Well into the second year of the war on terrorism, al-Qaeda remains animmediate and global threat. Funds continue to flow, support networks continueto supply logistical support, and operational cells continue to plan, attemptand all too often execute deadly terrorist attacks.
On January 7, 2003, British police announced they had apprehended a group ofsuspected North African terrorists planning to conduct a chemical attack usingthe deadly toxin risin. In December, French authorities arrested four suspectedIslamic extremists in possession of suspicious chemicals and a specialanti-contamination suit. On November 5, 2002, Germany’s chief of foreignintelligence warned that the risk of new and devastating al-Qaeda attacks inEurope has reached new heights. “The danger is so concrete that we have tocount on a new attack, an attack of a much larger dimension,» he said. Thepublic warning was based on “intelligence material,” as well as the threateningstatement of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, broadcast onOctober 13 on al-Jazeera satellite television. Specifically citing Germany andFrance as potential targets, Al-Zawahiri warned: «By God, the youths of Godare preparing for you things that would fill your hearts with terror and targetyour economic lifeline until you stop your oppression and aggression.»
Three days later, the chief of Interpol warned that al-Qaeda was planning a»large-scale terrorist operation” targeting multiple countries at once.»The field of battle,” he explained, “now stretches to all countries andmobilizes several terrorist groups.” The same day, Britain’s Home Office warnedthat intelligence shows an ongoing pattern of al-Qaeda activity, and cautionedthat these “dedicated fanatical extremists” will indeed inflict whatever damagethey can. An early version of the alert, subsequently amended, warned ofpossible chemical or “dirty bomb” attacks.
Attacks such as these target civil society itself. They are aimed, in the wordsof a report of the Austrian mission to the UN, “to kill as many people anddestroy as much property as they possibly can” with the goal of “undermin[ing]the established order and economic potential of countries, and to paralyzetheir social systems.” In light of Europe’s proactive counterterrorism effortsover the past year, al-Qaeda terrorism is just as likely to target Europeanstates as America, much as it has already targeted Germany and France, who lostcitizens to al-Qaeda attacks in Tunisia and Pakistan, respectively.
To be sure, al-Qaeda, its affiliated groups, and other international terroristorganizations will continue to attempt to carry out increasingly heinousattacks; all too often they will succeed. It is a painful reality that nocounterterrorism technique or effort, however extensive, international orcomprehensive, will put an end to such attacks or uproot terrorism. In fact,there will always be people and groups with stagnating causes, an overwhelmingsense of frustration, a self-justifying ideological or theological world view,and a healthy dose of evil, who will resort to violence as a means ofexpression. The goal of counterterrorism, therefore, should be to constrict theenvironment in which terrorists operate, to make it increasingly difficult tocarry out their plots of destruction and death. This includes cracking down notonly on operational cells, but on their logistical and financial supportnetworks as well.
II. THE MONEY TRAIL
The synchronized suicide attacks of September 11 highlighted the critical rolefinancial and logistical support networks play in the operations ofinternational terrorist organizations. The challenge in tackling thesenetworks, however, is that they are well-entrenched, sophisticated, and oftenshrouded in a veil of legitimacy (such as operating under the camouflage ofcharitable or humanitarian activity).
The investigative value of following the trail of terrorist financing has longbeen known. Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh testified before Congress in 1999that a shortage of funds prevented the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centerfrom being as devastating as it otherwise could have been. After his capture in1995, Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind behind the 1993 bombing and otherattacks, admitted that the terrorists were unable to purchase sufficientmaterial to build as large a bomb as they had intended because they werestrapped for cash. In fact, the operation itself was rushed and carried outearlier than planned because the cell simply ran out of money. In the end, theterrorists’ attempt to reclaim the deposit fee on the rental truck used totransport the bomb provided a key break in the case.
The al Qaeda suicide hijackings underscored the post-blast, investigativeutility of tracking the money trail, but they also drove home the critical needto preemptively deny terrorists the funds they need to conduct their attacks.Early financial leads in the September 11 investigation established directlinks between the hijackers of the four flights, identified co-conspirators,and led investigators to logistical and financial support cells in Germany andelsewhere in Europe as well as in the Gulf. Financial leads led investigatorsto key al-Qaeda operatives and money-men such as Ramzi Bin al-Shibh in Germanyand Mustafa Ahmed al-Hasnawi in the United Arab Emirates. Financial analysisprovided some of the earliest evidence proving the synchronized suicidehijackings were an al-Qaeda operation, and linked the German cell, thehijackers, and Zacarias Moussaoui. Wire transfers between Moussaoui and Binal-Shibh played a crucial role leading to Moussaoui’s indictment for his rolein the attacks. Financial investigation also established links between Moussaouiand members of the al-Qaeda associated cell of Jama’ah al-Islamiah terroristsarrested in Malaysia.
