Terror funding hurt by Al Qaeda arrest in Pakistan
Officials say the capture of a top Al Qaeda financier Saturday could help thwart future attacks.
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — Osama bin Laden's checks may soon begin to bounce.
The Saturday arrest of Yasser Al Jazeeri, a Moroccan national and Al Qaeda financier, is just the latest success in disrupting the terrorist organization's shadowy financial dealings. Pakistani officials say the arrest, conducted in Lahore by Pakistani law-enforcement agencies with some technical assistance from FBI agents, could have a rapid impact on Al Qaeda's ability to fund and organize future terrorist attacks.
"It will help us to cut off the financial supply line of Al Qaeda," says one Pakistani police intelligence official in Lahore involved in the Al Jazeeri case. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
US officials in Pakistan praised the operation, but declined to speculate on its importance. "If he is an Al Qaeda financier, and we can make inroads into their financial dealings, then this is a good step forward," says John Kincannon, US Embassy spokesman in Islamabad.
Coming two weeks after the capture of Al Qaeda's operations commander, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the arrest of Mr. Al Jazeeri is a textbook example of Pakistan's growing cooperation with US law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. It also racks up a needed victory for Pakistani intelligence officials, who, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, abandoned nearly a quarter-century of support for radical Islamic groups with ties to Al Qaeda. US officials credit Pakistan with turning over more than 440 suspected Al Qaeda terrorists since the beginning of the US-led war on terrorism.
"He is an important leader of Al Qaeda," says Tasneem Noorani, a Pakistani Interior Ministry spokesman. "It is difficult to quantify whether he was among the top 10 leaders or not, but every success adds up, unfolding the mysterious and deadly network of Al Qaeda."
The arrest of Jazeeri was the result of information from two previous arrests, including Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi - an accomplice of Mr. Mohammed - and a prominent Lahore doctor, Ahmed Khwaja. Police officials say that Mr. Hawsawi, who was arrested on March 1 along with Mohammed, was in constant touch with Jazeeri. According to US investigators, Hawsawi was a key financier of Sept. 11, and provided cash to Mohammad Atta, the lead hijacker.
As in previous arrests, FBI technicians helped to locate Jazeeri's location through sophisticated telephone monitoring equipment, but there was also a bit of old-fashioned subterfuge.
Pakistani authorities released the arrested sons of Dr. Khwaja only last week. By keeping Khizr Khwaja and Omar Khwaja under surveillance and monitoring their phone calls, Pakistani security officials and FBI agents quickly located Jazeeri in the posh Gulburg neighborhood of Lahore.
Pakistani security officials believe that Jazeeri was a subordinate of Hawsawi, who used to take care of the finances of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. He would offer help to Al Qaeda operatives in hiding, using Pakistani sympathizers and supporters to carry money.
The method of transfer, Pakistani intelligence officials say, was a black-market banking system called hawala. Nearly impossible to track, hawala is capable of giving out large quantities of cash, and relies entirely on the spoken promise of businessmen in different locations to pay each other off at a future time. It is this lack of a paper trail that makes hawala attractive to terrorist groups and organized-crime rackets.
Pakistani officials say Jazeeri's arrest could be a significant blow to Al Qaeda's operations, since most Al Qaeda fugitives need outside sources of money to pay for food and shelter in hiding. More important, it is easier to find a soldier than it is to find a good accountant. But US officials say the significance of his arrest will only be seen over time.
"My impression of hawala is that it is fairly unsophisticated," says Mr. Kincannon. "Any person with about 15 minutes of training can do hawala."
Indeed, the arrests of Jazeeri, Hawsawi, Ahmed Khwaja, and Abu Zubaydah a year ago may simply amount to catching the bag men, the operatives who carry money. Pakistani and Afghan intelligence officials admit they still have made little headway at stopping the money at the source - the countless Islamic charities and individual sympathizers who continue to contribute to the Al Qaeda goal of jihad, or holy struggle against the enemies of Islam.
Jazeeri is now undergoing joint interrogation by FBI agents and Pakistani intelligence officials.
• Owais Tohid contributed to this report.