US helpless, millions flow from Mideast to terrorists

Washington: Nine years after the US vowed to shut down the money pipeline that finances terrorism, senior Obama administration officials say they believe that many millions of dollars are flowing largely unimpeded to extremist groups worldwide, and they have grown frustrated by frequent resistance from allies in the Middle East, according to secret diplomatic dispatches.

The government cables, sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and senior State Department officials, catalog a long list of methods that American officials suspect terrorist financiers are using, from a brazen armed bank robbery in Yemen last year to kidnappings for ransom, drug proceeds in Afghanistan and annual religious pilgrimages to Mecca.

While American officials in their public statements have been relatively upbeat about their progress in disrupting terrorist financing, the internal State Department cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, offer a more pessimistic account, with blunt assessments of the threat to the US from money flowing to militants affiliated with the al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Toiba and other groups.

A classified memo sent by Clinton last December made it clear that residents of Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, all allies of the US, are the chief financial supporters of many extremist activities. "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide", the cable said.

The dispatch and others offered similarly grim views about the United Arab Emirates ("a strategic gap" that terrorists can exploit), Qatar ("the worst in the region" on counter-terrorism) and Kuwait ("a key transit point"). The cable stressed the need to "generate the political will necessary" to block money to terrorist networks.

While President George W Bush frequently vowed to cut off financing for militants and pledged to make financiers as culpable as terrorists, President Obama has sought to adopt a more conciliatory tone with Arab nations. But his administration has used many of the same covert diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement tools as his predecessor and set up a special task force in the summer of 2009.

But as the US has pushed for more aggressive crackdowns on suspected supporters of terrorism, foreign leaders have pushed back. In private meetings, they have accused American officials of heavy-handedness and of presenting thin evidence of wrongdoing by Arab charities or individuals.

The documents are filled with secret government intelligence on possible terrorist-financing plots, like the case of a Somali preacher who was reportedly touring Sweden, Finland and Norway last year to look for money and recruits for the Shabab, a militant group in Somalia; or that of a Pakistani driver caught with about $240,000 worth of Saudi riyals stuffed behind his seat.

One memo even reported on a possible plot by the Iranians to launder $5 billion to $10 billion in cash through the Emirates' banks as part of a broader effort to "stir up trouble" among the Persian Gulf states, though it was not clear how much of the money might be channelled to militants.

One episode that set off particular concern occurred in August 2009 in Yemen, when armed robbers stormed a bank truck on a busy downtown street in Aden during daylight hours and stole 100 million Yemeni riyals, or about $500,000. American diplomats said the sophistication of the robbery and other indicators had all the markings of a Qaeda mission. "This bold, unusual operation" could provide the al-Qaeda "with a substantial financing infusion at a time when it is thought to be short of cash", a dispatch summarising the episode said.

The al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is seen as a rising threat by the US and was blamed for a parcel bomb plot in October and the failed attempt to blow up a jetliner last December 25.

"Terrorists avoid money transfer controls by transferring amounts below reporting thresholds and using reliable cash couriers, hawala, and money grams," a recent cable warned. "Emerging trends include mobile banking, pre-paid cards, and Internet banking."

Saudi Arabia emerges in the cables as the most vexing of problems. Clinton's memo two months earlier said the al-Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups "probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources, often during Hajj and Ramadan".

The United States Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reported in February that the Saudi authorities remained "almost completely dependent on the C.I.A." for leads and direction on terrorist financing.

In conversations last week, Obama administration officials said that since the latest cable released from WikiLeaks, from February 2010, the Saudis had made notable progress, including the arrests of some major donors to terrorist groups. Despite such pledges of cooperation between the countries, tensions have occasionally flared.

In 2007, a senior Bush administration official, Frances Fragos Townsend, told her Saudi counterparts in Riyadh that Bush was "quite concerned" about the level of cooperation from the Saudis on terrorist financing. Townsend questioned whether the kingdom's ambassador to the Philippines, Mohammed Ameen Wali, might be involved in supporting terrorism because of his involvement with two people suspected of being financiers, the summary said.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, challenged the assertion, however, saying the ambassador might be guilty of "bad judgment rather than intentional support for terrorism", and he countered with an assertion of his own: an unnamed American bank handling the Saudi Embassy's money in Washington was performing unnecessary audits and asking "inappropriate and aggressive questions".

Saudi leaders also appear resigned to the situation, according to the cables. "We are trying to do our best," Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who leads the Saudis' anti-terrorism activities, was quoted as telling Richard Holbrooke, the special representative of the US to the region, in a May 2009 meeting. But, he said, "if money wants to go" to terrorist causes, "it will go."

Source: The Indian Express
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