III. CRACKING DOWN ON TERRORISTFINANCING
Clearly, following the money trail represents a critical and effective toolboth in reacting to terrorist attacks and engaging in preemptive disruptionefforts to prevent future attacks. Since last September, America – togetherwith many of its allies – has spearheaded a groundbreaking and comprehensivedisruption operation to stem the flow of funds to and among terrorist groups.Combined with the unprecedented law enforcement and intelligence effort toapprehend terrorist operatives worldwide, which constricts the space in whichterrorists can operate, cracking down on terrorist financing denies terroriststhe means to travel, communicate, procure equipment, and conduct attacks.Though the amount of money frozen internationally remains negligible, theimpact of freezing terrorists’ assets can be significant if the right accounts,companies or front organizations are shut down. Denying terrorists access totheir preferred means of raising, laundering and transferring funds complicatestheir efforts to conduct their activities.
And yet, when it comes to cracking down on terrorist financing we have barelyskimmed the tip of the iceberg. Much remains to be done. The environment inwhich terrorists raise, launder and transfer funds to further their activitiesremains all too permissive, while the international effort to constrict thisenvironment remains insufficiently coordinated.
Cracking down on terrorist financing demands an all-encompassing approach tohave any chance of successfully disrupting terrorist activity, targeting thefull array of groups, individuals, businesses, official and unofficial bankingsystems, criminal enterprises and humanitarian organizations that financeterrorism.
The Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) has, in fact, laidthe groundwork for establishing a baseline of international standards forcombating terrorist financing. The Task Force, an inter-governmental bodyco-chaired by the United States and Spain and focused on developing andpromoting national and international policies to combat money la
undering,issued both a list of eight “special recommendations” on curbing terroristfinancing as a starting point for governments, as well as a reportoffering guidance to financial institutions on “detecting the techniquesand mechanisms used in the financing of terrorism.” In civil societies,counterterrorism efforts are often most effective – especially regardingterrorist financing – when public and private sectors work together.
Austria acted quickly to adopt the Financial Action Task Force’s eight specialrecommendations. They are:
Ratifying and implementing UN instruments
Criminalizing the financing of terrorism and associated money laundering
Freezing and confiscating terrorist assets
Reporting suspicious transactions related to terrorism
Formalizing greater international cooperation through treaties or otheragreements
Licensing and registering businesses engaged in alternative forms ofremittance
Requiring accurate and meaningful originator data for wire transfers
Reviewing the adequacy of laws regulatingnon-profit organizations
IV. PRACTICAL OBSTACLES
These recommendations, while extremely broad and beset by cultural,institutional and other practical obstacles to implementation, are nonethelessa strong starting point. For example, fully implementing the 1999 UN InternationalConvention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, even ifaccompanied by the implementation of UN Security Resolution 1373 and otherrelated resolutions, is a praiseworthy objective but is likely to have littleimpact on terrorists’ continued ability to raise funds. The United Nations’Counterterrorism Committee (CTC) is not empowered to sanction noncompliantcountries. It plays a purely advisory role, meaning it will primarily affectonly those countries inclined toward and already trying to curb terroristfinancing. It is a commendable step forward in terms of fostering a globalfront against terror financing, but it should be kept in perspective since itfails to address the problem of uncooperative states.
In fact, this is just a subset of the larger challenge of internationalcooperation. While the need for internationalcooperation simply cannot be overstated, there is no one centralorganization dedicated to combating terrorist financing. The global nature oftoday’s terrorist threat stems not only from the targets of the terrorists’attacks (from Djerba, Tunisia to Bali, Indonesia, and everywhere in between),but from the global marketplace, in particular the cross-border opportunitiescreated by the global financial and communications markets. Withoutinternational cooperation, we are left with a patchwork of domestic, bilateraland regional efforts that at best work in parallel but not complimentaryfashion, and at worse work at cross-purposes. There is a need for aninternational organization dedicated to fighting terrorist financing that wouldsupport, reinforce, coordinate and centralize the ad hoc efforts of the FATF,the UN Counterterrorism Committee, the Egmont Group, the European Union andmany other organizations and committees. It could set standards and proceduresfor designating individuals or groups as terrorist entities, regulatingcharitable and humanitarian organizations as well as official and unofficialbanking systems, and for reporting suspicious financial activity.
