Out of honey business, bin Laden still profits

Mohammad Nami strokes his long, fluffy beard, explaining who's who in the Afghan bee business. "I'd like to make it perfectly clear," says the Afghan honey trader as a bloated honeybee bounces gracelessly off his forehead. "Mr. bin Laden is no longer in the honey business. He has more important things to worry about."

No one denies that the alleged terrorist mastermind was in the business prior to Sept. 11. In a poor region where most Western aid groups were chased out by the Taliban, development assistance comes mostly from Muslim charities and businesses. From logging and bakeries to hospitals, orphanages, and schools, Islamic groups have extended a helping hand to needy Afghans. But US officials say in some cases, the hand reaches too far.

"Islamic and Arab groups have taken up the slack for Western aid organizations that had been working in Afghanistan," says Sigurd Hanson, the country director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), explaining that many groups have withdrawn because of Taliban harassment. "They have moved in and become very enterprising."

Under two makeshift tents across the street from Peshawar's Bella Hisar fort, several militant "charity" networks, also promoting holy war against the US, have begun collecting donations. Over the weekend, piles of rupees began stacking up - and that wasn't all.

"We've had 15 kilos of gold donated in the past two days," boasted Mohammad Ayaz, a representative of the Ashat Altaweed and Sunna organization, on Sunday. As he spoke, a crowd gathered, and young men reached into their pockets for donations.

"Our main cause is jihad against the infidels, but our charity work includes providing blankets, food, and clothes to needy people inside the war zone," he said. "Those who can fight sign up for the battle. Those who can't, contribute."

Mr. Ayaz says his organization hand-delivers all proceeds directly to the Taliban Consulate in Peshawar. "Business has never been better," he adds.

Earlier this month, the US government blacklisted the Yemeni honey companies Al-Nur Honey and Al-Shifa Honey as part of its crackdown on alleged sources of funding to bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Ihsan Ullah, a manager of Al-Shifa Honey in Peshawar, a sister company to the Yemeni firm, insists his branch has no links to Al Qaeda.

He predicts that the US will have a hard time proving its accusations. "Money in the honey business changes hands so many times, it is extremely difficult to trace," he says, sitting in an office whose shelves are lined with plastic wine cups filled with golden honey.

In the early '90s, the Al-Shifa Honey business here and in other Pakistani cities came under the control of Yemeni Arabs, who still control its sister company in Yemen.

Its Yemeni owner, Mahmud Abu al-Fatuh Muhammad, allegedly has close ties to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy.

The institute's name appears in the US government's court case against bin Laden for the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Africa. It was also considered an Al Qaeda "station house" in Europe, used to move weapons, men, and money around the world.

Al Rasheed Trust, one of Pakistan's largest charities, was recently fingered by Washington in its drive to freeze "terrorist assets."

Inside the offices in Peshawar, set between the window fronts of several busy gun shops, clerks sit cross-legged on the floor, pouring cups of tea from a rusty metal pitcher.

"We'll be providing jihad fighters with shelter and medicine inside Afghanistan," says an official, who will not agree to be named. He unrolls a new full-color poster produced by the Trust, which displays jewelry, guns, and money. The poster explains these have all been donated by Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas, and are intended to be used for the Afghan holy war against the US.

Al Rasheed Trust, with 31 offices in Pakistan alone, does not flinch from giving its whole-hearted support to Osama bin Laden. Publications it controls have also been promoting and directly praising the Arab suicide bombers who attacked the twin towers and the Pentagon.

"At last, Allah has created such people who, at the peak of their young age, are putting themselves into flames and succeeding in diverting the world's attention to the fact that America must give up its habit of acting as Jews's stooge," reads one of the articles distributed by Al Rasheed and its affiliated Dharb-I-Mu-min press.

EVEN as local donations to fight the US "infidels" picked up over the weekend, senior US economic officials were in the capital, Islamabad, to announce a $30 million aid package for Pakistan's economy and to thank President Pervez Musharraf for his support in the "war against terror."

Yet Washington's efforts to influence Pakistan's military regime with promises of friendship and assistance have not, so far, led to a concerted or effective Pakistani crackdown on charitable organizations helping the Taliban - or, for that matter, bin Laden.

Asked about the apparent contradiction in Pakistan's policy to fight terror, a senior official of Pakistan's Northwestern Frontier Province, Manzoor Ahmad, says he is "looking into reports" that the charities are collecting funds for terrorist activities. "We hadn't been aware of that," he adds.

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