- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

Declaring that the United States has "launched a strike on the financial foundation of the global terror network," President George W. Bush opened a new anti-terrorism front on Monday. Mr. Bush issued an executive order requiring U.S. financial institutions to freeze any assets of Osama bin Laden, 11 other individuals and 15 organizations, including three Muslim charities, all of which are suspected of funding terrorist operations.

While nine of the 27 individuals and groups had already been covered by previous executive orders issued by Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999, which have yielded extremely small results, Mr. Bush added a new, important variable to U.S. efforts to "starve the terrorists of funding." Echoing the ultimatum he issued to "every nation in every region" in his speech before a joint session of Congress last week "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" this week Mr. Bush put foreign banks, other foreign financial institutions and their host countries on notice. Unlike the Clinton administration, Mr. Bush openly threatened to enforce "draconian" sanctions not only against foreign banks that fail to cooperate but also against their governments. "We will work with [the banks] governments, ask them to freeze or block terrorists' ability to access funds in foreign accounts," Mr. Bush announced. "If [these governments] fail to help us by sharing information or freezing accounts, the Treasury Department now has the authority to freeze their banks' assets and transactions in the United States."

Given the utter futility of efforts so far to limit bin Laden's access to financing of the terrorist operations of his wide-ranging al-Qaeda network, threatening to apply sanctions against foreign banks and governments was long past due. Nevertheless, merely ratcheting up the sanctions is no panacea. In the first place, al-Qaeda's U.S.-based cells that have carried out Mr. bin Laden's terrorist attacks on American soil run bare-bones operations. These cells depend far more on courier-delivered cash, credit-card fraud and other petty crimes than they do on the $10,000 wire transfers that bank regulators can monitor. Secondly, compared to the once-incomprehensible destruction such operations can produce, the cost of carrying them out is infinitesimal. Indeed, the FBI estimates that the 1993 World Trade Center bombing cost $20,000, while the spectacular destruction of those buildings and the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11 cost as little as $200,000.

Thirdly, looking in the mirror is always a good way to start any investigation. To this end, Hendrik Hertzberg reported in the Sept. 24 issue of the New Yorker that this year the U.S. government gave the Taliban-run Afghanistan government, which has been harboring bin Laden since 1996, a $43 million grant to ban opium production. That grant was given a mere four months ago, or fully five years after bin Laden was implicated in the truck bomb that killed 19 U.S. troops in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and three years after his operatives destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. What's more, as reported by Jerry Seper of The Washington Times today, the Taliban has reversed its position on opium production and is now actively encouraging its farmers to plant poppies not a reverberating policy success, one would say.

Moreover, there's another "delicate" issue confronting Mr. Bush. In threatening to apply sanctions against foreign governments and their banks, Mr. Bush surely knows that the governments most likely to be affected by the stricter policy will be Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf region. The new policy will also affect Pakistan's Islamic government, which has been the Taliban's strongest ally. In other words, the most precarious and, arguably, the most indispensable members of the international coalition Mr. Bush is assembling are also the very states that have been the source of much of bin Laden's funding.

Indeed, in an attempt to appease fundamentalists, the Saudi government alone contributes an estimated $10 billion annually to Islamic organizations. A portion of those funds surely finds its way to the bin Laden network. Moreover, millions of additional dollars flood into bin Laden's coffers each year from wealthy Saudi businessmen, who gladly donate their money knowing full well that it amounts to "protection" money. Meanwhile, a sizable amount of the donations made each Friday by congregations in Saudi Arabia's mosques finances extremist Islamic groups, including al-Qaeda. The Saudi government has also been a financier of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which offered bin Laden a safe haven after he was expelled by Sudan in 1996. Even disgruntled members of the Saudi royal family reportedly contribute directly to bin Laden's network. And, of course, other wealthy Islamic donors and "charities" from other "moderate" allies also willingly underwrite the terror operations of al-Qaeda.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why Mr. Bush's list of organizations specifically excluded Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two Palestinian terrorist groups that have dispatched suicide bombers throughout Israel during the current intifada. During Mr. Bush's father's first term as vice president, Islamic Jihad was responsible for detonating car and truck bombs throughout Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines, scores of American embassy personnel and virtually the entire CIA Middle East contingent. Mr. Bush's list also excluded Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization financed by Iran and Syria. Terrorist experts assert that all three groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have links to bin Laden's terrorist network. Including them on Mr. Bush's list, however, would have upset Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other "moderate" Islamic regimes, to say nothing of Iran and Syria all of whom the Bush administration seeks to enroll as good-standing members of the international coalition he is assembling.

As distasteful as it is, excluding such murderous groups as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah from Mr. Bush's executive order may be explained by overriding geopolitical considerations. But in doing so, the president diminishes the moral cause he so eloquently expressed in his speech before Congress last week. "Our war on terror," the president declared, "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." Surely, he did not mean to give the likes of Hamas a free pass in perpetuity, especially given their professed determination to obliterate Israel, regardless of whatever peace treaty Yasser Arafat, the grandfather of all Middle East terrorism, might one day sign with Israel. The international coalition is essential for the task ahead. But if it is fragile at the outset of the lengthy war Mr. Bush envisions, how well and how long will it hold up when the bombs start falling?

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