The Obama administration needs to act now to avert a tragedy that could further destabilize the impoverished, chaotic African nation of Somalia.

Millions of Somalis rely on cash from friends and relatives overseas to pay for food, medicine, school fees and other essentials. The transfers, called remittances, account for one-third of the country’s total income, according to the U.S. State Department.

Until this month, nearly 20 percent of those remittances came from Somali-Americans. That pipeline all but shut down on Feb. 6.

The California bank that had handled up to 80 percent of the remittance business closed the accounts of money-transfer operators who collect the funds and disperse them in Somalia.

Merchants Bank of California had been under pressure from U.S. bank regulators to monitor transfers more closely to ensure funds weren’t ending up in terrorists’ pockets. Rather than risk hefty penalties, the bank chose to get out of the business altogether. Other, larger banks pulled out years ago.

Regulators’ concerns about terrorism are warranted. Somali immigrants in San Diego and Minnesota have been convicted of sending money to the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab. A Washington state woman has been charged with a similar offense.

But shutting down the remittance system – the only legal way that law-abiding Somali-Americans have to get cash to their families – could actually strengthen the terrorists’ hand. Oxfam America and other aid groups warn that that money instead would start moving through underground channels, more difficult for U.S. anti-terrorism officials to track.

Twelve members of Congress wrote Secretary of State John Kerry on Feb. 6, asking for a meeting as soon as possible to address both the immediate problem and longer-term concerns.

That meeting isn’t set to happen until Feb. 27 – disappointingly late, considering the situation’s urgency. Administration officials should come to it with a plan to get funds flowing quickly to needy Somalis again. It’s a matter of national security – theirs, and ours.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.