America, for example, has a variety of terrorism lists that are not necessarilycomplimentary. Individual European countries, the European Union and the UnitedNations each have their own lists, and then there are a host of terroristentities designated by individual countries or pairs or groups of countries -but not universally. Central to any effort to institute greater internationalcooperation on this front is the need to find a way of sharing intelligence onsuspected terrorist entities while protecting sources and methods.
It is critical, as recommended in a recent report commissioned by theprestigious Council on Foreign Relations, that the international communityestablish a specialized international organization whose sole purpose would becombating terrorist financing.
The need to criminalize terrorist financing and money laundering is alsocritical, and gets to the larger need for individual states to pass domesticlegislation to facilitate freezing terrorists’ funds and cracking down on terrorists’logistical and financial support networks. Not only must terrorist fundraisingand laundering be criminalized, such acts must incur sufficient penalties as todeter disenchanted recruits from participating in the activities of their morefanatic associates. In the United States, for example, while it is illegal toprovide material support to a designated terrorist organization, it is notillegal to be a member of such an organization. Terrorists are aware of theshortcomings and limitations of our domestic legal systems, and proactivelyexploit these gaps to their advantage. They raise tremendous amounts of moneyin the United States and Western Europe, they abuse broad freedom of speechlaws in Britain, privacy laws in Germany, and banking laws in countries thatallow offshore accounts. They knew, for example, that until recentlySwitzerland was the best place to purchase a certain type of prepaidinternational cell phone because purchasers there were required to provide noidentifying information (making tracing calls from that phone almostimpossible).
Regulating banking systems is the only way to deny terrorists easy access tothe international financial system for the purpose of laundering andtransmitting funds. To this end, all manner of official and unofficialremittance systems must be regulated, from Hawala to major international banks.Moreover, suspicious activities must be reported in a timely and efficientmanner. The FATF’s guidance to financial institutions is a strong step in this direction.A painful footnote to the events of September 11 is that while some of thehijackers’ financial transactions were sufficiently suspicious to warrantreporting, none of those reports reached the proper authorities until after9-11 because of the inefficiency of the reporting system.
Terrorists raise funds through a variety of businesses, criminal enterprises,and front organizations, each of which is significant in its own right, and allthe more so when applied in tandem. Charitable and humanitarian organizations,however, have played a particularly disturbing role in terrorist financing, andpresent an especially sensitive challenge as authorities are faced withdiscerning between legitimate charity organizations, those unknowingly hijackedby terrorists who divert funds to finance terrorism, and others proactivelyengaged in supporting terrorist groups. Regulating the industry of charity andhumanitarian assistance is critical not only because of the extent to whichterrorists operate front organizations raising funds under the guise ofcharity, but because of the critical need to preserve our ability to give ofourselves on behalf of others without fear that in trying to make the world abetter place we actually make it worse. As if these practical challenges tostemming the flow of terrorist financing were not enough, the two greatestobstacles to successfully cracking down on terrorist financing are actuallyconceptual: (1) debunking the myth of distinct wings within terroristorganizations, and (2) untangling the terror web – that is, al-Qaeda is not theonly element.
V. DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF THE»WINGS»
On May 3, 2002, the EU added eleven organizations and seven individuals to itsfinancial-blocking list of «persons, groups, and ent
ities involved interrorist acts.» The action was particularly significant because it markedthe first time the EU froze the assets of non-European terrorist groups. The EUlist now includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), theIranian dissident group Mujahedin-e-Khalq, and the Izz al-Din al-QassemBrigades (the military wing of Hamas). It also includes the Kurdistan Workers’Party (PKK), which has recently adopted a new name, the Kurdistan Freedom andDemocracy Congress (Kadek).
