U.S. freezes bin Laden assets

Bush acts to cut off flow of money to militant, associates

Foreign banks warned

President describes executive order as part of war on terror

September 25, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Launching the first known strike in his war on terrorism, President Bush issued an executive order yesterday freezing U.S. assets belonging to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda organization and even charities that may unwittingly support him.

In an extraordinary threat, Bush also warned foreign banks that he would freeze their assets and halt their financial transactions in the United States if they did not cut off money flowing to bin Laden's network.

"Today, we have launched a strike on the financial foundation of the global terror network," Bush said. "If you do business with terrorists, if you support or sponsor them, you will not do business with the United States of America."

Bush, flanked by senior Cabinet officers in the Rose Garden, said he hoped the fanfare attending his announcement would convey to Americans that some of the most significant actions of the war would not involve planes or troops.

"I've asked our military to be ready for a reason," the president said. "But the American people must understand this war on terrorism will be fought on a variety of fronts."

Bush's order, signed at 12:01 yesterday morning, specifically targets 27 entities: bin Laden and 11 of his lieutenants; Al Qaeda and 10 terrorist organizations from nations such as Algeria, the Philippines and Yemen that are believed to support it; a German company suspected of being a front for bin Laden; and three charities that U.S. officials believe are sources of funding for bin Laden's operations even though they might not be aware of it.

A goal of one of the charities, the Al Rashid Trust, is to feed the hungry in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it claims to have opened bakeries in the two countries for that purpose.

"Just to show you how insidious these terrorists are, they oftentimes use nice-sounding, nongovernmental organizations as fronts," Bush said. "We intend to deal with them, just like we intend to deal with others who aid and abet terrorist organizations."

Bush's order directs the Treasury Department to freeze assets belonging to all 27 entities and to cut off all their transactions with Americans.

"We have developed the international financial equivalent of law enforcement's `Most Wanted' list," said the president. "And it puts the financial world on notice."

The president acknowledged that most of bin Laden's wealth - even without outside support, he is believed to have a personal fortune of more than $2 million - is being held outside the United States. Therefore, Bush said, the U.S. government would be depending on foreign governments and banks to share intelligence and follow America's lead in choking off the terrorists' funding.

`Stop payment'

"Money is the lifeblood of terrorist operations," he added. "Today, we're asking the world to stop payment."

The president gave Treasury the option of punishing nations and foreign banks that do not comply by freezing their assets and ending their transactions here - potentially a severe blow to countries that depend on U.S. commerce.

It was unclear yesterday whether foreign governments and banks will cooperate. But administration officials said they have been speaking with leaders from other countries who have already offered their support.

U.S. officials said, for example, that they had won a promise of cooperation from Switzerland, a nation that has long prided itself on maintaining the privacy of individuals and organizations that hold accounts in their banks.

"No one is Pollyannish enough to believe that there won't be concerns or objections voiced," said David Aufhauser, Treasury's general counsel.

"But we have a high degree of confidence," he said, "because no responsible banker would ever be an enemy to the purposes of this order."

Aufhauser said that U.S. officials would begin traveling to foreign capitals within the next week to "underscore personally" to presidents and other leaders that Bush wants their cooperation. He said the administration planned to focus on nations in the Persian Gulf region, where many of the entities on the president's list are based.

In his address to Congress last Thursday, Bush said that any country harboring terrorists would be considered a "hostile regime" by the United States. But it seemed clear yesterday that the administration, while launching its campaign against specific terrorists and terrorist groups, planned to give foreign governments both time and opportunities to demonstrate that they are on the American side.

"This order is a notice to financial institutions around the world," said Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who was with Bush in the Rose Garden. "If you have any involvement in the financing of the Al Qaeda organization, you have two choices: cooperate in this fight, or we will freeze your U.S. assets. We will punish you for providing the resources that make these evil acts possible."

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