans, where FBI Agent John Rook said Thursday’s raids were part of a statewide sweep. Because they are based on sealed federal indictments, however, Rook said he could not discuss anything about them.

The indictments could be opened sometime today, Rook said, but had not been as of 9 a.m.

Assisting in the raids were agents from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Terrebonne Narcotics Task Force. A customs spokesman said that because his agency was only assisting the FBI, he could not answer any questions about the operation. Likewise, the local narcotics agents also said they had only been asked to assist and were not given any information about the operation.

Among the stores raided were Smoke Plus, at the corner of the Del Ray Bridge and West Main Street; the Amigo Mini-Mart, just on the west side of the Houma Tunnel; and NY Style and Beauty, just across the street. Other Terrebonne locations may have been raided as well, store owners said, but officials have not released a list of sites they searched.

Given how publicly averse the FBI is to charges of “racial profiling” and how politically incorrect many of its bureaucrats are, you know these raids mean business. The indictments are still sealed, but this flashback from 2002 sheds light:

Authorities are quietly investigating more than 500 Muslim and Arab small businesses across the United States to determine whether they are dispatching money raised through criminal activity in the United States to terrorist groups overseas.

The investigation into Arab businesses, many of them convenience stores, is part of a sprawling inquiry launched after Sept. 11, when law enforcement agents dramatically stepped up scrutiny of small-scale scams that they think are generating tens of millions of dollars a year for militant groups, federal officials said.

The criminal activity includes skimming the profits of drug sales, stealing and reselling baby formula, illegally redeeming huge quantities of grocery coupons, collecting fraudulent welfare payments, swiping credit card numbers and hawking unlicensed T-shirts.

Some of the criminal rings have operated in this country for decades. But until recently, law enforcement agencies paid only scant attention to the schemes because they are difficult to crack and time-consuming to prosecute. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, they have deployed hundreds of investigators to pursue the plots.

A number of law enforcement task forces involved in the crackdown are searching for similarities in the convenience stores’ financial practices and money transfer methods to determine whether their activities are centrally directed.

As part of the overall effort, a U.S. Customs Service supercomputer program has been diverted from analyzing the flow of drug money to tracking terror funds. That effort has led to raids on Pakistani operators of jewelry kiosks in seven states, authorities said.

“It wasn’t until after September 11th that we understood the magnitude of the [terrorist] fundraising from our own shores,” said John Forbes, a former U.S. Customs Service official who directed a financial crimes task force in New York. “We were always looking to catch the big rats” in terror financing, he added. “But in looking for rats, thousands of ants got by.”

Investigators suspect that some of the money has gone to Palestinian groups that use suicide bombings to kill Israeli civilians, including the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, federal officials said.

Senior U.S. officials said they are concerned that the inquiry might be seen as ethnic profiling but are simply going where leads take them.

“The fact is that al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas are Middle Eastern groups that are financed from the Middle East, and groups here send money back to the Middle East. So of course we have to look at them,” a senior official said.

And of course the boys who cry “Islamophobes” will protest and whine and sue.


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