Tracking Terrorist Money: U.S. Asks Countries to Freeze Assets of "Mr. Miller"
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and PATRICK J. McDONNELL, TIMES STAFF WRITERS
"Gulf bankers have greeted the U.S. lists with a mixture of anger, amusement and confusion. The lack of detail has slowed the identification process and caused some bank officials to be hesitant in ordering accounts frozen without better identification. 'It's like saying, 'Freeze the accounts of Mr. Miller in the USA,' Al Suweidi said. 'There might be a million of them.'"
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Oct. 20 --
A probe of the financial backing of the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the United States has led to bank accounts held by two suspected terrorists and a gleaming silver-and-granite exchange house in a grimy neighborhood of this freewheeling Persian Gulf commercial center.
The investigation of the money trail leading to the United Arab Emirates focuses on Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two of the suspected plot leaders. Both held bank accounts here before they came to the United States, and they were among three suspected hijackers who wired about $15,000 in cash to the currency exchange on the eve of the attacks.
Less than seven hours before the first doomed jetliner was commandeered, the cash transfers were claimed by a man widely suspected of being the conspiracy's paymaster, who then left for Pakistan. The most intriguing financial records uncovered here belong to Atta, the man suspected of coordinating the Sept. 11 attacks. Atta, an Egyptian, maintained an account at a local Citibank branch, according to senior Emirates officials. Al-Shehhi, a native of the Emirates, had an account at a local branch of London-based HSBC Holdings.
Though declining to release details, Sultan bin Nasser al Suweidi, head of the central bank here, said Atta's account was "busier" than normal, with frequent transfers of $10,000 to $15,000. He also said the traffic in the account would provide investigators with a money trail.
"It is easy in our system to know exactly where the transfers are coming from," Al Suweidi said. "The investigators and the FBI, they have everything."
Al-Shehhi's account, in contrast, never held much money, according to the banking officials.
Welcome Break for U.S. Investigators
Details of the transfers into Atta's account or of final destinations of the wire transfers could provide a welcome break for U.S. investigators, who generally have been frustrated in their efforts to track terrorist finances in the Gulf region.
The challenges are obvious in Dubai, capital of one of the seven loosely affiliated former sheikdoms that make up the Emirates. One-room exchange houses jostle one another on city streets, some of them advertising that they can send $1 million in cash anywhere in the world in 30 minutes. Ancient wooden dhows that line the creek running through the city's center testify to a long tradition of smuggling across the Persian Gulf.
The Emirates government was the biggest shareholder of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, which was broken up in 1991 for its links with drug dealers and terrorist groups.
U.S. officials say Gulf states want to help in the terror investigation but face obstacles.
"I would not come to the conclusion that there's not an eagerness to help out," said one U.S. official familiar with the region. "There's just an unfamiliarity about what to do."
Gulf banking systems lack adequate money-laundering laws, manpower and equipment. Some banks are having to hand-search thousands of files.
Compounding the problem is the skimpy information provided by the United States in some cases. A list of suspected terrorists whose assets the U.S. has ordered frozen is short some crucial details.
Transfers Linked to Bin Laden Associate
Both the Al-Shehhi and Atta accounts here were closed well before the Sept. 11 attacks. Atta closed his account and transferred the money to a U.S. bank about the time he and Al-Shehhi arrived in the United States in the summer of 2000.
The money trail to the Emirates just before the Sept. 11 attacks consisted of wire transfers to a man identified as Mustafa Ahmad, thought to be a financial officer in Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Al-Shehhi wired $5,400 to Ahmad, also known as Shaykh Saiid, shortly before noon on Sept. 10 from a Western Union office at the Greyhound bus terminal in Boston, according to an investigative document obtained by The Times.
Separately, suspected hijacker Waleed M. Alshehri sent $5,215 to Ahmad from a currency booth at Boston's Logan Airport on the evening of Sept. 9.
Finally, Atta wired money to Ahmad on Sept. 8 and 9. The document is unclear on the amounts, but Al Suweidi said it was like the others, about $5,000.
Ahmad picked up the transfers on Sept. 11 from the Al Ansari exchange in Sharja, the main city of one of the northern emirates. The same day, Ahmad used a Saudi Arabian passport to fly from Dubai to Pakistan, Emirates officials have said.
A manager at the exchange just off the main strip in a grimy section of Sharja declined comment. The area is best known for being one of the most conservative areas of the Emirates, embracing an orthodox form of Islam similar to that practiced by the Saudis.
