A federal task force created after the 2001 terrorist attacks to track down and paralyze the finances of groups that bankroll terrorism will nearly double in size to stay on top of an ever-changing money trail.
Operation Green Quest, a multi-agency task force led by the U.S. Customs Service, will expand over the next couple of months from about 240 agents and analysts to roughly 460, Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said Thursday.
As terrorist financiers are forced out of the traditional banking system, they are turning to riskier ways to move money, including smuggling cash and cigarettes; trafficking of diamonds, gold and drugs; and siphoning money from charitable donations, officials say.
"The bottom line is to be even more effective in staunching the flow of funds to international terrorists organizations like Al Qaeda, 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.
Operation Green Quest was set up Oct. 25, 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The United States identified Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect and went about mobilizing resources to cut off Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network from sources of financing.
That initial effort has substantially widened since the government mounted an international campaign to shut down all terrorist financiers.
Roughly $124.5 million in assets belonging to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have been frozen worldwide since the attacks, according to the Treasury Department, which plays a lead role in the effort.
Bonner says most of the agents and analysts who would be added to Operation Green Quest would come from Customs by shifting some existing financial crimes and money-laundering experts to the task force.
The rest would probably come from other agencies involved in the task force, Bonner suggested. He did not say what other agencies, if any, had committed to assigning more people.
Given that Bonner largely envisions existing experts being shifted to the task force, costs for the expansion should be minimal, customs officials said. The task force operates out of customs headquarters in Washington.
The task force also includes agents and analysts from the IRS, the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
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, 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. The service has about 30 overseas offices and plans to add three locations.
Two would be in the United Arab Emirates -- Dubai and Abu Dhabi -- important money exchange centers in the Middle East, Bonner said. The third office would be set up in Bern, Switzerland, Bonner said.
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 borders.