The White House is seeking to ratify a United Nations treaty on the suppression of terrorist financing in its efforts to put teeth into the international crackdown on supporters of the al Qaeda terrorist network.
The treaty was signed by President Clinton in January 2000 and has 71 other signatories, but has been ratified by only a half-dozen countries and was not a high priority for the administration before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In the wake of the attacks, the White House quickly sent Congress legislation to pave the way for ratification. The treaty requires countries to put in place laws that make both terrorism and the funding of terrorism criminal offenses subject to criminal penalties. Countries are encouraged to seize terrorist assets and even use those assets to compensate the victims of terrorism.
“Cutting off the financial flows that feed terrorism requires international cooperation on the broadest scale,” said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who noted a United Nations resolution that the United States pushed through on Sept. 28 also requires states to prevent the financing of terrorist acts.
He said 130 nations have committed to implement that resolution.
Most of America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia already have laws to ferret out terrorists. Switzerland, Germany, France, Britain and other European allies already have taken vigorous action to assist the United States in apprehending the al Qaeda operatives.
Since the attacks, some Third World countries have been moving to enact legislation and take action against terrorism as well. The United Arab Emirates, for example, on Wednesday, blocked the accounts of al Barakaat in Dubai, paralyzing what Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill called the “nerve center” of al Qaeda’s money flows.
Mr. Powell noted that Saudi Arabia recently became the latest nation to ratify the treaty against terrorist financing and has frozen millions in terrorist assets.
The administration recently appointed an experienced diplomat, Ambassador Ted McNamara, to lead efforts around the world to get remaining countries to support the U.N. resolution and treaty. It is working through the Group of Eight and other international organizations to help countries clamp down on terrorist financing. And it is asking the Senate to ratify the treaty, Mr. Powell said.
The United States already has domestic laws enabling enforcement agencies to seize the money and assets of organizations that support terrorism, including the new anti-terrorism law or “Patriot Act” and statutes governing money laundering and racketeering. It drew on those statutes Wednesday in ordering a broad crackdown on companies and individuals said to support the al Qaeda network.
When the United States seizes the assets of a criminal or terrorist organization, it either physically confiscates the property or orders a bank to freeze money in its accounts pending adjudication of the criminal case. Once a bank puts a hold on the funds, the terrorist sympathizers cannot withdraw them or transfer them abroad. They may be unfrozen, however, if a court rules in favor of the suspects.
While the United States has forceful laws to nab terrorists within its borders, that is not the case with all countries. Despite numerous U.N. resolutions, conventions and declarations against terrorism, some countries including many in the Middle East continue to be safe harbors for terrorists and the organizations that finance them.
Among them are Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq. Singled out in Wednesday’s actions as well were Lebanon and Syria, which have refused to go along with the United States’ efforts to designate the Hezbollah anti-Israeli group as a terrorist organization.
Lebanon and Syria contend that Hezbollah, which Washington suspects was behind the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen, is a legitimate freedom-fighting organization that is engaged in battle against Israel for a Palestinian state.
Before Wednesday’s order, Lebanon’s refusal to cooperate with the United States had few practical consequences. But the administration is now stepping up efforts to punish countries that support terrorists, by threatening to impose economic sanctions within U.S. borders and seek U.N. sanctions against uncooperative nations.
Under the U.S. anti-terrorism laws, for example, the Treasury Department may bar Lebanese banks from doing business in the United States, severely crippling the nation’s banking system.
As a result, Lebanon may face a choice between heeding the U.S. request to shut down Hezbollah, or the bankruptcy of its banking system.