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William Wechsler: Following the Osama bin Laden money trail

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden  

William Wechsler was director for Transnational Threats on the U.S. National Security Council during the Clinton administration, and headed a commission that looked into the source of Osama bin Laden's money. He joined the chat room from Maryland.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, William Wechsler , and welcome


CNN: First of all, do you believe that Osama bin Laden, his money or his mind, was involved in these attacks on any level?

WECHSLER: I think the attacks on September 11 resembled very closely the kind of operations that are undertaken by Osama bin Laden's organization, al Qaeda.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Isn't attempting to cut off bin Laden's finances essentially ensuring that he develops closer ties with enemies of the U.S., and couldn't that backfire?

WECHSLER: No, I don't think so. Putting a focus on his finances is only one of the ways we will eventually disrupt, degrade, and take down his terrorist network. Tracking his financial network will have to be done with other military, diplomatic and law-enforcement techniques.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can you track the money of a man who could be banking under several thousand names?

WECHSLER: Good question. It's very difficult, because money is raised in a variety of forms, through charitable donations, through direct solicitations, through legal businesses, and criminal enterprises. Al Qaeda also moves its money through cash smuggling, through regular banking systems, where they make good use of money from off-shore centers and other money-laundering havens, and through the Islamic banking system, and finally, they use the hawala underground banking system.

CNN: How much of Bin Laden's time is spent on gathering money?

WECHSLER: Unlike other terrorist leaders, bin Laden first came to power not because of military exploits, nor because he led a terrorist cell. Bin Laden first came to prominence by moving, hiding, and distributing funds for the Mujahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He still maintains his authority in large part because of the financial network over which he presides.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What, if anything, would happen to someone in America found to be contributing to the enemy?

WECHSLER: In 1998, President Clinton listed Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda under the international emergency economic powers act, thus invoking sanctions freezing their accounts, if any, in the United States, and making it illegal for any American anywhere in the world to do business with them. On Monday, President Bush expanded this order. If any American does business with al Qaeda, including providing funds for them, they will be breaking the law and put in jail.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do we know how much of Bin Laden's money is in the stock market?

WECHSLER: No, we don't. We know he comes from a family that runs a very successful multi-national business, and that is very sophisticated financially. We know that bin Laden himself, and the people he has around him, are financially sophisticated. But we don't know how much money he has in stocks, or where he might have it. Recent reports of stock manipulations by al Qaeda are amazing if they turn out to be true, and will be evidence of perhaps even more sophistication than was properly understood previously.

CNN: What is the extent of the financial organization that al Qaeda has built? What is the reach, how many countries, how many people?

WECHSLER: Al Qaeda is estimated to operate in around 60 countries around the world, including the United States. Every one of those cells needs money, and in every one of those countries, there are likely elements of al Qaeda's financial network also. The primary area in which al Qaeda raises money is in predominantly Muslim states throughout the world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If bin Laden is using money laundering techniques similar to ones organized crime has used in the past, and additionally using overseas corporations to hide it, will we ever see the end of this investigation, and when do we stop before we hit legitimate businesses?

WECHSLER: This effort to disrupt the al Qaeda financial network will have to go on for a long time. In the United States, we've been going after organized crime's financial network ever since we put Al Capone away for tax evasion. We've had great successes over the years, and organized crime today is not what it was a few decades ago. But organized crime still exists, and its financial network still exists. We will need a similarly long-term approach to combating the terrorists' financial network.

CNN: How do terrorists get this money from bin Laden?

WECHSLER: Sometimes it's as simple as other terrorists handing them cash. Sometimes the money comes already well laundered, and appearing clean, into the U.S. financial system. Sometimes it likely comes through the underground hawala banking system, which is virtually unregulated around the world, including in the United States.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could an American be unknowingly contributing funds to the al Qaeda organization?

WECHSLER: Yes. In fact, we suspect a great many donors all over the world have no idea that their money is being diverted to terrorist causes. Many of these people give to charities intending to help widows and orphans, but some of their money ends up going for guns and bombs.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

WECHSLER: We must not imagine that tracking the money is going to be a silver bullet or knockout blow for the al Qaeda organization. It's a long effort, one that will require the same level of persistence and focus years from now as it does today. But over the long term, we can be successful, particularly if we are able to get the necessary help from our allies and friendly nations around the world.

CNN: Thank you for joining us.

WECHSLER: Good-bye, and thank you for having me.

William Wechsler joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Wednesday, September 26, 2001.




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