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U.S.: Analysts Say Financial Crackdown Valuable

  • Andrew Tully

As it mounts its campaign against terrorism, the U.S. has been positioning its forces around the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea area. On the diplomatic front, it has been seeking the help of other nations. Now Washington hopes to bring financial pressure on Osama bin Laden, whom it blames for the terror attacks in the United States on 11 September.

Washington, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the two weeks since terrorists mounted spectacular attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September, U.S. President George W. Bush has said the American response will not be limited to military action.

Yesterday, Bush outlined a financial crackdown -- not only on Osama bin Laden and his organization, Al-Qaeda, but also on 25 other accused terrorists, their groups, and organizations linked to them.

The president said the U.S. Treasury will freeze any assets of these groups and individuals that are in American banks. He conceded that these funds probably do not amount to much, so he demanded that other nations do the same. If not, he said, the American assets and transactions of their banks will be frozen in the United States.

"We are putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice: We will work with their governments, ask them to freeze or block terrorists ability to access funds in foreign accounts. If they fail to help us by sharing information or freezing accounts, the Department of the Treasury now has the authority to freeze their bank's assets and transactions in the United States."

Bush said he understands that some European countries would probably need to rewrite their laws to meet the conditions for freezing these assets. He said his administration would respond on a "case-by-case basis" in determining whether a given government was cooperating with the U.S. effort.

Bush's list includes bin Laden himself, of course, whom the U.S. has identified as the man responsible for the attacks that leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, severely damaged America's Defense Department headquarters, and, according to the latest estimates, killed almost 7,000 people. It also includes his multinational organization, Al-Qaeda.

The list also names the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a suspected terrorist group associated with bin Laden; Ayman Al-Wasahri of Egypt, bin Laden's deputy; and two groups described as charitable organizations: Wafa, a Saudi group operating in Afghanistan, and Al Rashid Trust, based in Pakistan.

The terrorists who attacked the U.S. needed money to establish themselves in the country, to pay for flying lessons, and to meet other expenses. News reports, quoting intelligence and law enforcement officials, say those responsible for the recent attacks were just a few of the many terrorists living in America and awaiting order to carry out further acts of terror.

Therefore, money is essential for terrorists to carry out their missions, according to Frank Cilluffo, the director of the Global Organized Crime Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy institute in Washington. He told RFE/RL that Bush's financial crackdown could be one of several effective approaches the U.S. can take in fighting terrorism.

"I think it's a tool we have in our tool kit that needs to be brought to bear to this campaign. In itself it's not going to be sufficient, but in conjunction with other means of combating terrorism, yes, I think it will play a role."

But Cilluffo stresses that this initiative has its limits. He says bin Laden and his organization, Al-Qaeda, move money around the world in many ways.

"They use very high-tech means, and they use very rudimentary, low-tech means, such as through the underground banking system of the Middle East. They also are engaged in the barter trade -- drugs for weapons."

Michael Moore is an associate professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. He says Bush's warning about freezing foreign banks' assets in the U.S. could be very effective from a public relations point of view.

"I would presume that the U.S. would publicize the names of those banks so that the governments and the banks would have to explicitly refuse to cooperate. I mean, I cannot imagine that they [U.S. officials] would hesitate to identify the banks where these funds are being held."

In fact, Moore says, he would be surprised if this threat alone does not persuade even more foreign governments to cooperate with the U.S. in both the financial and other options in the campaign.

Moore agrees with Cilluffo that striking at terrorists' financial resources cannot be effective on its own. But he says that combined with diplomatic, military, and other means, it can yield important benefits.

"My sense of this is, what they [the U.S.] want to try and do is just disrupt everything that they're [terrorists are] doing."

According to Moore, the financial crackdown will force terrorists to deal with their money in entirely different way, and probably to move their bases of operations. Ultimately, he says, this will make the terrorists more vulnerable to other U.S. options -- including military attacks.

There is a risk in Bush's policy, however, according to Anna Nelson, a professor of history at American University in Washington who specializes in national security. Nelson told RFE/RL that some countries may decided to withdraw their investments from America -- at a time when the U.S. economy cannot afford further setbacks.

"I don't think that countries would put up with our trying to freeze their assets in the United States. I think there would be a great outflow of capital [from the U.S.]."

Nelson says most European countries with mainstream banking systems are likely to cooperate with Bush's crackdown without threats. Others -- including some friendly Middle Eastern countries -- may simply ignore Bush's demand. And, she says, Bush probably knows he cannot really expect cooperation from these governments.

Therefore, Nelson says, yesterday's announcement may have been designed less as a challenge to foreign bankers. Rather, she suggests, it may really be a message to the American people -- that their government is acting resourcefully -- and at the terrorists themselves -- that the U.S. will use every weapon it has to bring them to justice.

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