WASHINGTON – In the government's latest effort to follow a dynamic money trail, the size of a multiagency task force responsible for putting terrorist financiers out of business will nearly double.
Operation Green Quest, created after the 2001 terrorist attacks, will expand over the next couple of months from about 240 agents and analysts to roughly 460, said Robert Bonner, commissioner of the Customs Service, which leads the task force.
As terrorist financiers are forced out of the traditional banking system, law enforcement officials say the fund-raisers are turning to riskier ways to move money, including smuggling cash and cigarettes; trafficking diamonds, gold and drugs; and siphoning money from charitable donations.
"The bottom line is to be even more effective in stanching the flow of funds to international terrorist organizations like the al-Qaida, depriving them of the financial wherewithal to mount and stage major terrorist attacks against the United States and the American people and frankly elsewhere in the world," Bonner said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
Operation Green Quest was set up Oct. 25, 2001, following the terror attacks in New York and Washington. The United States identified Usama bin Laden as the prime suspect and mobilized resources to cut off bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terror network from sources of financing.
That initial effort has substantially widened since then as the U.S. government has mounted an international campaign to shut down all terrorist financiers.
Roughly $124.5 million in financial assets belonging to terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, have been frozen worldwide since the attacks.
Bonner said Customs would probably shift some existing financial crimes and money-laundering experts to the task force; others would come from other agencies involved in the task force.
The task force also includes agents and analysts from the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Postal Inspection Service.
The internal shifts would mean costs for the expansion should be minimal, Customs officials said. The task force operates out of Customs' Washington headquarters.
Bonner said that as part of the task force's expansion, the number of dedicated field offices will go from one -- currently in New York City -- to 15 around the country. New York will get another office and Detroit will be home to two field offices, said Bonner, who didn't specify the other locations.
In Washington, there will be teams to oversee investigations into specific financial methods that can used by terrorists, such as charities, bulk-cash smuggling and hawalas, which are informal money-transfer networks popular in the Middle East and other parts of the world, Bonner said.
Customs also plans to expand its overseas operations, Bonner said, adding three new locations to its existing 30.
Two would be in the United Arab Emirates -- Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They are important money-exchange centers in the Middle East, Bonner said. The third new office would be set up in Bern, Switzerland.
Since its inception, the task force's work has resulted in 79 arrests, 70 indictments and 600 open investigations, Bonner said. In addition, Operation Green Quest has seized nearly $33 million -- of which $21 million constituted smuggled currency and monetary instruments seized at the nation's border.
Bush administration officials say that even though progress had been made in cutting terrorists off from their sources of financing, more work needs to be done. Terrorists still have the financial muscle to carry out new attacks on the United States, they say.
United Nations experts reported in the summer that Al Qaeda is continuing to receive financial support from bin Laden's personal inheritance and investments, from its own members and supporters and from charitable organizations.