W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20, 2001 -- The Treasury Department's Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, has begun operating nearly around the clock in a secret location, possibly near the White House.
Treasury Undersecretary Jimmy Gurule, who has a prosecutor's background as a U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, says bluntly, the center's purpose is "to disrupt the financial operations of terrorist organizations."
Staffed with more than a dozen federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials, the center is accessing bank, credit card, and stock transactions.
This week, Treasury Department officials expect to ask Congress for legislation giving the center broader powers to request tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service and to capture and read e-mail traffic, all tied to ongoing investigations of individuals suspected of terrorist activities.
A government official said the legislation, which would include measures to facilitate intelligence gathering and use of military forces, would almost certainly include provisions to legalize special tracking measures involving the IRS and the Internet.
"Discussions are under way," said the official, who asked not to be identified, "and [while] nothing has been introduced so far today, tomorrow is not too soon" to expect the proposed legislation to reach Capitol Hill.
There are also discussions within White House circles about the possibility of issuing an executive order containing provisions for the same four areas of concern, said the official.
"I don't know if it's gone beyond the paper napkin stage," he cautioned.
While investigators and prosecutors in New York gather information and begin assembling a case, the center is checking accounts for more than 100 names of suspected accomplices and associates of Osama bin Laden's network.
Dozens of names were supplied just seven months ago in New York by a bin Laden associate on trial for the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa. Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl sketched an insider's view of the bin Laden organization, mostly in the Sudan.
Complex Network Provides Anonymity
Acting as an umbrella, a holding company called Wadi al Aqiq based in Sudan, operated a number of businesses, including farms north of Khartoum, the capital, and at Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The loose consortium of farms and working groups grew or traded about a dozen crops from bananas to peanuts.
The Hijra Construction company built roads — including one from Khartoum to Port Sudan, which carried the organization's farm goods for shipment and sale overseas, often through Cyprus. There was also a transportation company, investment firms and even a tannery.
In 1996, when bin Laden moved to Afghanistan, the group's key members continued using bank accounts in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vienna, Dubai, and London. There, accounts and transactions at a Barclays bank branch are under study.
Even so, today, outside a tight circle of associates, nobody really knows how much — or how little — bin Laden spends on the network, despite an inherited fortune estimated to be as much as $300 million.
Jane's Intelligence Weekly, a respected private report, says bin Laden manages investments in Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, trading everything from diamonds to seafood. Panamanian authorities are looking at possible bin Laden connections to a holding company called al Takwa based in Panama City.
With so many leads to follow, the investigators may feel they are tracking an octopus. But in Beirut, an editor who has followed bin Laden's rise, cautioned ABCNEWS not to give him too much credit.
"He's like a 'phantom'," said Faisal Salman, managing editor of the newspaper as-Safir. "And maybe we help him to be a phantom. Ah, [he] is not a phantom."
Back in Washington, Gurule says bin Laden's image is not what should be important to people.
Asked if Americans should not consider bin Laden some brilliant, maniacal mastermind, Gurule said, "He's a man, he's gonna be brought to justice, he's gonna be punished."
Difficult to Track
Phantom or not, U.S. authorities face a difficult process of tracking transactions and trying to disrupt his terrorist network. There is an Old World practice that may frustrate the treasury detectives. Hawala is a term meaning trust. It is said to be the method by which money holders on one continent transfer funds to money holders on another continent. There is no electronic trail and almost nothing physical to track.
With a wink and a nod, so to speak, bin Laden's associates can send couriers with scraps of paper or a playing card marked in a certain way. Associates in the second location disburse the funds, and computer searches and electronic data collection may not be a match for scraps of paper and decks of playing cards.
Bin Laden's associates and couriers do have to use telephones and travel to make these transactions work, but based on their success so far, that won't make it much easier for America's electronic detectives.