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Terror’s Cash Flow

Is Al Taqwa, A Shad­owy Finan­cial Net­work, A Secret Mon­ey Machine For Osama Bin Laden?

by Mark Hosen­ball

In neo-Nazi cir­cles, 74-year-old Albert Huber is some­thing of a celebri­ty. The retired Swiss jour­nal­ist gives talks to far-right groups around the world, con­demn­ing Zion­ists and argu­ing that the Holo­caust was exag­ger­at­ed. Over the past two decades he made reg­u­lar trips to the Unit­ed States, lec­tur­ing at Aryan youth and Nation of Islam meet­ings. Huber’s rants are espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar among rad­i­cal Mus­lims. Born a Chris­t­ian, the blue-eyed, sil­ver-haired Huber con­vert­ed to Islam in the 1960s. He now calls him­self Ahmad, and preach­es that neo-Nazis and Mus­lims should join ranks to defeat Israel. “The Unit­ed States is now con­trolled by a small Jew­ish fac­tion,” he says. “We are mak­ing a link between Islam­ic move­ments and the New Right in Europe.” The late Iran­ian dic­ta­tor Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni was so impressed with his the­o­ries that Huber was once invit­ed to sit at his feet at a gath­er­ing in Tehran. More recent­ly, Huber says he has been approached at Islam­ic con­fer­ences by peo­ple intro­duced as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Osama bin Laden.

Gar­ru­lous and sur­pris­ing­ly friend­ly, Huber is unapolo­getic about the atten­tion bin Laden’s sup­port­ers give him. But despite his extreme beliefs–he described the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks as “coun­tert­er­ror against Amer­i­can-Israeli terror”–he claims he has no per­son­al ties to ter­ror­ists. Inter­na­tion­al inves­ti­ga­tors think oth­er­wise. Late last year the Unit­ed States put him on a list of peo­ple sus­pect­ed of financ­ing ter­ror­ism. Huber served on the board of Al Taqwa, a shad­owy finan­cial net­work that, they say, hid mon­ey for bin Laden and oth­er inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ists and helped to fund their oper­a­tions.

Inves­ti­ga­tors on bin Laden’s trail had known of Al Taqwa’s exis­tence for years. But the group’s maze­like struc­ture made it hard to track, and the Feds con­sid­ered it a low pri­or­i­ty. Not any­more. With­in hours of the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks, a senior offi­cial told NEWSWEEK, Pres­i­dent George W. Bush ordered his nation­al-secu­ri­ty team to seize bin Laden’s cash. “I want their mon­ey,” the pres­i­dent demand­ed. “I want it now. I want to hurt them.” In Novem­ber the Trea­sury Depart­ment froze the assets of Al Taqwa, Huber and most of the net­work’s oth­er lead­ers. Short­ly there­after, it went into liq­ui­da­tion.

Taqwa offi­cials strong­ly deny that they have any con­nec­tion with ter­ror­ists. But after months of prob­ing, the Feds say they have evi­dence that Al Taqwa pro­vid­ed sup­port to bin Laden both before and after Sep­tem­ber 11. A NEWSWEEK investigation–including inter­views with U.S. and Euro­pean law-enforce­ment agents and top Taqwa officials–reveals how bin Laden’s sus­pect­ed bankers kept the cash flow­ing, and how they man­aged to stay for so long beneath the radar.

Al Taqwa, which means “Fear of God,” was launched in the late 1980s by lead­ers of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, a secret soci­ety devot­ed to the cre­ation of a world­wide Islam­ic gov­ern­ment. The Broth­er­hood want­ed to cre­ate a finan­cial insti­tu­tion in which devout Mus­lims could invest their mon­ey. It would oper­ate under strict Islam­ic law, which pro­hibits banks from charg­ing inter­est. But inves­ti­ga­tors believe the con­vo­lut­ed struc­ture of Al Taqwa made it easy to use as a mon­ey-laun­der­ing mech­a­nism. Al Taqwa had no offices. The entire oper­a­tion con­sist­ed of four men work­ing at com­put­ers in a small apart­ment in Lugano, Switzer­land. Lugano, which sits near the Ital­ian bor­der, is a kind of Alpine Tijua­na, well known as a haven for tax evaders and mon­ey laun­der­ers.

Al Taqwa’s founders made oth­er sus­pi­cious moves–registering the net­work as an off­shore bank in the Bahamas, where secre­cy laws would pro­tect trans­ac­tions from pry­ing investi-gators. Back in Switzer­land, the Bahami­an license allowed Taqwa boss­es to open com­mer­cial “cor­re­spon­dent” accounts with estab­lished Euro­pean banks–paying the larg­er insti­tu­tions fees to make cash trans­fers around the world for them, with­out call­ing atten­tion to them­selves. All are clas­sic mon­ey-laun­der­ing tech­niques, inves­ti­ga­tors say.

