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Shareholders in the Bank of Terror?

A pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished list reveals that back­ers of a bank that the U.S. says helped fund al-Qai­da include promi­nent mem­bers of the Arab world.

by Lucy Komis­ar

SALON.COM [1]

Mar. 15, 2002 | Accord­ing to an unpub­lished list obtained by Salon, the Al Taqwa bank, part of a net­work of finan­cial com­pa­nies named by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion as a major source and dis­trib­u­tor of funds for Osama bin Laden’s ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions, has share­hold­ers that include promi­nent Arab fig­ures from numer­ous coun­tries in the Mid­dle East. Among the share­hold­ers are the grand mufti of the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates and promi­nent fam­i­lies in the UAE and Kuwait. Two sis­ters of Osama bin Laden are also on the list, under­min­ing the bin Laden fam­i­ly’s claim that it sep­a­rat­ed itself from his ter­ror­ist pur­suits after he was expelled from Sau­di Ara­bia in 1994.

Ahmed Huber, a Swiss direc­tor of the bank who is a rad­i­cal Islamist and Hitler admir­er, acknowl­edged in 1995 that wealthy Sau­di Ara­bi­ans were large con­trib­u­tors to the Al Taqwa bank. The just-revealed list of share­hold­ers demon­strates fur­ther con­nec­tions between impor­tant indi­vid­u­als in mod­er­ate Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries and a finan­cial net­work alleged­ly vital to bin Laden.

The FBI may have known who the share­hold­ers were for as long as four years. There is also evi­dence that Swiss author­i­ties have since the mid-1990s refused to coop­er­ate with inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence inquiries into the bank’s activ­i­ties. Swiss offi­cials have said they were aware of reports that Al Taqwa was con­nect­ed to ter­ror­ist groups, but there was nev­er suf­fi­cient evi­dence to mer­it a search war­rant.

The names appear on an unpub­lished share­hold­ers reg­is­ter of “Bank Al Taqwa” that reflects hold­ings as of Decem­ber 1999. Bank Al Taqwa is based in the Bahamas; the Al Taqwa group (which changed its name to Nada Man­age­ment Orga­ni­za­tion a year ago, after author­i­ties began an inves­ti­ga­tion into its deal­ings) is head­quar­tered in Lugano, Switzer­land. In Novem­ber, the U.S. named the Al Taqwa net­work a fun­nel for Bin Laden’s al-Qai­da finan­cial net­work. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the bank have denied any involve­ment in ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties.

The list has been con­firmed as authen­tic by both U.S. offi­cials and Al Taqwa. Michele Davis, spokes­woman for the Trea­sury Depart­ment, was shown the doc­u­ments on March 13 and acknowl­edged, “We have the list. We are doing the same as you — try­ing to find out who these peo­ple are.” There are 745 names on the 18-page reg­is­ter.

Al Taqwa pres­i­dent Youssef Moustafa Nada, one of sev­er­al top bank offi­cials who was put on the U.S. “sup­port­ers of ter­ror­ism” list in Novem­ber, also con­firmed the verac­i­ty of the list. “It is gen­uine,” he said in a phone inter­view. “You can ask Mr. Nicati [the Swiss deputy attor­ney gen­er­al]. He inves­ti­gat­ed all these things four months ago. The FBI knows since 1997. I talked to them.”

Nada has vehe­ment­ly denied fund­ing bin Laden.

Includ­ed on the list are Yousuf Abdul­lah Al-Qaradawi, the grand mufti of the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, and five mem­bers of his fam­i­ly; Mari­am Al-Sheikh A. Bin Aziz Al-Mubarak of a branch of the Kuwaiti roy­al fam­i­ly; and mem­bers of the promi­nent Khal­ifeh fam­i­ly of the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates. Sis­ters Huta and Iman Bin­laden, who live in Sau­di Ara­bia, and Has­san el-Ban­na, a leader of the Egypt­ian Moslem Broth­er­hood group, are also list­ed.

Al Taqwa was a so-called “hawala” oper­a­tion (an infor­mal word-of-mouth sys­tem that keeps no records and relies on trust) that facil­i­tat­ed trans­fers of cash between agents world­wide. The bank also used cor­re­spon­dent accounts — accounts that banks have in oth­er banks — to trans­mit cash to its agents.

In Octo­ber, Swiss Attor­ney Gen­er­al Valen­tine Roschacher said he’d received names from the FBI and they were being checked, but said no evi­dence of any wrong­do­ing had been found. He added, “It’s dif­fi­cult for us to get infor­ma­tion.” Swiss banks are pro­tect­ed by strin­gent secre­cy laws, and the hawala sys­tem makes ascer­tain­ing the exact nature of Al Taqwa’s trans­ac­tions even more dif­fi­cult.

