Last Thursday's announcement of a lawsuit against several who have been accused of funding al Qaeda and enabling the 9/11 attacks marks a historic day in the war on terror. Spearheaded by attorney Ron Motley, the suit seeks damages of one trillion dollars.
The massive complaint, weighing in at 258 pages, enumerates banks, corporations, charities, and individuals who have aided and abetted al Qaeda. Many of these entities have distanced themselves from Osama bin Laden and his organization, and in that regard, the complaint may appear confusing - these are Saudi princes, multimillionaire businessmen, and relief organizations that have been accused of serving al Qaeda's goals. Why are they the target of this complaint? Shouldn't the suit be accusing al Qaeda?
One cannot simply target the entity know as "al Qaeda" or the leadership of that group. The operational structure of al Qaeda is not a centralized unit. Osama bin Laden, born and bred a businessman, created an organizational structure for al Qaeda that exists in reality as a massive global conglomerate. Disrupting al Qaeda involves disrupting the organizations that work for al Qaeda, even when these organizations sometimes have legitimate business facades.
Because of al Qaeda's history of exploiting both businesses and charities, this complaint necessarily incorporates several institutions and organizations that have provided material support for al Qaeda and bin Laden.
On a global scale, bin Laden has established several corporations, bank, financial entities, charities, and nonprofit organizations. He uses these entities for dual purposes: firstly, to mask his direct involvement in terrorist activity, and secondly, to use the entities' profits and operational cover for his insidious goals. These front groups distance bin Laden from the actual terrorist attacks, making it much more difficult to trace the flow of money and support in and around the al Qaeda organization and its front groups.
These companies and front groups vary from fishing companies, to chicken farms, to banks, to honey production. Shortly after September 11, the U.S. government singled out Al Hamati Sweet Bakeries and two honey businesses, Al Nur Honey Press Shops and Al Shifa Honey Press for Industry and Commerce. The Treasury Department asserted that these organizations helped funnel money to bin Laden as well as helped transport arms for al Qaeda.
The corporate and financial network behind the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in east Africa exists as the apotheosis of the organizational structure of al Qaeda. While bin Laden himself remained relatively distanced from the bombings, except for taking credit for the attacks, the al Qaeda operatives directly involved in the attack went to work each day for viable companies and charities that paid for the embassy bombings.
A fishing company established in Kenya by convicted embassy-bombing conspirator Mohammed Odeh, served the purposes of al Qaeda while remaining a profitable business venture. At the 2001 embassy-bombings trial in New York City, an FBI agent testified based on interviews with al Qaeda members, that the company's fishing boat "was also used for jihad."
Another FBI agent testified that the boat, given to Odeh by Abu Hafs, the al Qaeda military commander killed in U.S. strikes in Afghanistan after September 11, "provided income for other members of al Qaeda who were in the area."
Two charities operating in Africa were directly involved in the attacks. Mercy International and Help Africa People both served the purposes of al Qaeda. However, bin Laden knew that charities that did not do any legitimate work were much more suspicious than charities that do some legitimate work and then provide aid and assistance to al Qaeda. Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald noted in the embassy-bombings trial that "Mercy International, while it does have legitimate charitable purpose, has other purposes that are contrary to that."
These contrary purposes involved smuggling weapons for al Qaeda. Fitzgerald explained in the trial that evidence found at Mercy International's office in Kenya contained a "[r]eceipt dated July 24, 1998, and on the back it said getting weapons from Somalia."
Because these charities do some recognizable charitable work, it is very simple for the organization to provide cover for al Qaeda operatives. Under the guise of being a charitable worker, operatives usually have the freedom to travel around the country where they are stationed, planning, and coordinating the next al Qaeda attack.
Bin Laden also utilized financial institutions to directly fund the bombers. The hawala bank Dahab Shil gave financial aid to convicted bomber Mohammed al-Owhali shortly after the bombings occurred. The money was transferred from an al Qaeda member in Yemen; the Dahab Shil office knowingly let the transaction occur without any official documentation. Al-Owhali was allowed to receive the money at his local Dahab Shil office in Africa despite having no credentials or any form of identification.
The lawsuit's approach necessarily incorporates all of the al Qaeda entities that are not in name "al Qaeda." These are entities and individuals that may not have necessarily planted a bomb or hijacked a plane, but who have transferred resources and support to enable those that carry out the attack. Their culpability must not go unpunished. The families afflicted by September 11 have taken a brave new step towards remaining vigilant on the war on terror.
- Rita Katz is director and Josh Devon is an analyst at the SITE Institute (Search for International Terrorist Entities), based in Washington, D.C. SITE?s reports contributed to the complaint filed last week.