Intel­li­gence sources say they weren’t aware of Al Taqwa’s activ­i­ties until the mid-’90s, when the Egyp­tians began inves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist links to one of Taqwa’s founders and share­hold­ers, a wealthy Swiss res­i­dent named Ahmed Idris Nasred­din. Born in Eritrea, the 73-year-old Nasred­din claims to be a descen­dant of African roy­al­ty. In the ear­ly ’90s he helped cre­ate and finance the Islam­ic Cul­tur­al Insti­tute of Milan, a mosque locat­ed just over the Ital­ian bor­der from Lugano. Euro­pean intel­li­gence agen­cies had begun to sus­pect that the Cul­tur­al Insti­tute was a recruit­ing and sup­ply cen­ter for Al Qae­da and oth­er ter­ror­ist groups. The cen­ter’s late imam Anwar Sha­ban was a fol­low­er of Omar Abdel Rah­man, the blind Egypt­ian cler­ic now in a U.S. prison for his role in plot­ting to blow up New York land­marks.

Qae­da ter­ror­ists involved in both the 1998 U.S. Embassy bomb­ings in Africa and the failed mil­len­ni­um bomb­ing plot hung out at the Milan cen­ter, law-enforce­ment offi­cials say. The U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment describes the mosque as “the main Al Qae­da sta­tion house in Europe. It is used to facil­i­tate the move­ment of weapons, men and mon­ey across the world.” Nasred­din could not be reached. His lawyer, P. F. Barchi, says that Egypt­ian Secret Ser­vice agents warned Nasred­din in the mid-’90s about pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist “prob­lems” with the cen­ter. Al Taqwa’s long­time chair­man, an Egypt­ian expat and Mus­lim Broth­er­hood mem­ber named Youssef Nada, told NEWSWEEK that Nasred­din would nev­er get involved with ter­ror­ists. Still, he says he warned Nasred­din to “be more cau­tious.” Barchi says his client only made “char­i­ty” dona­tions to sup­port the cen­ter’s worshipers–paying rent and utilities–and has noth­ing to do with ter­ror­ism.

Nasred­din’s links to the Milan cen­ter made inves­ti­ga­tors curi­ous about the net­work’s oth­er poten­tial ties to ter­ror­ists. By the late ’90s, intel­li­gence agen­cies on both sides of the Atlantic were prob­ing Al Taqwa. When Swiss reg­u­la­tors began ques­tion­ing its lead­ers, Al Taqwa unsuc­cess­ful­ly attempt­ed to pla­cate them by appoint­ing Huber, a Swiss native, to its Swiss board of direc­tors.

Inves­ti­ga­tors began to take a hard­er look at Al Taqwa after the embassy bomb­ings. Sources say U.S. intel­li­gence tracked tele­phone con­tacts between Al Taqwa and mem­bers of bin Laden’s inner cir­cle. Qae­da oper­a­tives would call Taqwa rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Bahamas as they moved around the world. Still, the net­work’s com­plex struc­ture made it dif­fi­cult to prove how mon­ey changed hands, and the inves­ti­ga­tion stalled. Under U.S. pres­sure, the Bahami­an gov­ern­ment revoked Al Taqwa’s license last spring. Trea­sury offi­cials say the net­work con­tin­ued to do busi­ness any­way.

But after Bush’s order to roll up bin Laden’s mon­ey net­work, Euro­pean inves­ti­ga­tors swept in on Al Taqwa, search­ing Huber’s and Nada’s homes and freez­ing their assets. (Nasred­din’s mon­ey was not frozen.) The Swiss, ever pro­tec­tive of their renowned sta­tus as an anony­mous bank­ing haven, at first seemed reluc­tant to go after Al Taqwa. But after a pri­vate meet­ing with Attor­ney Gen­er­al John Ashcroft in Wash­ing­ton ear­li­er this month, Switzer­land’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, Valentin Rohr­shacher, told NEWSWEEK his gov­ern­ment is now con­duct­ing a vig­or­ous crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion.

U.S. offi­cials have been much more blunt about their sus­pi­cions. Tes­ti­fy­ing before Con­gress in Feb­ru­ary, Jaime Zarate, a senior Trea­sury offi­cial, said Al Taqwa’s con­nec­tions to ter­ror­ists go back at least five years. Zarate told law­mak­ers that the Unit­ed States learned in 1997 that the Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist group Hamas had trans­ferred $60 mil­lion into Al Taqwa accounts. Zarate also tes­ti­fied that intel­li­gence agen­cies now have evi­dence that “as of late Sep­tem­ber 2001”–after the attacks–“bin Laden and his Al Qae­da orga­ni­za­tion received finan­cial assi
stance from [Al Taqwa’s] chairman”–though he gave no details about what that mon­ey might have been used for.

Nasred­din, Huber and Nada all deny laun­der­ing mon­ey and any involve­ment of any kind with terrorists–and pros­e­cu­tors don’t have enough evi­dence to make a crim­i­nal case against them. At least not yet. Pros­e­cu­tors say they are now piec­ing togeth­er thou­sands of pages of doc­u­ments seized in raids on the bank and its lead­ers, search­ing for a paper trail between the bankers and bin Laden. Pros­e­cu­tors con­cede that Al Taqwa may have been just one of Al Qaeda’s many sources of clan­des­tine funds. If so, clos­ing its doors could be an impor­tant step in slow­ing bin Laden’s riv­er of cash to a trick­le.



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