Effects mixed in targeting terrorist assets

Monday, May 6, 2002

Business is bustling at Yemen's Al-Nur honey shop, where customers are more interested in the products for sale than in the Bush administration's decision to freeze the company's assets and label it a terrorist organization.

In Switzerland, the former owner of a holding company said he hasn't had any trouble withdrawing cash since his name appeared on a list of individuals and organizations linked to al-Qaida.

President Bush issued his first of several executive orders blocking assets two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and the freeze now applies to more than 200 individuals, groups and businesses in the United States. The United Nations followed suit, obligating a global hold on most of the assets and accounts identified by Washington.

The Associated Press interviewed many of those affected and found that while some have been hit hard, the impact for others has been minimal -- and in some cases the publicity may have actually helped.

That seems to be the case at the Al-Hamati bakery, a small shop that sells sticky sweet pastries in the Yemeni capital of San'a.

Asim al-Hamati, whose brother owns the bakery, said Yemeni officials searched the premises but "did not find anything illegal." He denied the company had any links to Osama bin Laden but said that the publicity of being branded a terrorist briefly boosted sales in a country with deep-seated suspicions of the United States.

"We are operating normally. We have nothing to do with terrorism," he said.

Only honey matters

At the nearby Al-Nur honey shop, also labeled a terrorist front last October, customers doubted an al-Qaida link and said they didn't particularly care if there was one.

"It doesn't concern me who owns the shop or where my money goes. What's important is that the honey be of a high caliber," said Walid Abdo Mohammad, gazing at the hundreds of jars on the shop's wooden shelves.

Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury Department, said that overall, the crackdown was hurting al-Qaida.

"We think we're making an impact. We've raised awareness and shut down pipelines and we're beginning to see countries of the world that didn't have processes to track and block assets putting the right systems in place," she said.

A raid on the Illinois and Bosnian offices of Benevolence International Foundation led to the arrest last week of the charity's director and charges that he lied about his connections to bin Laden. Justice Department officials say the organization funneled money to terrorists.

Early on in the war on terrorism, the administration targeted several Islamic charities long suspected of dubious financing, including Al-Rashid Trust, a Pakistani-based charity that worked closely with the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Despite a Sept. 24 asset freeze order and a promise from Pakistan to cooperate in shutting the group down, the organization continues to operate.

Low fruit already picked

Ahmad Arsalan, a spokesman for Al-Rashid, said the organization's only aim was to provide health and educational services. "We will continue this work," he told AP from Karachi.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism operations for the CIA, said that after initial success slowing the movement of al-Qaida money, terrorist transactions are picking up again.

"The low fruit has already been picked from the trees," Cannistraro said.

Nonetheless, the drive against al-Qaida funding may have reaped some rewards.

A few weeks ago, Treasury officials were in the Persian Gulf to discuss regulating Islamic charities. And the Bush administration will participate in a conference in the United Arab Emirates to discuss the under-the-table Islamic banking practice known as hawala.

In November, the administration went after two money transfer companies, including Al-Barakaat, set up for Somali expatriates to send money home to relatives in a country without a proper banking system.

Al-Barakaat branches in the United States and Europe were shuttered, but the operation has been crushing for the thousands of Somalis left jobless in the process.

"Somalis are weak -- there is no government to defend us; there's nobody to help," said Ahmed Nur Ali Jim'ale, who was a principal owner in Al-Barakaat before it's equipment and real estate were sold off last week.

Abdirisak Aden worked for the company in Sweden and was a candidate for city council when the Swedish government acted on a global request from Washington to close the company's offices.

Now he, his wife and their two children live off her student loans and about $970 a month provided from a public fund set up to help him pay bills while his assets remain inaccessible.

Liquidated holdings

Ahmed Huber, a former Swiss journalist who converted to Islam, liquidated his holdings company six weeks after it was targeted by the Treasury Department. Huber said the company accounts were blocked Nov. 7 but freed by Swiss authorities a few weeks later. "The banks had the order to keep an eye on all transactions, that's all," Huber told AP.

Britain has blocked millions of dollars worth of assets and frozen the accounts of two radical clerics linked to al-Qaida. Abu Hamza al-Masri remains a free man but says he no longer has access to his accounts.

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