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The Promised Land: Money Talks

Chris from the Congo12 arrived in New York only to get caught up in the world of counterfeit handbag sales. He told me his story on a July day in 2010 as we sat on a stoop on Lespinard Street, just steps from Chinatown. Let me assure you that although Chris is involved in retail crime, he is not part of any terrorist cell.

Chris hails from the Congo by way of Paris. Although he is only 28, he already has a strong business sense. He looks like a normal, well-educated member of high society. When I met up with him, his shorts were tailored and pressed. His basic white T-shirt was crisp and fit perfectly and was tucked into his shorts. Chris even sported a pair of Prada driving moccasins, often seen on the feet of Upper East Side chief executives, not downtown on Chinatown street merchants. In his right ear was a lattice-patterned earring made of diamonds.

Chris comes from a professional family. His sister works in financial services at a bank in London. His brother is in medical school. Following in his sister's footsteps, Chris came to the U.S. to get a business degree from Pace University in New York City. His family believes this is all he is doing. But the truth is that upon arriving to the city, a contact told him to get in touch with a man from Somalia who ran a couple of businesses and could potentially give him a job. "I didn't come to New York not to make money," said Chris. "I had everything in Paris—free healthcare, free social security and benefits. The only reason you would leave that is if you wanted to make real money, and you can do that here."

When Chris arrived in New York, he hooked up with a warehouse owner, from whom he would purchase handbags for $20. He then sold each bag for $60, making $40 in profit per bag. When he first started out, he was moving 30 to 40 bags a day on average. Now, he sells approximately 100 to 150 bags a day at $60 per bag and keeps almost all of the profits. Let me reiterate at this point that Chris keeps the money he earns and is not involved with terrorist rings, but he is very familiar with those who do send their earnings to such groups.

Chris and I made our way to a nearby Starbucks, where he paid for the two drinks on his business debit card from JP Morgan Chase. He explained that he also runs another clothing business, where he sells pants, shoes, and shorts online. "If I am not making money on my web site, then I want to be making money doing this. If I am not working here, I am learning. I have to constantly be improving my situation."

Just as he said this, Chris got a phone call on his cell. It was a colleague of his who also sells handbags in the same Chinatown area, telling him the cops are near. "Come on; we have to go," he said as he gathered his bags, took a last gulp of coffee, and headed out the door. Chris and I ran to the street corner to gather the rest of his merchandise before it could be confiscated by the patrolling NYPD. Chris is constantly moving around; he doesn't have a stand (like some handbag sellers) for fear that he will get arrested. In fact, most of his colleagues operate their businesses like this.

He said some people bring in so much money that they feel they have no choice but to stay in this industry. Chris explained, "When I was put in touch with the warehouse owner, I didn't realize how much money people could make doing this. While I brought in about $10,000 a month, enough to pay for my living expenses and tuition, some people bring in close to fifty or sixty thousand dollars a week, specifically those who have sellers working under them. And you better believe they are the ones sending the money home through the mosques and family members via hawalas. Their American dollars are supporting their economies and political groups back home."

Most of Chris's colleagues who come from Somalia and send money back to their homeland spend their days voicing their disdain toward the U.S. Many of the gripes center around the U.S.'s perpetuation of capitalism and the "in your face" display of money by Americans, in addition to how they spend it. According to Chris, many of his colleagues have a love/hate relationship with that aspect of the U.S. Likewise, the racial undertones that make it more difficult for immigrants to establish themselves as business owners or to get jobs is a topic of heated conversation. "The United States isn't the easiest place for immigrants if they want to establish themselves," said Chris. "I think all of the rules and regulations, mixed in with overt racism and a general disdain for Muslims, perpetuates a feeling that we not only need to make and take money from this country, but we need to use it to help our home countries. It's the right thing to do."

Given the political state of the Somali government, it's under-standable how anti-American sentiment could rise quickly. In a Bertelsmann Transformation Index report conducted by Bertelsmann Stifung over two years ending in 2010, Somalia experienced escalating violence and a deteriorating level of security. This has led to massive population displacements and the worst humanitarian crisis in the country since 1991–1992. Not only did the Transitional Federal Government fail to establish national unity, but it also has been involved in a war against insurgent groups, including Islamists and clan-based militias, such as al Shabaab.13

Speaking to several of Chris's colleagues confirmed the anti-American sentiment. One man I spoke to (we'll call him "Edward") told me that after years of economic and social oppression by the government, America was seen as "The Promised Land" where upon arrival, success, security and most importantly monetary gain would happen almost instantly. And while Edward acknowledged his situation was much better once he arrived to New York, it's not up to the standards he had dreamed of. "I thought my big house came the minute I walked off the plane," said Edward laughing slightly. "It wasn't like that to say the least. I have problems here too. It's almost as if the American Dream is just that—a dream."

The country was also significantly affected by the global economic crisis. As many Arab nations felt the sting of sinking oil prices, local stock markets cut in half the value of investments in the global marketplace, with Somalia catching the brunt of it. While most of the population lived in poverty, the crisis catapulted them into extreme poverty, living lives of shocking insecurity.14 Somalia's labor force of nearly 3.5 million contains few skilled laborers, and its GDP is $2.731 billion. Given these factors, the country has had to sustain itself on an informal economy that is based on livestock, remittance/money transfer companies, and telecommunications.15

Somalia isn't the only country brewing with instability and anti-American feeling. We saw this same sentiment expressed by Faisal Shahzad during his initial indictment hearing in June 2010. Shahzad, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, devised a plot to detonate a bomb in Times Square—a plan that took two years for him to come up with. It involved multiple trips back to Pakistan, covert ways of obtaining funding for the plot, and, most importantly, a deep disdain for the country of which he was a citizen.

"I want to plead guilty, and I'm going to plead guilty a hundred times forward, because until the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan and stops the occupation of Muslim lands and stops killing the Muslims and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking the U.S., and I plead guilty to that,"16 said Shahzad as he pled guilty to ten counts of attempted bombing and engaging in terrorist training.

His statements weren't altogether surprising. Hating America had become the driving force and justification for extremist organizations to plan attacks. But what was shocking was that this hatred was brewing on American soil and sprouting seeds of domestic terrorism.

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