Al-Qaida's Money Trail More Elusive Than bin Laden

Thursday, 30 May 2013 11:19 AM

By Arnaud de Borchgrave

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Tracking, finding and killing Osama bin Laden required unusual skill, intelligence and courage. Tracking al-Qaida's financial conduits through cyberspace is infinitely more difficult.

Network forensics is one of the world's most challenging assignments — explained in vivid, dramatic detail by Juan C. Zarate, a former super sleuth in the U.S. government's long campaign to find and disrupt al-Qaida's terrorist funding in the Worldwide Web.

A former assistant secretary of the treasury and deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser, Zarate's "Treasury's War" is a griping electronic whodunit in a constantly changing environment where inequalities are widening and where technology is destroying more jobs than it creates.

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Terrorists and organized criminals use cyberspace speed, secrecy and anonymity in a borderless electronic universe where everything moves at the speed of light — from self-radicalization and fraud to cyber weapons training and illicit financing.

Al-Qaida and its associated movements around the world raise money online where cyberfraud is a global criminal enterprise.

They manage criminal syndicates that acquire thousands of credit cards, withdraw small amounts from each one, ranging from $10-$50, then return them as if they had never been stolen.

The victims invariably keep quiet, only too happy to get their electronic credit cards back on line. Millions of customers don't even notice the loss.

A recent demonstration moved 100 terabits per second through ether-space. Detecting who's doing what to whom at such speeds and then redirecting traffic to foil cyberterrorists is the challenge that cyber sleuths face round the clock, 365 days a year.

Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a chief architect of modern financial warfare for the U.S. government.

His "Treasury's War" takes the reader into the shadowy world where banks and U.S. Treasury tools come together to foil terrorists and to influence geopolitical outcomes.

From his Treasury and White House offices, Zarate, with a dedicated group of Treasury officials, designed and then led a secret financial war against America's enemies.

This is the first book that lifts the veil of secrecy on the financial power they marshaled against America's enemies.

The financial and cyber warriors, says Zarate, "created an international financial environment in which the private sector's bottom line dovetailed directly with U.S. national security interests — with the goal of isolating rogues from the legitimate financial system."

The global terrorist funding and illicit financial networks range from the slaughter of elephants (tusks go for $50,000 and up) and rhinoceros (a single horn fetches up to $30,000) in Africa to the heroin trade in Afghanistan.

The United States and its closest allies are also engaged in a new kind of electronic warfare against the financial networks of rogue regimes — everything from nuclear proliferators to criminal syndicates and their links with transnational terrorist networks.

Zarate takes the reader behind the scenes to explain how the group he led redefined the U.S. Treasury's role, "and used its unique powers, relationships and reputation to apply financial pressure against America's enemies."

The goal was — and is now 24/7 — to isolate rogues from the legitimate international financial system. And in so doing, created "a new brand of financial power (that) leveraged the private sector and created an international financial environment in which the private sector's bottom line dovetailed directly with U.S. national security interests."

Treasury and its new tools, Zarate explains in "Treasury's War," soon became critical in all the "central geopolitical challenges facing the United States, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and regimes in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Cuba."

In addition to CSIS, Zarate is senior national security analyst for CBS News and is a visiting lecturer of law at the Harvard Law School. He was the first assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes.

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Zarate then moved to the White House (under George W. Bush) where he served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism and contraband finance.

He is one of very few speakers who can address immensely complex issues of high-level strategic concern coupled with the intricacies of the financial methods of fighting terrorism.

Zarate is still using the skills he took to the White House — for the private sector as a consultant.

There is still one critically important part of the electronic puzzle that eludes the combined forces of the electronic Kojak/Columbo/Poirot/Scarpetta/Holmes network. It's the informal, handshake ways of moving money, including Hawala. And Hawala's origins are found in texts of Islamic law that date to the eighth century.

In more recent times, Hawala is a round-the-clock system from scores of pay phones or mobiles in Pakistan, Yemen or any Persian Gulf country at predetermined times to say, for example, "Uncle Jack will airfreight your new suit Friday." Translation: The man who introduces himself as Uncle Jack is good to go with $10,000."

Similar amounts will be conveyed anonymously from these same countries to U.S. numbers. By the end of the year, the amounts usually balance out. If not, the discrepancy is carried over to the next year.

It's money transfer without money movement by word of mouth from one cellphone to another thousands of miles away. Mutual trust is the key ingredient.

After more than a decade of counter-terrorist and anti-money laundering efforts, it is clear that the Hawala code of secrecy survives countless attempts to dismantle it.

The U.S. government tried to regulate and infiltrate Hawala through hawaladars, the bearded ones who sit cross legged on a small rug behind a wooden stand in a dusty unpaved street.

In Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan in Pakistan, friends escorted this reporter to a long line of Hawala stalls. In one of them, different currencies, including dollars, stood in neat stacks next to the hawaladar's baggy pants. Armed guards stood on either side.

Hawala honor system transactions move a lot faster than cashing a check in a Pakistani bank. The old and new methods of moving money may be converging, making the challenge of countering terrorist and illicit finance all the more challenging in the 21st century.

Noted editor and journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave is an editor at large for United Press International. He is a founding board member of Newsmax.com who now serves on Newsmax's Advisory Board. Read more reports from Arnaud de Borchgrave — Click Here Now.

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