Treasury task force wages financial warfare against terrorists

Since Sept. 11, investigators with a special Treasury Department task force have quickly learned how to uncover the web of bank accounts, electronic funds transfers and covert money laundering operations that fund terrorist cells. In the effort to root out al-Qaida and its ilk, the Customs Service is leading an interagency Treasury task force called Operation Green Quest to sever terrorist money lines. In a recent interview, Marcy Forman, the director of Green Quest, told Government Executive about Treasury's plan to wage financial warfare. Operation Green Quest moved into an office in Customs headquarters in Washington barely two months ago. Since that time, investigators have been educating themselves on financial practices few of them have seen before. Specifically, Operation Green Quest is focusing on the informal, largely paperless form of money exchange known as hawala, which is Arabic for "to change." Hawala operates in much of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Hawala dealers don't actually transfer money, but rather arrange cash pick-ups for their clients, who usually live in different parts of the world and don't want to pay high bank transfer fees. Treasury and FBI investigators have identified hawala as a means by which the alleged Sept. 11 terrorists may have received money from overseas. Green Quest investigators, who've spent their careers dismantling money laundering rackets, were blindsided by the existence of the system. "Most of us couldn't spell hawala" before Sept. 11, Forman said. Even though local police officers, academics and some federal law enforcement agents have known about the practice for decades, and many experts say hawala serves completely legitimate purposes, Green Quest agents have had to become quick studies in the practice and are relying on sources within ethnic communities to help them identify hawala dealers. Beyond sniffing out potential terrorist fundraisers, Forman works to "deconflict" the operations of Green Quest's member agencies--Customs, IRS, the Secret Service, the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network--to make sure multiple teams aren't unknowingly pursuing the same lead. The agencies' coopertative efforts have recently culminated in raids of alleged money laundering operations that aid suspected terrorist networks. Few undercover agents can penetrate Middle Eastern communities and money laundering rings because they look like outsiders and don't speak the language, Forman said. As a result, Green Quest has to be more clever, by setting traps on the Internet and working to flush currency traffickers out of their hiding places. For example, a Customs unit in Northern Virginia is setting up dummy Web sites to lure people into giving money to terrorist operations or engaging in illegal financial practices online, Forman said. In a practice known as "cybersmuggling," designers load sites with words that carry special significance in certain communities. Green Quest also wants to lower the threshold at which bank deposits and electronic funds transfers must be documented. Dropping the ceiling from $10,000 to $750, Forman said, may force money traffickers to try to get their cash out of the country by hand. They would then be subject to capture by a beefed-up cadre of Customs Service officers at border crossings, airports and seaports. Forman said the purpose of the task force isn't to indict people as terrorists, but to break up terrorists' money operations. Green Quest will use the tiniest legal infraction to indict someone, just as the federal goverment ultimately charged Al Capone with violations of tax laws rather than murder. Green Quest will disrupt terrorist financing by the most expedient means available, and for as long as it takes, Forman said.
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