President Bush was swift to react angrily against the New York Times for exposing U.S. monitoring of SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) as a suspected conduit for the transfer of terrorist funds. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese accused the newspaper of giving “aid and comfort to the enemy,” which is tantamount to treason. Belgian and European authorities also reacted angrily against the Bush administration for tapping SWIFT’s Belgian-based supercomputers without the green light of a Belgian judge. The hullabaloo generated much heat and little light.
SWIFT is the heart and lungs of the global banking industry, operating a secure electronic exchange service for fund transfers between some 7,800 banks in 200 countries. The network routes a staggering $6 trillion daily — America’s annual GDP is $10 trillion — between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and all manner of financial institutions. Its banks of supercomputers process orders at the rate of several trillion moves per second.
The National Security Agency’s electronic vacuum cleaners that suck in over a billion bits of information daily, in scores of languages, are the only ones capable of doing the heavy sifting of a gazillion accounts. The New York Times also broke the story of NSA’s global eavesdropping program, which allows NSA’s search engines to browse back to the U.S. and figure out the American end of a conversation with a terrorist suspect in another continent.
The U.S. intelligence community is compelled to obey U.S. laws in the United States, but is authorized to operate illegally in the rest of the world. The SWIFT disclosure case is particularly sensitive in European capitals as the EU and the U.S. are at odds over the way some civil liberties were curtailed in the global war on terrorism. EU has also taken the U.S. to task over the practice of “renditions” and the abduction of suspected terrorists on European soil and then flying them to countries that conduct torture.
SWIFT says it has done nothing wrong by responding to compulsory subpoenas from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department. The electronic clearing house also said it was a transatlantic organization with branches on both sides of the Atlantic. But the nerve center is in Belgium.
Mr. Bush’s denunciation of the New York Times seemed a tad hyperbolic. Transnational terrorists have studiously avoided getting tangled in the ones and zeros of electronic interception in favor of a time-honored, time-tested, interception-proof system known as hawala (Arabic for “transfer” or “wire”). It’s an informal funds transfer (IFT) mechanism, swifter than SWIFT that leaves no paper or digital trail.
It is based entirely on trust between two individuals separated by thousands of miles. Hawala is much faster than a normal bank transfer. Originally devised as protection against the dangers of traveling with gold and precious stones and other forms of payment on roads prowled by bandits, today’s system is transnational.
How would an al Qaeda operative transfer funds from, say, Quetta in Baluchistan, to Queens in New York? He/she would hand a specific amount to a “hawaladar” who then calls a trusted friend at the other end of the transaction to hand over the equivalent amount to the person (man, woman or child) who gives him the coded word or phrase already mentioned, either by e-mail, fax or phone, or VOIP (voice over internet protocol).
Two hawaladars who work together — with two-way traffic — settle up their accounts at the end of a fiscal year. If one owes the other more than he/she transferred, the balance is frequently settled by putting something of value in a bank’s safe deposit box, or in goods and services. Hawaladars charge lower than bank fees and use the exchange rate spread between countries to generate more income. The system is also used for settling debts through import-export transactions.
Hawala transactions are usually initiated by emigrant workers on contract in Saudi Arabia or the emirates of the Gulf to their families in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, or to Muslim communities in the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe. It is fast, efficient, traceless, sans banking fees. Funds are often delivered FedEx-style door-to-door within 24 hours by a hawaladar who has quick access to villages in remote areas.
Hawalas are also based on kinship, ethnic ties, village solidarity and personal relations. Even wealthy parents in developing countries use the system to transfer university tuition fees and pocket money to their children studying in developed countries.
Overlooked in the secret program to keep tabs on the trillions of dollars that whiz through SWIFT in Belgium is the low cost of major al Qaeda and copycat terrorist incidents to date: an estimated $30,000 for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi; $10,000 for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors and immobilized a $1 billion warship for two years with a repair bill of $250 million; $500,000 for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; $50,000 for the attacks on commuter trains in Madrid March 11, 2004; and $35,000 for the 2005 attacks on a London bus and subway train.
Such amounts would have been pepper-corn change among SWIFT’s trillions. For al Qaeda, hawala is fast, reliable and secure.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.