The investigative document indicates that Ahmad retrieved the funds at about 1:15 a.m. Boston time. Atta, Al-Shehhi and Alshehri were aboard two separate flights that departed Boston just hours later.
President Bush has issued two lists of alleged terrorists with links to Bin Laden, ordering banks worldwide to freeze all accounts associated with 66 companies, individuals and charities.
Some of the names on the U.S. list are exceedingly common, and although Treasury officials have added crucial details such as birth dates for some, they do not have specific information for everyone named. Gulf bankers have greeted the U.S. lists with a mixture of anger, amusement and confusion.
The lack of detail has already caused trouble. One bank in the United Arab Emirates froze 10 accounts belonging to people who had names similar to those on the U.S. lists. Al Suweidi, head of the central bank, had to personally call the bank and order them to unfreeze the accounts.
Name Translations Cause Problems
Another issue is that all of the names were submitted in English. Since no universal transliteration system into Arabic exists, banks have been left wondering exactly how to best render the names.
The problems have slowed the identification process and caused some bank officials to be hesitant in ordering accounts frozen without better identification.
"It's like saying, 'Freeze the accounts of Mr. Miller in the USA,' " Al Suweidi said. "There might be a million of them."
Muslim charities here also worry that the U.S. has not done enough to differentiate between legitimate charitable groups and those listed as having helped funnel money to Bin Laden.
Though a decrease in donations has not been reported, some charities are considering curtailing overseas work for fear of becoming accidentally involved in a blacklisted project. Others are tightening regulations to ensure that every dollar sent abroad goes to mainstream Muslim groups working on legitimate charity efforts.
Dar al Bar charity in Dubai, one of the oldest in the Emirates, has a proud history of building hospitals, digging wells and providing education to less fortunate Muslims.
Working out of a mosque tucked behind a honey store on a crowded street, the leaders fret about whether the image of legitimate Muslim charities may be tainted. One worker pulled out a copy of a booklet that Dar al Bar will soon publish. The title: 'Terrorism Is Rejected."
"The problem is when everything gets mixed up and the West doesn't discriminate between Islamic militants and true Islam. That's what worries us," said Sheik Abou Abdullah, who heads the charity.
Despite the wealth flowing through them, the Emirates, like most Gulf countries, lack a law to specifically criminalize money laundering.
"This wasn't important nine or 10 years ago," said the chief of police in Dubai, Maj. Gen. Dhahi Khalifan Tamim. "It wasn't thought of as a crime."
That attitude was in the process of changing before Sept. 11, with most of the countries working to pass money-laundering laws by year's end. Now, the U.S. is pressuring for legislation, implementation and the hiring of investigators before January.
Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates should at least have legislation enacted by that time. Bahrain, an offshore banking center, already has a law in place. Saudi Arabia will have one soon. In the meantime, the countries are rushing to implement temporary measures.
New regulations promulgated in the Emirates since the attack require any transfer of more than $545 to include photo identity cards, addresses and extensive paperwork.
The Emirates are also in the process of creating a computer system that will scan every transaction against the U.S. terrorist list and warn if a suspected terrorist is trying to wire any amount of money or open any bank account.
Finally, Emirates officials are increasing the number of financial intelligence officers--essentially bank spies who will check out customers' backgrounds--to 12 from eight. The number doesn't sound like much, but on a per capita basis, Emirates bank officials claim, they will have more officers than the Swiss.
"They want to be on the right side of this issue," said the U.S. official. "If they want to be part of the developing economic world, they can't be seen in any way as opposing this."
Still, the rush to impose the new regulations has not been without questions.
Without prior knowledge of the suspected terrorists' identities, neither the new money-laundering laws nor tightened transfer restrictions would have stopped the transactions in Atta's Emirates bank account or the wire transfers just before the Sept. 11 attacks.
And there is still the traditional informal hawala system of transferring money that exists in many Muslim countries. Based on an honor system between dealers, it leaves no paper trail.
"You can go anywhere in the world and send money. There are loopholes everywhere," said Abdulla bin Khalid Atliya, head of the banking system in Qatar, a Gulf state near the Emirates. "It doesn't matter for a criminal. He'll get the money one way or the other."
Times staff writers Lisa Getter, Bob Drogin and Eric Lichtblau in Washington and William C. Rempel in Los Angeles contributed to this report.