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Al Qaeda Network Vast, Not Mysterious

(Washington, DC--October 25, 2002) "The mysterious terrorist finance network [is] not actually as mysterious as people say. It's just much more vast--at the cellular level--than people have been willing to acknowledge," according to international financial crime expert Jonathan Winer. Winer described this system, its strengths and vulnerabilities during a briefing at RFE/RL on October 22.

A former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement, Winer provided a comprehensive view of the financial and operational "network of networks" built by Usama Bin Laden, Khalid bin Mahfuz and other terrorist financiers in the 1980's and 1990's. This network is used by Al Qaeda to help achieve its main political goal--the establishment of a non-territorial Islamic state. The network is also used to provide financial support to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as to elements among the "freedom fighters" in the Philippines, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Albania and Kosovo.

Winer stressed the ambiguous but key role of Islamic charities, both as organizations engaging in genuine charitable activities and as front groups for terrorist financing. He noted that at least 20 charities were used by the bin Laden network to fund and recruit terrorists. In fact, one such charity--the Saudi-based International Islamic Relief Organization--says on its website that of its $420 million budget, $140 million went to unspecified "special projects" unrelated to its charitable educational, health and social welfare activities.

The network exploits the informal "Hawala" system of Islamic financial brokers, as well as correspondent bank ties to under-regulated Mideastern banks and major worldwide financial institutions, to quietly move funds used to support terrorist activities around the world. For example, it was used to transfer the $500,000 used to pay for the September 11 attacks on the U.S. Winer called this system "by far [the network's] most important link" and advocated "increased surveillance and the use of actionable intelligence to make arrests and seize funds" of terrorist organizations.

Winer noted that terrorist organizations also use legitimate organizations, such as travel agencies or construction companies, as fronts. Various types of criminal activity, particularly cultivating and transporting drugs, Winer said, are an important funding source for al-Qaeda.