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Bogus charities financed attacks

July 1, 1993

Bogus charities financed attacks

By Joe Baker

Bogus charities financed attacks

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

Osama bin Laden has been collecting funds for his terrorist activities through a series of fake charities, according to a report in The London Times.

The Times said the first clues to the operation were disclosed during a terrorist trial in Manhattan, but U.S. investigators missed it at the time.

The trial was that of four men who were convicted last May of the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa. Buried deep in the hundreds of pages of testimony, The Times said, was evidence of how bin Laden’s network used bogus charities to raise millions of dollars.

Bin Laden supporters operated a web of these charities and funneled the proceeds to Islamic fundamentalist organizations around the world. The Times said Muslim communities are unaware they are being fooled.

During the trial in New York, there was evidence from Saudi Arabia showing how, more than 10 years ago, a billionaire banker, Sheikh Khalid bin Mafouz, was sending charitable donations to bin Laden through banks and other financial institutions in America and the United Kingdom, according to The Times.

The sheikh later was indicted in the U.S. for fraud. He is alleged to have entertained bin Laden at his 200-acre Georgian mansion in Buckinghamshire in the UK. The sheikh was forced to retire from his banking interests and is in a Saudi military hospital, The Times said.

The newspaper report said some of the charities involved in the scam have been operating for 20 years. They began raising cash during the Afghans’ fight against the Russians. No one noticed then that bin Laden and his loosely allied associates had hijacked the aid groups. Only now are the FBI, U.S. Treasury Department and other government agencies trying to determine how bin Laden pays for the network.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told NBC: “We are also focusing on some of the so-called humanitarian, charitable, non-governmental organizations that raise money. If we can trace any of that money to terrorist activities subsequently, we really have to go after these kinds of organizations as well.”

Prosecutors, said The Times, have told of a Muslim clergyman in Arlington, Texas, who ran a charity called “Help Africa People,” together with one of the men convicted, Wadih el-Hage. The state said el-Hage was formerly private secretary to bin Laden.

Prosecutors said the purported charity was based in Nairobi, Africa, and was a front for the cell that took part in the U.S. embassy bombing. At the time, there was no investigation of its continuing links with a number of U.S. cities for collecting money.

The Times said intelligence agents knew from the early 1990s that Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri, said to be bin Laden’s deputy, was visiting the U.S., using a fake passport and one of his many aliases to conduct fundraising tours.

The paper said Dr. al-Zawahri called on mosques and Islamic centers in Texas, New York and California claiming he was collecting money for Afghan widows and orphans.

More recently, according to The Times, Islamic terrorist groups have used the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia and Chechnya as fronts for their charitable appeals.

A spokesman for Britain’s Charity Commissioners said: “The trouble is, people seldom ask for proof that charities are registered before they put their money in the collecting tins.”

Experts are saying that tracking bin Laden’s money trail is far harder than trying to track the man himself. Michael Zeldin, former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s money laundering section, said following the funds to bin Laden is “like trying to solve a 10,000-piece puzzle when most of the pieces are white.”

The Times said the FBI and Scotland Yard have begun trying to unravel a string of offshore companies and banks that launder charitable contributions and personal donations from wealthy Gulf supporters.

It’s believed the terrorists are using the unofficial money exchange system in the Gulf and the Indian subcontinent, known among the peoples of the region as “hamwala.” Cash given to money dealers in London and elsewhere is made available thousands of miles away simply by sending a fax.

A banking expert in London commented: “Even the little we know about fundraising shows us al-Qaeda is not an organization run by one man, but a global Islamist ‘Internet,’ with access points around the world. It has a worldwide operational reach and is better-run financially than many companies you find on the stock exchange.”

The attacks on America were not only the most ambitious but the most expensive operation ever undertaken by al-Qaeda. An unconfirmed report has made a conservative estimate that it cost the terrorist network $5.6 million to carry out.

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