WASHINGTON – U.S. authorities recovered a list of 20 financiers they suspect funneled money to Usama bin Laden and others extremist Muslim causes among a cache of documents that provide insight into the financing of terrorism, an unsealed court record shows.
The seized documents are a "treasure trove" and among other things indicate Al Qaeda military leaders were at times paid salaries from Muslim charity proceeds and purchased weapons with money from charity leaders, prosecutors said in the once-secret court filing.
Other evidence seized in March 2002 from the Bosnian offices of the Benevolence International Foundation, an Illinois-based Muslim charity, includes handwritten correspondence to and from bin Laden and documents detailing the origins, growth and expansion of his Al Qaeda network in the 1980s and 1990s, the filing said.
Though the original documents remain secret, the prosecutor described their contents and English translations for the first time in the filing unsealed this month in the case of the head of the Muslim foundation who reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in Chicago.
Enaam Arnaout pleaded guilty last week to illegally buying boots and uniforms for fighting forces in Bosnia and Chechnya under a deal in which prosecutors, in exchange for his cooperation, dropped charges that he aided bin Laden.
In a pretrial document known as a "proffer," prosecutors said handwritten documents scanned into computer formats in the Bosnia office included a file titled "Osama's history" that contained "a handwritten draft list of people referred to within Al Qaeda as the 'Golden Chain,' wealthy donors to mujahedeen efforts."
"The list contained 20 names, and after each name a parenthetical indicating the person who received the money from the specified donor," the proffer said.
The list suggested at least seven of the donors gave directly to bin Laden, and six of the others were listed as giving to the founder of a Muslim charity, the court document said.
U.S. officials declined to identify any of the 20 donors, but said the list is one of several pieces of evidence the government has obtained since the war on terror began after Sept. 11 that identifies spigots of money that have financed bin Laden and Middle Eastern and Asian terrorists over the past two decades.
U.S. officials estimate they have frozen roughly $124.5 million in financial assets belonging to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, since the Sept. 11 attacks.
One letter found in the files instructed a charity leader to pay a monthly salary of 4,500 Saudi riyals each -- about $1,200 -- to two of Al Qaeda's top military leaders. The letter establishes "that military commanders were salaried by the support organizations," the prosecutors said in the proffer.
Other documents discuss the purchases of weapons such as missiles, dynamite, fuses, rocket-propelled grenades and bayonets, the proffer stated.
The documents found in the charity's Bosnian office also chronicle the evolution of bin Laden's movement from support of the once U.S.-based muhajedeen warriors fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to a global terror network that posed threats to the United States and rest of the Western world.
In one letter, an unidentified author writes to bin Laden asking for help for followers in the African country of Eritrea. The letter identifies as its top goal "facilitating the travel of the youth to the field of Jihad so they can benefit from the training possibilities, by providing them with tickets and entry visas," according to the government translation.
Another letter from bin Laden "explains the time has come for an attack on the Russians," the court documents said. Other correspondence describe money transfers and weapons purchases showing that Al Qaeda often facilitates such transactions with a simple letter from bin Laden or a top lieutenant asking the recipient to provide money to the bearer of the letter.
For instance, one letter instructed the recipient to send 400,000 rupees of Pakistani money -- about $7,200 -- "to the owner of the weapon for delivery in Parachinar ... for security reasons," the proffer said.
Another used an alias to refer to bin Laden and his request that a charity leader "give 500,000 rupees to the man bearing the letter," the proffer said. That's about $9,000.
While most of the documents were a decade or more older, they provided U.S. authorities with significant insight into Al Qaeda and helped confirm many suspicions about its finances, structure and evolution, U.S. officials said. Some details in the documents "were not known to the public," the proffer said.
Handwritten notes detail the original formation of Al Qaeda, including minutes of an Aug. 11, 1988, meeting bin Laden held to discuss "the establishment of a new military group." Those notes record bin Laden's own statements on the efforts to recruit members from Saudi Arabia for his network and to raise money.
The notes quote bin Laden as saying "we took very huge gains from the country's people in Saudi. We were able to give political power to the mujahedeen, gathering donations in very large amounts, restoring power," the court document states.