The Bush administration froze the assets of more than three dozen people, businesses and charitable organizations Friday and said it has gained the cooperation of 110 nations in its “financial war” against Osama Bin Laden and other accused terrorists.
Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill signed the so-called blocking order early Friday morning, alerting U.S. financial institutions to freeze any assets held by 39 people and organizations.
The list included several alleged senior aides to Bin Laden, whom authorities have accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and three honey distributors that Treasury officials said Bin Laden used as conduits to surreptitiously move money and perhaps even weapons.
At a news briefing, O’Neill described all of those whose accounts were frozen as “wanted terrorists” or those suspected of financially supporting terrorists.
The agency also sent the list to other countries, asking them to freeze all assets of the groups and individuals.
In another development, authorities on Friday unsealed a federal indictment in Arizona against Faisal Michael Al Salmi, a Tempe man who allegedly lied to investigators about whether he knew one of the hijackers.
At the Treasury briefing, Undersecretary for International Affairs John B. Taylor said the U.S. effort to involve other nations in its crackdown on terrorist financial networks was gaining more participants by the day. At least 66 nations now have in place blocking mechanisms to freeze the assets of terrorists, and another 54 countries have committed to join in the effort, he said.
As of Friday, the United States and its allies had frozen about $24 million in assets--linked to Bin Laden’s network, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that supports it and other suspected terrorists--since the terrorist attacks, Treasury officials said. At least $4 million of that has been frozen in the United States, they said.
“The civilized world has spoken with one voice; individuals and organizations that infuse these terrorist organizations with money are no better than the terrorists perpetrating these acts,” said Jimmy Gurule, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for enforcement. “We will shut down their fund-raising and expel them from the global financial system. Today we have taken a giant step forward in that direction.”
Gurule said an added bonus of the cooperative effort was the trove of information on terrorists that U.S. authorities have received from foreign intelligence-gathering services.
“As we combine our knowledge, we are developing an understanding of the vast and complicated network that funded the evil acts of Sept. 11,” Gurule said. “It has shed a substantial light on how these groups operate.”
Late Thursday night, however, the multinational effort hit a diplomatic hitch as officials argued about whether to include one Saudi Arabia-based organization, the Rabita Trust, on the list, administration officials said.
The Treasury Department wanted to freeze the group’s assets, contending that one of its leaders is an Al Qaeda founder named Wa’El Hamza Jalaidan. But State Department representatives lobbied to keep the group off the list for fear of offending Saudi Arabia at the same time the United States is enlisting its help in the war against Bin Laden and the Taliban, administration officials said.
“There were a lot of political concerns,” said one official. Ultimately, the Treasury Department won out.
The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has frozen the funds of 66 individuals and groups since President Bush issued an executive order Sept. 24. Those targeted Friday included all of the 22 men on Bush’s list of “most wanted” terrorists and another six entities and 15 individuals.
One of the alleged senior aides to Bin Laden targeted Friday was Sa’d Al-Sharif, also known as Abu el Masry. He was described as a Saudi Arabian brother-in-law of Bin Laden and head of his financial network. Also listed was Mamoun Darkazanli, a “well-connected Bin Laden agent” who is wanted by U.S. authorities for his role in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed 224, Treasury officials said.
A third Bin Laden aide was identified as Dr. Amin Al-Haq, a Pakistani urologist also known as Muhammad Amin. He was described as Bin Laden’s security coordinator.
Steven Emerson, an expert on Islamic extremist organizations, said the groups on the list, particularly the honey businesses, underscored the lengths to which Bin Laden and his organization will go to hide their assets and their operations.
“It is one of the ingenious venues they are using which allows them to operate under the radar,” Emerson said. “This is his specialty--the unimaginable. People peg him as a traditional, conventional terrorist. But the fact is he is able to legitimize his activities and finances, thereby insulating himself from detection or interdiction.”
One of the honey businesses, Al-Shifa Honey Press for Industry and Commerce, is owned by an associate of the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, according to Treasury officials, who described it as the main Al Qaeda station house in Europe. A department memo said the business “is used to facilitate the movement of weapons, men and money across the world.” Also frozen were the assets of a militant pro-Pakistan group, Jaish-I-Mohammed; the operator of Afghanistan operations for the Canadian group Human Concern International; and the head of the Muwafaq Foundation, a Saudi Arabian charity said to have funneled millions of dollars to Bin Laden.
In Arizona, meanwhile, Al Salmi was indicted for allegedly telling FBI investigators that he did not know Hani Hanjour, who lived for a time in San Diego and allegedly steered American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The FBI believes the men trained together at a flight school.
Al Salmi, who is Saudi Arabian, was not thought to be central to the widening terrorist probe. Authorities have incarcerated nearly 700 people in the United States on immigration violations and other charges largely unrelated to the Sept. 11 hijackings. Most of the suspects with direct links to the terrorists have been jailed in Europe.
But Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told reporters that Al Salmi’s indictment “serves as a reminder that the Department of Justice will bring the full weight of the law upon those who attempt to impede or hinder this investigation. Lying, or attempting to conceal information from federal investigators, will not be tolerated.”
Ashcroft urged against public panic over the extraordinary warning that the FBI put out Thursday about the possibility of further terrorist attacks over the next several days.
“The alert issued [Thursday] by the FBI should promote caution, not incite alarm. All possible measures are being taken to detect and prevent future attacks, to both incapacitate and deter would-be terrorists,” Ashcroft said.