WASHINGTON – U.S. authorities are increasingly using investigations into terrorism financing as a way to track and monitor Al Qaeda (search) operatives instead of focusing mainly on choking off the money supply.
Criminal probes into terrorism fund-raising can be highly complex, involving dozens of people, multiple foreign countries and the mind-numbing task of deciphering an enormous paper trail. But U.S. officials say following the money could lead to previously unknown terrorist cells and may help disrupt future plots.
"Our goal must be to choose the action that will do the most toinancing a major target in the war against Al Qaeda. Diplomatic efforts focused on persuading other countries, especially Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations, to help restrict the flow of money to the terrorist group and its sympathizers.
While that effort has had notable successes, a recent report from the Sept. 11 commission (search) staff concluded it is "nearly impossible" to stop Al Qaeda from obtaining the relatively small sums it needs to mount attacks. The Sept. 11 attacks themselves, the report says, cost between $400,000 and $500,000 -- a minuscule amount in the massive international financial system.
Lee Hamilton (search), a former Indiana congressman and vice chairman of the commission appointed by Congress to investigate the attacks, told lawmakers Monday that the U.S. effort had gradually but fundamentally changed toward following the money.
Using a money trail to track terrorists can mean forfeiting the public relations benefit of quickly freezing assets of an organization thought to have ties to Al Qaeda or other groups.
"Use of this tool almost always remains invisible to the general public, but it is a critical part of the overall campaign against Al Qaeda," Hamilton told the House Financial Services Committee.
Muslim charities have been a key target of terror financing investigations in the United States and overseas. The Sept. 11 commission, however, raised questions about two of the most notable cases: those involving the Global Relief Foundation (search) and the Benevolence International Foundation (search), both based in the Chicago area.
Both cases raise "significant civil liberties concerns," the report said, because the laws used to freeze the charities' assets allow the government to act based on classified evidence with only a limited, after-the-fact review by U.S. courts. In addition, each charity can be shut down indefinitely as long as an investigation is ongoing without the more concrete legal steps needed to make the move permanent.
No criminal charges have been brought in the Global Relief case, although its founder has been deported. The director of Benevolence International, Enaam Arnaout, pleaded guilty to defrauding donors by diverting money to Islamic fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya, but terrorism-related charges were dropped.
Randall Samborn, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago, declined to comment on the Global Relief case but he called the Arnaout prosecution "a significant victory." He also noted that the Sept.11 commission report acknowledged the government had evidence linking Benevolence International "to terrorists and jihadists."
Barry Sabin, chief of the Justice Department's counterterrorism section, said aggressive prosecution remains a key element of U.S. efforts against terror financing, in part because criminal defendants faced with long prison sentences often agree to cooperate and provide important intelligence.
"Prosecution generates more leads and intelligence," Sabin said.
Overall, the Sept. 11 commission report found the efforts of the United States and its allies significantly cut into an Al Qaeda budget that once ran about $30 million a year. But its operatives still find money, using couriers to move it outside the watchful eyes of the international banking system.
"Current government efforts to raise the costs and risks of gathering and moving money are necessary to limit Al Qaeda's ability to plan and mount significant mass casualty attacks," the report concludes. "We should understand, however, that success in these efforts will not of itself immunize us from future terrorist attacks."