Far more telling than the names that were added to the list, however, are thenames that were omitted — Hizballah, the Popular Front for the Liberation ofPalestine (which was later added), and Hamas itself. According to pressaccounts, the EU was looking to maintain a distinction between terroristgroups’ political and charitable activities on the one hand, and their directterror wings on the other.
Consistent with this interpretation, the EU placed several individual Hizballahterrorists on its list, but not the organization itself. This implies thatthese Hizballah operatives somehow work independently of the group thatrecruits, trains, and funds them for terror missions. Similarly, listing onlythe military wing of Hamas but not the group itself suggests that Hamas issolely a charitable and political organization somehow disconnected from theheinous suicide bombings coordinated, funded, and lauded by its leaders in theWest Bank, Gaza, and Damascus. In fact, Hamas social-welfare organizations playa direct role in facilitating Hamas terrorist attacks, including suicidebombings. A November 5, 2001, FBI memorandum on the Holy Land Foundation forRelief and Development — which served as a Hamas front organization in theUnited States until it was closed down in December 2001 — provided convincingevidence that Hamas social-welfare organizations (e.g., charity committees andhospitals) form the core of the group’s logistical and financial supportnetwork, including support for terror attacks. A key lesson learned sopainfully on September 11 is that counterterrorism efforts must targetlogistical cells with the same vigor as operational cells. The September 11attacks could never have been executed without the logistical assistance of asophisticated and well-entrenched support network. The nineteen hijackers werefunded and facilitated by dozens of individuals, cells, front organizations,and affiliates that provided essential logistical support. Long-term logisticalplanning also went into the bombing of the USS Cole and the embassies in EastAfrica.
Accordingly, an individual, group, or state that provides funds, traveldocuments, training, or other support for terrorist activity is no lessimportant to a terrorist network than the operative who detonates the bomb,pulls the trigger, or crashes the airplane. The very “wings” of Hamas,Hizballah and others that some are uncomfortable recognizing as terrorist, arethe ones engaged in terrorist financing. September 11 was, in part, the resultof this fundamentally flawed distinction between good and bad terrorists. Amongthe terrorists subsequently linked to the September 11 plot are a disturbingnumber of individuals in an alarming number of countries who, while previouslyknown to authorities as Islamic extremists (and in some cases the subjects ofsurveillance), were not assigned the priority they deserved because they weremerely «terrorist supporters,» not actual «terroristoperatives.» Similarly, low priority was assigned to eliminating thepermissive operating environment provided by states that allow terrorists tomaintain facilities on their territory, largely on the grounds that thesestates did not themselves directly plan and execute terrorist attacks.
Interestingly, the EU’s decision to distinguish between the political andmilitary wings of these terrorist organizations came at the same time thatSpain boldly moved in the opposite direction on its own home front. Referringto pending Spanish legislation outlawing Batasuna, the political party affiliatedwith the terrorist group Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA), Spanish primeminister Jose Maria Aznar stated, «I make no distinction betweenterrorists, none at all, whether they are here in the Basque country or in NewYork. Nothing can justify a terrorist act.» Spain’s law would outlaw anygroup that «encourages hatred, violence and social confrontation tofurther its political objectives» — a criterion that Hizballah, Hamas,and the PFLP easily meet. Noting Batasuna’s refusal to condemn ETA terrorist attacks,a leader of the Basque Socialist party observed that «in a democracy youcannot allow political groups to mock the system by acting as shields forterrorists.» By this standard, Middle East groups like Hamas and Hizballahwould certainly qualify as terrorist groups. In fact, if authorities areserious about cracking down on terrorist financing, they must focus on thepurportedly political or social-welfare “wings” of terrorist groups – becauseit is there that the fund raising, laundering and transferring takes place.
VI. UNTANGLING THE TERROR WEB:AL-QAEDA IS NOT THE ONLY ELEMENT
November’s alarming warnings of pending al-Qaeda attacks highlighted once morewhy attention has been focused on al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups sinceSeptember 11, 2001. A year on, however, other Middle Eastern terrorist groupsand state sponsors of terrorism still receive inconsistent attention despite asharp rise in their activity. In fact, militant Islamist groups from al-Qaedato Hamas interact and support one another in an international matrix oflogistical, financial, and sometimes operational terrorist activity.Inattention to any one part of the web of militant Islamist terror underminesthe effectiveness of measures taken against other parts of that web.
