Financial sleuths arm themselves to follow money trail
By Manuel Perez-Rivas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The battle to bring down Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization won't be just about troops and guns. It will also be about money.
Finding that money will be a major challenge. Experts say it will require overcoming numerous obstacles and navigating a complex maze of financial transactions, offshore banking centers and shell companies. And bin Laden also relies on a paperless, rudimentary financial system commonplace in many Muslim nations.
In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, officials in the U.S. and abroad are focusing efforts on the money trail.
Investigators are combing bank accounts and credit cards held by some of those believed to have undertaken the attacks on New York and Washington. On Saturday, European officials are scheduled to meet to look for ways to cut off funding for terrorist groups.
The Treasury Department recently announced the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, a new effort to destroy or disrupt foreign terrorist groups by tracking their money and going after their fund-raising operations. The center will combine officials from Treasury divisions such as Customs, Secret Service, and the IRS, with others from agencies such as the FBI, CIA and the National Security Administration.
Though it is intended to prevent terrorist acts, the center's focus now is to pursue those behind last week's devastating attacks. "The goal is to figure out what the financial structures of these organizations are and then work with foreign governments to dismantle them or hinder them," one Treasury official said.
The US government has gone after bin Laden before. In 1998, President Clinton issued an order to freeze his assets. In the three years since, none has been found, so none has been frozen.
New kind of terrorist
A Saudi Arabian exile born into a billionaire family, bi Laden presents America and the world with a different kind of terrorist threat, one whose wealth has been estimated as high as $300 million. Many experts, however, believe the real number is lower.
"We've encountered terrorist organizations that have had rogue-state funding before, but we've never encountered an independent terrorist organization like this," said Matthew Devost, founding director of the Terrorism Research Center. "He can inflict a tremendous amount of damage with the wealth that he has," Devost said.
Bin Laden is reputed to be a shrewd businessman. He has presided atop al Qaeda as it ran numerous enterprises, including an import-export firm, an investment company that dealt in global markets, a construction company that built roads and bridges, and a fruit and vegetable farm.
Earlier this year, testimony in the trial of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa offered a glimpse into al Qaeda's financial reach. Operatives spoke of purchasing an old jet for $230,000, carrying envelopes stuffed with $100,000 in $100 bills, and buying a farm for $250,000.
Those activities took place in the early 1990s, when bin Laden's operations were based in the Sudan. There, al Qaeda once had an office suite in Khartoum, complete with a receptionist and an office for the boss himself. Those operations came to a halt when bin Laden left the Sudan in the mid-1990s, and moved to Afghanistan, where he still is based, officials say.
Finding the money
Tracking the money is the first challenge for investigators.
Bank accounts and transactions made by the suspected hijackers could provide clues as investigators try to establish a trail back to bin Laden. In addition, reports that people aware of the September 11 plot may have used that knowledge to profit on the stock market could offer an even bigger opening, if true.
Yet the process will be painstaking, experts said, and could lead to dead ends.
"It's like trying to solve a 10,000-piece puzzle where most of the colors are white," said Michael Zeldin, a former head of the Justice Deparment's money-laundering section.
As an example, Zeldin cited the difficulty of tracking wire transfers into the country, assuming the cash to fund the attacks from overseas. Even if $1 million had been wired to the U.S. over a matter of months, or even years, that sum would be a very small amount to find among transactions totaling in the trillions of dollars, he said.
Finding the money overseas could prove no easier, as that would likely require piercing through the tough secrecy laws that shelter many bank accounts, especially those in offshore centers, he said. Any accounts are bound to be under different names, perhaps those of shell companies.
Experts believe bin Laden's finances also rely on a network of money lenders active in the Muslim world who keep no financial records, a system believed to operate in some U.S. Muslim communities, as well.
"He combines high-tech means with very rudimentary means," said Frank Cilluffo, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That makes following his tracks a very daunting task."
Al Qaeda is also thought to collect extensive donations from supporters. Some believe it benefits from the drug trade, and that it siphons money from Muslim charities. Those streams could continue flowing even if authorities are able to find other assets, experts say.
"Just the fact that we don't even know how much money bin Laden has, whether its $50 million, or $300 million, or some other number, shows you how hard it's going to be," said Devost.
Some experts believe the money trail may be most useful as a way to find bin Laden's associates and uncover the tendrils of his network.
Besides, some said, bin Laden's main asset may not be his wealth at all.
"We can talk about the money, but what does the money really mean?" said CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. "We're dealing with someone who has the ability to convince people to be martyrs."
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