By Lucy Komisar
Salon, March 15, 2002
A previously unpublished list reveals that backers of a bank that the U.S. says helped fund al-Qaida include prominent members of the Arab world.
According to an unpublished list obtained by the author, the Al Taqwa bank, part of a network of financial companies named by the Bush administration as a major source and distributor of funds for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist operations, has shareholders that include prominent Arab figures from numerous countries in the Middle East. Among the shareholders are the grand mufti of the United Arab Emirates and prominent families in the UAE and Kuwait. Two sisters of Osama bin Laden are also on the list, undermining the bin Laden family’s claim that it separated itself from his terrorist pursuits after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1994.
Ahmed Huber, a Swiss director of the bank who is a radical Islamist and Hitler admirer, acknowledged in 1995 that wealthy Saudi Arabians were large contributors to the Al Taqwa bank. The just-revealed list of shareholders demonstrates further connections between important individuals in moderate Middle Eastern countries and a financial network allegedly vital to bin Laden.
The FBI may have known who the shareholders were for as long as four years. There is also evidence that Swiss authorities have since the mid-1990s refused to cooperate with international intelligence inquiries into the bank’s activities. Swiss officials have said they were aware of reports that Al Taqwa was connected to terrorist groups, but there was never sufficient evidence to merit a search warrant.
The names appear on an unpublished shareholders register of “Bank Al Taqwa” that reflects holdings as of December 1999. Bank Al Taqwa is based in the Bahamas; the Al Taqwa group (which changed its name to Nada Management Organization a year ago, after authorities began an investigation into its dealings) is headquartered in Lugano, Switzerland. In November, the U.S. named the Al Taqwa network a funnel for Bin Laden’s al-Qaida financial network. Representatives of the bank have denied any involvement in terrorist activities.
The list has been confirmed as authentic by both U.S. officials and Al Taqwa. Michele Davis, spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, was shown the documents on March 13 and acknowledged, “We have the list. We are doing the same as you — trying to find out who these people are.” There are 745 names on the 18-page register.
Al Taqwa president Youssef Moustafa Nada, one of several top bank officials who was put on the U.S. “supporters of terrorism” list in November, also confirmed the veracity of the list. “It is genuine,” he said in a phone interview. “You can ask Mr. Nicati [the Swiss deputy attorney general]. He investigated all these things four months ago. The FBI knows since 1997. I talked to them.”
Nada has vehemently denied funding bin Laden.
Included on the list are Yousuf Abdullah Al-Qaradawi, the grand mufti of the United Arab Emirates, and five members of his family; Mariam Al-Sheikh A. Bin Aziz Al-Mubarak of a branch of the Kuwaiti royal family; and members of the prominent Khalifeh family of the United Arab Emirates. Sisters Huta and Iman Binladen, who live in Saudi Arabia, and Hassan el-Banna, a leader of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood group, are also listed.
Al Taqwa was a so-called “hawala” operation (an informal word-of-mouth system that keeps no records and relies on trust) that facilitated transfers of cash between agents worldwide. The bank also used correspondent accounts — accounts that banks have in other banks — to transmit cash to its agents.
In October, Swiss Attorney General Valentine Roschacher said he’d received names from the FBI and they were being checked, but said no evidence of any wrongdoing had been found. He added, “It’s difficult for us to get information.” Swiss banks are protected by stringent secrecy laws, and the hawala system makes ascertaining the exact nature of Al Taqwa’s transactions even more difficult.
One American law enforcement official who was shown the list recognized names of members of the militant Palestinian organization Hamas, which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, among the shareholders. Additional publicly accessible records show that some of the bank’s shareholders are connected to organizations Western intelligence officials link to al-Qaida.
Al Taqwa has been viewed with suspicion by Western intelligence sources for years. In the mid-1990s, the Italian anti-terrorist agency DIGOS (Division of General Intelligence and Special Operations), concerned about radical Islamic activity at the Islamic Cultural Institution of Milan, found links to Al Taqwa. In 1995, according to journalists Paolo Fusi and Martin Stoll in the Swiss newsweekly Facts, DIGOS told Swiss federal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, “The Nada group comprises the most important financial structure of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic terrorist organizations.” The newsweekly said the agency later reported that Swiss officials appeared loath to look into Nada’s operations.
Included in the list of shareholders of Al Taqwa are bank founder and director Ahmed Idriss Nasreddin, an Ethiopian who worked for the Binladen Group (the bin Laden family’s construction company) and was honorary consul of Kuwait in Milan, board member of the Islamic Center of Milan and president of the Islamic Community of Ticino. Others are Sante (Abdulwahab) Ciccarello, director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Milan, and Kaldoun Dia Eddine, president of the Committee to Aid Refugees of Bosnia-Herzegovina and secretary of the Islamic Community of Ticino.
In 1996 DIGOS became suspicious that humanitarian help to Bosnia organized by Nasreddin in Milan was being skimmed. The amount the charity sent didn’t coincide with what it raised. According to the U.S. investigations into the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Milan center was also a gathering place for recruits to an al–Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.
According to Facts, a 1996 DIGOS report said Al Taqwa handled financing for a number of Arab and Islamic political and militant groups, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiya, as well as former Afghan mujahedin in bin Laden’s camps. It said the network aided terrorist groups in Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon and Sudan.
The weekly Facts also reported that in 1997 DIGOS asked for Swiss help. Del Ponte (who is now leading the U.N.’s prosecution of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes) started questioning Al Taqwa officials. Nada’s attorney, Pier Felice Barchi, in whose law firm Del Ponte had worked, recalled to Facts how he ended the investigation. Barchi said, “When I learned about the Italian inquiry, I immediately called Del Ponte and said to her, ‘Hey, Carlotta, stop this shit.’ A few hours later, the nonsense was off the table.”
Barchi told the author his true remark was, “Please, Mrs. Del Ponte, make an inquiry.” He said, “After 20 or 30 days, Mrs. Del Ponte said it’s not necessary to make an inquiry; there’s no evidence against Mr. Nada.” He said he hadn’t asked Facts for a correction because “I have other things to do.” Del Ponte’s press spokesman declined to respond to a detailed query.
Al Taqwa has for years enjoyed protection in Switzerland, where it moves money through correspondent accounts in the politically influential Banca del Gottardo, also in Lugano. Gottardo president Claudio Generali is a local vice president of the ruling Liberal Radical Party and a former finance minister of Ticino. Gottardo has New York correspondent accounts in Citibank and the Bank of New York, which gave Al Taqwa entry into the U.S. Replying to numerous queries about Gottardo activities, spokesman Franco Rogantini sent an e-mail declining to answer queries, then or in the future.