September 11 produced a political will, markedly absent after previous attacks,to take concrete action to counter and disrupt the terrorist threat to Americaand its allies. Yet, while efforts targeting Osama bin Laden and his associatesare concerted and continuous, similar efforts are lacking when it comes toother terrorist groups of global reach and state sponsors of terrorism. In themonths after September 2001, groups such as Hamas and Hizballah were placed onnew U.S. government terrorism lists, and the primary Hamas front organizationin America was shut down. Since then, however, these groups have received onlyfleeting attention in the U.S., even less in Europe. But the links betweenterrorist groups reveal a matrix of illicit activity on an international scale.Consider the following examples of the terror web:
On February 15, 2002, Turkish police arrestedtwo Palestinians and a Jordanian who entered Turkey illegally from Iran ontheir way to conduct bombing attacks in Israel. The three were members ofBeyyiat el-Imam (a group linked to al-Qaeda) who fought for the Taliban andreceived terrorist training in Afghanistan. They were dispatched by Abu MusabZarqawi, then in Iran and now believed to be in Syria after receiving medicaltreatment in Iraq. Zarqawi has been linked to Hizballah, as well as to aterrorist cell apprehended in Germany that had been operating under the nameTawhid. German prosecutors announced that the group, tied to the recentlyarrested Abu Qatada in Britain but controlled by Zarqawi, was planning toattack U.S. or Israeli interests in Germany. Eight men were arrested, and raidsyielded hundreds of forged passports from Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Denmark, andother countries.
The International Islamic Relief Organization(IIRO) finances the activities of a diverse cross-section of internationalterrorist groups. From 1986 to 1994, bin Laden’s brother-in-law Muhammad JamalKhalifa headed the IIRO’s Philippines office, through which he channeled fundsto al-Qaeda affiliates, including Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic LiberationFront. In 1999, an IIRO employee in Canada was linked to the Egyptian IslamicJihad. More recen
tly, official Palestinian documents seized by Israeli forcesin April 2002 establish that the IIRO donated at least $280,000 to Palestiniancharities and organizations that U.S. authorities have linked to Hamas.
The al-Taqwa banking system, which was addedto U.S. terrorism lists in November 2001 for al-Qaeda links, was established in1988 with financing from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. According to the U.S.Treasury Department, «$60 million collected annually for Hamas was movedto accounts with Bank al-Taqwa,» whose shareholders include known Hamasmembers and individuals linked to al-Qaeda. A 1996 report by Italianintelligence further linked al-Taqwa to Hamas and other Palestinian groups, aswell as to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group and the Egyptian al-Gama’aal-Islamiyya.
According to U.S. officials, shortly after Palestinian violence eruptedin September 2000, Iran assigned Imad Mughniyeh, Hizballah’s internationaloperations commander, to help Palestinian militant groups, specifically Hamasand Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). According to a former Clintonadministration official, «Mugniyah got orders from Tehran to work withHamas.» In fact, in the March 27, 2002, «Passover massacre»suicide bombing, Hamas relied on the guidance of a Hizballah expert to build anextra-potent bomb. In June 2002, Iran gave PIJ a 70 percent increase in funds,and Tehran continues to train terrorists at camps in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valleyand in Iran proper. Iran also provides safe haven to two senior al-Qaedafugitives who head the group’s military committee, as well as to dozens ofother al-Qaeda personnel. According to an Arab intelligence officer, someal-Qaeda operatives were instructed to leave the country, but were told that»they may be called on at some point to assist Iran.» Despite animpressive collection of statements from world leaders (e.g., «there areno good terrorists» and «if you house a terrorist, you are a terrorist»),such rhetoric has not been followed by a fully articulated policy or persistentaction against the operational, logistical and financial network of terrorgroups and state sponsors outside of the al-Qaeda fold.
The multifarious logistical links between international terrorist groups(including al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizballah), and their relationships to statesponsors of terrorism such as Iran and Syria, are most entrenched in the realmof terrorist financing. To ignoring these links is to forfeit hope of any realprogress toward stemming the flow of funds to terrorist groups.
The war on terror must have a strategic focus on the full matrix ofinternational terrorism, including all its parts and all its members. The nextphase of the war on terror – and of the war on terrorist financing inparticular – demands greater international cooperation and more focusedattention to the web of logistical and operational interaction among thesevarious terrorist groups and state sponsors.