In its pursuit of the "money trail" of the terrorists, the US risks
sacrificing civil liberties on the altar of the battle against terrorism,
Omayma Abdel-Latif reports
It is business as usual in the Karachi office of Al-Rasheed Trust. A week
ago, US President George Bush ordered a freeze on the assets of the trust
in US and Pakistani banks. The US claims the trust has links to the
Taliban. Yet the office is still open, the trust still receiving those in
need of help. "I don't understand why they have done this," said Abu
Abdallah, who was in charge of the office when Al-Ahram Weekly called on
Monday. "We deal mostly in zakat (alms): money that goes to the needy and
the destitute," he said. Abu Abdallah, who joined the trust little more
than a year ago explained that the offices in Pakistan provide bread for
over 300,000 Afghani refugees, every day. "These people are disabled,
fatherless, children, widows. How will they survive?" he asked.
Afghan refugees will surely suffer when Muslim charity organisations are
forced to stop supplying food and medicine. But it also raises the
question of whether humanitarian groups do indeed funnel money to
terrorist groups. Al-Rasheed Trust was one of three Muslim charity
organisations whose assets were frozen by US order.
Muslim charities financed by zakat money and huge donations from Gulf
states, have mushroomed. This efflorescence has been part of a worldwide
growth in the number of NGOs working for poverty relief. But the charities
were also created to help Muslims around the world who suffered
persecution: whether in Bosnia and Kosovo, Chechnya and Kashmir, or in
Palestine. But while some of these organisations continue to serve a
worthy cause, others have become the Muslim version of the "charities"
that provided the Irish Republican Army with so much succour.
And here lies the rub. Many observers fear that the US, in its headlong
rush to dam the "terrorist's lifeblood" will constrict the activities of
genuine (and much-needed) charities, particularly those of an Islamic hue.
Political science professor Hassan Nafaa has noted that the clamps have
mainly been applied to charities and organisations that are Islamic, or
support Islamic causes, such as Haraket Al-Mujahedin in Kashmir. "If the
US was keen on uprooting terrorism in its different forms and colours,
then it is advised to address other charity organisations which, for
example, support and finance Zionist terrorist organisations, too," Nafaa
said. Many Arabs and Muslims indeed worry that the US will not apply its
controls consistently. They fear that after the US attacks its "most
wanted list" it will move to those charities that offer humanitarian
support to the Palestinians suffocating under the Israeli occupation.
Hamdi Abdel-Azim, deputy head of Al- Sadat Academy, who authored a book on
money laundering in the Middle East, told the Weekly that the US fight
against terrorists' money, significantly invokes item no. 7 of the UN
charter, which calls for sanctions on any countries which do not comply
with US efforts. "The decision has therefore taken on an international
legitimacy." Abdel-Azim said. That means that the US must provide
compelling evidence for any freeze it wants. In the case of Egypt, the US
would need to comply with law no 205 (1990), which deals with bank account
privacy. "The Egyptian government could only provide information on a
suspect account holder provided that the foreign government presents valid
evidence that the client in question is involved in terrorism," Abdel-Azim
explained. Egypt, he added, did freeze the assets of Osama Bin Laden in
the National Bank of Egypt after the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania.
But legal niceties aside, many question the entire premise of the US
campaign against charities. According to money laundering experts, it will
be next to impossible to trace terrorist money trails. It is estimated
that a third of the money funnelled to militant Islamic groups originates
in the US. Other money goes through France, Germany and Britain, making it
fiendishly hard to track. Nevertheless, this week, Britain ordered a
freeze on $88m worth of assets. France froze some ff23m and Germany froze
$1.2 million worth of suspect accounts.
Several Islamic charities based in Geneva have expressed concern over
remarks linking them to terrorists, with the Geneva- based Dar Al-Mal
Al-Islami (Islamic Capital House) issuing a stern rebuttal. Police have
also investigated several branches of Arab banking associations in
Switzerland, which was heavily pressured to disclose details of secret
bank accounts and eventually collaborated with the US. Banks in the Gulf
were also targeted.
A greater obstacle to producing a clear picture of the terrorists' wealth
is that the terrorist attack, spectacular as it was, cost very little. US
sources estimate the entire plot cost a mere $200,000. Such scant money
could be kept at a low profile. As a result, Abdel-Azim thinks the
economic war on terrorists is something of a mirage. "It is like the war
on drug barons or the Mafia. Most of these organisations don't have many
assets in US banks anyway."
Humanitarian relief efforts and civil liberties are bound to suffer. An
Arab analyst writing in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper this week
worried that the US would support "regimes against their oppositions and
turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, thus doing away with democratic
values, which will remain the privilege of the West." Those fears are
given substance by anti-terrorism legislation under consideration in
Congress. "The impact on civil liberties of certain groups and individuals
will be severe," Jeanne Butterfield, the executive director of the
American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), told Al-Ahram Weekly,
from Washington. The problem, Butterfield explained, is that the
definition of terrorist activity would be very broad. "It could include
giving a donation to a humanitarian project of a group that is listed on
the official State Department list of 'terrorist organisations'. Of
course, the majority of those organisations are Arab or Muslim."
Britain already amended its laws with the Terrorism Act of 2000, which
went into effect in February. The law deals with terrorist property, fund
raising and money launderin, making it an offence to receive money for
terrorist use. Many observers believe that the law was issued to monitor
and restrict the activities of many of the Islamic groups and individuals
who have sought asylum in the UK.
But some shrugged off fears. London- based Egyptian Islamist militant
Yasser El- Serry, who has been convicted of involvement in a failed
assassination attempt on former prime minister Atef Sidki, told the Weekly
via a teleophone interview that he does not believe his organisation, Al-
Marsad Al-Islami (Islamic Monitor) or any other Islamic organisation will
be targeted, since they are all law-abiding. "We are protected by the law
in this country: Britain. This is America's war against Islam."
He referred to the case of Adel Abdel- Maguid, who is detained in Britain.
The US asked for the extradition of Abdel-Maguid, but Britain refused,
based on lack of evidence. But contrary to El-Serry's view, Butterfield
believes that the US and other Western countries often turn a blind eye to
human rights abuses when they need the support of certain regimes.
The perception that politics is put before principle may explain the
backlash against the US hunt for the terrorists' financiers. Abu Abdallah
of Al-Rasheed Trust told the Weekly that the office in Karachi has
received more cash than ever before. "People sympathise with the Afghan
plight." "It is also a sign of complete disrespect for American
decisions," he added. He also said Al- Rasheed Trust would take the US
president to the International Court and is currently negotiating with the
Pakistani government to unfreeze its assets. "We believe we are innocent,
and what we are doing is right. We help our brothers not only in
Afghanistan but also in Palestine, Kosovo, and Bosnia. These are not
terrorists. These are Muslims. But to America it seems all Muslims are
terrorists. But we don't care what it thinks, because," said Abdallah,
"America is not our God."
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