One Amer­i­can law enforce­ment offi­cial who was shown the list rec­og­nized names of mem­bers of the mil­i­tant Pales­tin­ian orga­ni­za­tion Hamas, which is on the State Depart­men­t’s list of ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, among the share­hold­ers. Addi­tion­al pub­licly acces­si­ble records show that some of the bank’s share­hold­ers are con­nect­ed to orga­ni­za­tions West­ern intel­li­gence offi­cials link to al-Qai­da.

Al Taqwa has been viewed with sus­pi­cion by West­ern intel­li­gence sources for years. In the mid-1990s, the Ital­ian anti-ter­ror­ist agency DIGOS (Divi­sion of Gen­er­al Intel­li­gence and Spe­cial Oper­a­tions), con­cerned about rad­i­cal Islam­ic activ­i­ty at the Islam­ic Cul­tur­al Insti­tu­tion of Milan, found links to Al Taqwa. In 1995, accord­ing to jour­nal­ists Pao­lo Fusi and Mar­tin Stoll in the Swiss newsweek­ly Facts, DIGOS told Swiss fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tor Car­la Del Ponte, “The Nada group com­pris­es the most impor­tant finan­cial struc­ture of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and Islam­ic ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions.” The newsweek­ly said the agency lat­er report­ed that Swiss offi­cials appeared loath to look into Nada’s oper­a­tions.

Includ­ed in the list of share­hold­ers of Al Taqwa are bank founder and direc­tor Ahmed Idriss Nasred­din, an Ethiopi­an who worked for the Bin­laden Group (the bin Laden fam­i­ly’s con­struc­tion com­pa­ny) and was hon­orary con­sul of Kuwait in Milan, board mem­ber of the Islam­ic Cen­ter of Milan and pres­i­dent of the Islam­ic Com­mu­ni­ty of Tici­no. Oth­ers are Sante (Abdul­wa­hab) Cic­carel­lo, direc­tor of the Islam­ic Cul­tur­al Cen­ter in Milan, and Kaldoun Dia Eddine, pres­i­dent of the Com­mit­tee to Aid Refugees of Bosnia-Herze­gov­ina and sec­re­tary of the Islam­ic Com­mu­ni­ty of Tici­no.

In 1996 DIGOS became sus­pi­cious that human­i­tar­i­an help to Bosnia orga­nized by Nasred­din in Milan was being skimmed. The amount the char­i­ty sent did­n’t coin­cide with what it raised. Accord­ing to the U.S. inves­ti­ga­tions into the 1998 attacks on the Amer­i­can embassies in Kenya and Tan­za­nia, the Milan cen­ter was also a gath­er­ing place for recruits to an alQai­da train­ing camp in Afghanistan.

Accord­ing to Facts, a 1996 DIGOS report said Al Taqwa han­dled financ­ing for a num­ber of Arab and Islam­ic polit­i­cal and mil­i­tant groups, includ­ing the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Orga­ni­za­tion, Hamas, the Alger­ian Armed Islam­ic Group (GIA) and the Egypt­ian Gama’a al-Islamiya, as well as for­mer Afghan muja­hedin in bin Laden’s camps. It said the net­work aid­ed ter­ror­ist groups in Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, Jor­dan, Lebanon and Sudan.

The week­ly Facts also report­ed that in 1997 DIGOS asked for Swiss help. Del Ponte (who is now lead­ing the U.N.‘s pros­e­cu­tion of for­mer Yugosla­vian Pres­i­dent Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic for war crimes) start­ed ques­tion­ing Al Taqwa offi­cials. Nada’s attor­ney, Pier Felice Barchi, in whose law firm Del Ponte had worked, recalled to Facts how he end­ed the inves­ti­ga­tion. Barchi said, “When I learned about the Ital­ian inquiry, I imme­di­ate­ly called Del Ponte and said to her, ‘Hey, Car­lot­ta, stop this shit.’ A few hours lat­er, the non­sense was off the table.”

Barchi told Salon his true remark was, “Please, Mrs. Del Ponte, make an inquiry.” He said, “After 20 or 30 days, Mrs. Del Ponte said it’s not nec­es­sary to make an inquiry; there’s no evi­dence against Mr. Nada.” He said he had­n’t asked Facts for a cor­rec­tion because “I have oth­er things to do.” Del Pon­te’s press spokesman declined to respond to a detailed query.

Al Taqwa has for years enjoyed pro­tec­tion in Switzer­land, where it moves mon­ey through cor­re­spon­dent accounts in the polit­i­cal­ly influ­en­tial Ban­ca del Got­tar­do, also in Lugano. Got­tar­do pres­i­dent Clau­dio Gen­er­ali is a local vice pres­i­dent of the rul­ing Lib­er­al Rad­i­cal Par­ty and a for­mer finance min­is­ter of Tici­no. Got­tar­do has Ne
w York cor­re­spon­dent accounts in Citibank and the Bank of New York, which gave Al Taqwa entry into the U.S. Reply­ing to numer­ous queries about Got­tar­do activ­i­ties, spokesman Fran­co Rogan­ti­ni sent an e‑mail declin­ing to answer queries, then or in the future.