WASHINGTON - Federal agents widened their efforts to shut down Osama bin Laden's financial network yesterday, raiding U.S. businesses suspected of aiding terrorists and arresting an operator of a Massachusetts money transfer firm.
President Bush said investigators had closed the offices of two "terror-supporting financial networks," operating in four states. The global crackdown on terrorist money also expanded overseas, with Swiss police detaining two Arab financiers.
"By shutting these networks down, we disrupt the murderers' work," Bush said in announcing the first widespread searches aimed at businesses inside the United States suspected of funneling money to terror groups.
Early yesterday, agents with the U.S. Customs Service and the FBI seized evidence from nine locations in four cities - Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio. Investigators also executed search warrants at two storefront operations in Northern Virginia.
The agents were acting on an order signed by Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill to freeze the assets of nine organizations and two individuals in the United States. They were among 62 new groups and people added yesterday to the federal government's list of suspected terrorist associates whose assets can be frozen.
In all, the White House said, U.S. officials have blocked more than $26 million in assets linked to bin Laden or al-Qaida worldwide, while other nations have frozen at least $17 million.
Bush said yesterday's efforts were aimed at two shadowy, unregulated financial networks, part of the hawala system in the Middle East and Central Asia. Bush identified the two groups as Al Taqwa and al-Barakaat and said both have ties to bin Laden.
Al Taqwa, a network of offshore banks, has aided bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, Bush said, while al-Barakaat is a money-wiring network operated by a friend and supporter of bin Laden.
A Treasury Department task force, with agents from Customs, the FBI and the CIA, has been investigating hawala networks as part of the broader effort to dry up funding for terrorist groups.
Hawala is an Islamic system of money exchanges that essentially operate as unlicensed banks with little in the way of a paper trail. Many of their transactions are based on trust.
Bush said the two networks targeted yesterday operate in more than 40 countries, raising money for al-Qaida and helping terrorist supporters around the world obtain Internet service, secure phone service and other communication tools.
"They present themselves as legitimate businesses, but they skim money from every transaction for the benefit of terrorist organizations," Bush told reporters.
The head of the al-Barakaat group rejected the president's assertion. Ahmed Nur Ali Jimale, a former Somalian banker, told the Associated Press in a phone interview from Dubai that, "We are people who are hard working and have nothing to do with terrorists."
The White House described al-Barakaat as operating 60 offices in Somalia and 127 branches in other countries to transmit money and information to terrorist cells.
Two men who run a business called Barakaat North America Inc. in Dorchester, Mass., were charged with running an illegal money transmitting business, according to a federal criminal complaint filed in Boston.
One of the men, Mohamed M. Hussein, was in custody yesterday. Authorities still were searching for the other man, Liban M. Hussein.
According to an affidavit by Customs Service Agent Andrew A. Moore, the two men were operating a foreign money exchange service without a state license and had moved more than $2 million through a U.S. bank account between January and September.
The business had come to the attention of financial regulators in Massachusetts more than a year ago, when the company applied for a state license to serve as a foreign money exchange, according to Moore's affidavit.
In a letter responding to the application, state officials raised concerns that Barakaat North America already was illegally conducting foreign wire transfers and directed the company to submit detailed records of all foreign money exchanges.
Instead, the Husseins withdrew their application, the affidavit said. An awkwardly phrased letter from their attorney advised state regulators: "We are doing this to correct the defects and incompleteness in this application, which we intend to present in another date as soon as possible."
Massachusetts officials said the business did not reapply for the license.
Federal agents seized evidence yesterday at the company's Dorchester offices. Among the other sites searched yesterday were a money-transfer and check-cashing business called Barakaat Enterprise in Columbus, Ohio, and the offices of Barakat Wire Transfer Co. in Seattle.