Report says effort to cut off terror funds foundering

International efforts to block the flow of funds to al Qaeda have failed to keep millions of dollars out of the hands of the terrorist network, according to a draft report by a United Nations panel that monitors the U.N.'s arms, travel and financial embargo against the group. "Al Qaeda is by all accounts 'fit and well' and poised to strike again at its leisure," The Washington Post on Wednesday quoted the report as saying. "The prime targets of the organization are likely to be persons and property of the United States of America and its allies in the fight against al Qaeda, as well as Israel." The report said that although the United States and other U.N. members froze more than $112 million in assets in the first months after the Sept. 11 attacks, only $10 million has been frozen in the past eight months. Al Qaeda operatives are suspected of having converted much of their funds into noncash assets, such as jewels, but the report said the network still collects money from the personal inheritance of its leader, Osama bin Laden, and from funds funneled through charitable groups. The Treasury Department, which is leading the administration's efforts to freeze the bank accounts of suspected terrorist supporters and to block other sources of funding, downplayed the U.N. panel's findings, saying its analysis was based on reports that "do not provide a complete picture of the success of our overall campaign to date." Treasury has designated 234 individuals and organizations as "financiers of terror" and has blocked their access to the international financial system, the department said in a statement Wednesday. The statement added that fighting the financial arm of terrorism also involves making arrests and deterring individuals who would support terrorist organizations. "The point isn't grabbing dollars in bank accounts…it is destroying the financial infrastructure of terrorism," the statement said. To that end, the Customs Service has established a task force, known as Operation Green Quest, made up of numerous law enforcement agencies. The task force investigates suspected financiers of terrorism and executes search and arrest warrants against them. A Green Quest spokesman had no comment on the U.N. report, but said the task force "is extremely active in investigating terrorist financing. In fact, we are investigating at least 400 leads at the current time." In the past nine months, Green Quest has served 78 search warrants in connection with its investigations, which have led to 42 arrests, 27 indictments and the seizure of $6.9 million from bank accounts and other locations, according to public documents. In addition, the task force has seized $16.3 million in currency and other cash instruments, such as checks, through an initiative to track money leaving the country at U.S. borders. In February, a Jordanian national named Nabeeh Awawdeh pleaded guilty to violating smuggling laws after trying to take $30,000 worth of checks to a Palestinian organization in Israel. Customs inspectors at Cleveland International Airport arrested Awawdeh in November 2001. In July, Customs officials at Detroit International Airport arrested Omar Shishani, a 47-year-old Jordanian, for carrying more than $12 million in allegedly bogus cashier's checks into the U.S. Federal officials have said that Shishani's name appears on a list of people trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Members of Shishani's family contend, however, that the name on the list is actually that of another Omar Shishani who died in Chechnya sometime in June.

Treasury and Customs point to those arrests as evidence that their counterterrorism strategy is working. Observers have noted that the movement of large amounts of cash is a strong signal that terrorist operations are actively being planned.

But federal investigators have shown that the cost of even massive attacks like those of Sept. 11 is quite low. Estimates are that the 19 suspected Sept. 11 hijackers financed their operation for less than $400,000. An April truck bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia, for which al Qaeda claimed responsibility, reportedly cost only $20,000. The U.N. report also criticized countries for publishing different lists of terrorists and their supporters. Having too many lists complicates efforts to block the flow of terrorist money, the report said.