How to Really Fight Terrorism
by Steven Emerson
Wall Street Journal
August 24, 1998
LAST WEEK'S STRIKES against terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan were long overdue. But they will amount to nothing unless Washington truly undertakes a sustained and comprehensive counterterrorist program—one that aims at drying up terrorist financing, taking away terrorist safe havens, and denying terrorists religious legitimacy:
Financing. Terrorists have become very sophisticated in laundering and disguising their funds. They use a variety of financial vehicles—front companies, charitable organizations, third-party bank accounts—to disguise the location of their assets. Osama bin Laden's most impressive achievement has been his ability to shield from scrutiny and seizure his $300 million financial empire, held in a financial labyrinth of world-wide shell companies, co-investors, governmental entities, bank accounts, religious "charities," and plain old blue-chip investments. A portion of Mr. bin Laden's "portfolio" is held in U.S. and British banks under third party names and transferred to Islamic religious charities operating under false cover.
Plotting in Tirana
President Clinton's announcement Saturday that he has signed an executive order freezing Mr. bin Laden's assets in the U.S. was a good first step, but it will have little impact unless Western intelligence agencies are more successful than they have been so far in unraveling his financial empire. A glimpse into how it operates was recently demonstrated in Albania, where four bin Laden terrorists were arrested and extradited to Egypt. These terrorists had been working for an Islamic charity—officially dedicated to promoting dawa (proselytization for Islam), but actually serving as a cover for Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network, whose members plotted to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tirana.
These same types of militant Islamic religious organizations, which deliberately commingle legitimate activities with illegitimate ones, operate throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and America. In the U.S., militant Islamic movements raise tens of millions of dollars a year—much of it through tax-exempt charitable organizations—which in turn transfer the money to overseas militant Islamic groups or which directly fund militant Islamic activities in the U.S.
Federal prosecutors recently seized $1.4 million in Chicago determined to have been Hamas funds. The money had been laundered through sophisticated and intricate financial transactions, including the use of an obscure tax-exempt religious group known as the Quranic Literacy Institute, which had described itself in its application for a federal tax exemption as "an organization dedicated to the advancement of public awareness and knowledge of Islam through the study of its principal sources and civilizational contributions for the purpose of accurately conveying the teachings of Islam in the United States." In addition, as federal investigators determined, the institute was used as a vehicle to launder money to Hamas to carry out terrorist killings of Israelis.
But this seizure was exceptional. Although the U.S. prohibits fund-raising for terrorist groups and Congress has enacted several laws to seize financial assets of terrorist groups, relatively few dollars have ever been seized. For the 1996 anti-terrorist law does not name front groups but rather the "brand names" of terrorist groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These organizations never hold their assets in their real names. Neither does Mr. bin Laden.
At the very least, Congress should amend the antiterror legislation to designate the front groups operating on behalf of terrorist movements. In addition, Congress should mandate a separate advanced law-enforcement unit dedicated to tracking down the financial assets of terrorist organizations, similar to the strike forces that specialize in identifying Mafia assets.
Safe Havens. Going after the terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan will only dent the terrorist infrastructure. There are at least five other Middle East safe havens for international terrorists. Lebanon hosts the Hezbollah, and Syria hosts 10 Palestinian terror groups as well as the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party. Libya still protects the Pan Am 103 bombers as well as Abu Nidal. Iran hosts and trains Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Armed Islamic Group, among others. And the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank and Gaza are safe havens for scores of terrorists, including at least twelve who have killed U.S. citizens.
Mr. bin Laden has demonstrated an impressive ability to consolidate operational alliances between more than a dozen Middle Eastern terrorist groups, which normally do not collaborate with one another. In facilitating the bombings of U.S. military targets in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 that killed 24 Americans, Mr. bin Laden, a Sunni Muslim, was able to forge a unique coalition with Iranian Shiites, who normally are religious enemies.
If the going gets too tough in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden could find refuge in Iran or in Lebanon, where thousands of Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists openly train. Next door is Syria, whose hospitality has been extended to the entire spectrum of radical Palestinian groups, which are allowed to direct operations from training camps on the outskirts of Damascus.
In the West Bank and Gaza—where Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin and other clerics vowed Friday on behalf of Muslims around the world to avenge the U.S. strikes against Mr. bin Laden—scores of Palestinian terrorists known to have participated in terrorist murders roam free under the protection of Yasser Arafat. The "escape" this past week of senior Hamas terrorist Adel Awadallah was, by one Israeli count, the 160th "escape" of a Palestinian terrorist in four years. So far the U.S. Justice Department has scandalously refused to issue indictments and demand extradition of the Palestinian killers of Americans (including four who are members of Mr. Arafat's security forces), even though U.S. law obligates the department to do so.
If President Clinton is truly serious about closing down all terrorist safe havens, then he will have to clamp down on the other sanctuaries given to terrorists. Going after the politically easy targets of Afghanistan and Sudan will not suffice.
Religious legitimacy. If Mr. Clinton truly wants to uphold the critical distinction between the minority of militant Islamic fundamentalists and the vast majority of the world's Muslims who oppose terrorism, he can start at home. The president and other public officials ought to stop legitimizing self-declared "civil rights" and "mainstream" Islamic organizations that in fact operate as propaganda and political arms of Islamic fundamentalist movements. Leaders of such organizations have been repeatedly invited to White House receptions and granted audiences with top officials.
The Council on American Islamic Relations has claimed that the term "Islamic fundamentalist" is itself racist and that writing about Islamic terrorism leads to "hate crimes." The council has defended Hamas chieftain Musa Marzuk, defended the Sudanese Islamic government, and characterized the trial of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, convicted for his role in the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy, in its annual roundup of "hate crimes" and acts of "bias" against Muslims. CAIR officials have been invited to White House receptions hosted by Hillary Clinton, the most recent being in January to mark the end of Ramadan. Several months later, CAIR co-sponsored a rally at Brooklyn College in New York, where a visiting Egyptian cleric led the audience in a song, "No to the Jews, Descendants of Apes."
Two years ago, the Clinton Administration allowed the American Muslim Council to organize the reception marking the end of Ramadan at the White House. The American Muslim Council has consistently promoted and defended Hamas, Turkey's fundamentalist Welfare Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other militant Islamic movements. The Ramadan reception held by the White House this year was organized by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based group whose officials have repeatedly defended Hezbollah and other Islamic terrorist movements, while publicly insisting that they condemn terrorism.
"Our battle against terrorism did not begin with the bombing of our embassies in Africa, nor will it end with today's strike," Mr. Clinton told the nation Thursday. "There will be no sanctuary for terrorists." Time will tell whether the President and his administration will match his words with deeds.
Mr. Emerson is a Washington-based writer specializing in militant Islamic organizations.