Don't Panic October 23 2002

Is the United States doing a good job of interrupting al-Qaeda's finances?

Almost immediately after 9-11, the Bush administration declared that one of its primary tactics in fighting terrorism would be to disrupt terrorist finances. The government immediately began pursuing that goal on several fronts. A long list of terrorist individuals and organizations was revised and sent to financial institutions around the U.S. The same information was shared with our allies so they could do the same with their financial institutions. Exports of wallets, money clips and those goofy European man-purse thingys were tightly monitored so terrorists would no longer have as many places to put their money. Cashiers and bank tellers now all have sticky notes at their workstations reminding them not to accept checks from terrorists. Further more, credit card companies were forced to destroy tens of thousands of junk mail solicitations to terrorists, including several hundred that began "Mr. Osama bin Laden, you've been pre-approved ..."

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. has frozen $112 million in terrorist greenbacks since 9-11. That's a lot of ch-ching, but al-Qaeda is still up and operating. That's because what separates al-Qaeda from the countless terrorist organizations that you've never heard of, and what makes hitting it in the wallet so crucial, is its abundant cash. So well-funded is al-Qaeda that it was able to support the governments of Sudan and Afghanistan. Usually it's the terrorists that need government money, not the other way around.

The main challenge that we face in hindering al-Qaeda's moolah is the diversity and location of its sources. Al-Qaeda gets most its do-re-mi from organizations, sugar daddies and otherwise legitimate businesses overseas, where the U.S. government has no direct legal authority to do anything to stop it. Its original source of dough was bin Laden himself. In fact, bin Laden's bling-bling is what made al-Qaeda coalesce with him as its leader. Without the trust fund from his rich dead daddy, bin Laden would have been just another grumpy beard in a fancy bathrobe.

As I'm writing this (but not necessarily as you're reading since, despite my awesome power, I can't actually control when you read the newspaper — not yet anyway) a top U.S. Treasury official is visiting Europe with a list of rich dudes who we believe have given tens of millions to al-Qaeda. Not surprisingly, most of these people live not in Iraq, Iran or North Korea (our Legion of Doom, I mean Axis of Evil, enemies), they live in Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally. According to a recently released report by the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia isn't doing very much to stop its citizens from throwing bills al-Qaeda's way.

If you read carefully, you will have noticed something a little off in the above paragraph. Most of the wealthy backers that we've ID'd are Saudi, yet our Treasury guy is going to Europe. Shouldn't he be going to Saudi Arabia and telling their government, supposedly our allies, who these people are so that they can stop them? Well, of course they should, but our addiction to Saudi oil (and our political system's addiction to oil money) seems to turn President Bush's oft-touted "moral clarity" into mush. Saudi Arabia always has an asterisk by its name when it comes to our firm anti-terrorism stance. Bush's famous words about either being with us or against us should be modified. "You're either with us or against us, unless you're Saudi Arabia; then you can be both."


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