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What to do about global terrorism?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-12

THE devastating terrorist attacks in the Egyptian resorts of the Sinai Peninsula last week in which more than 30 people were killed were widely attributed to Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's shadowy network. It has long maintained ties with two of Egypt's largest Islamic militant organisations, Jamaat al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, both of which have vowed to topple President Hosni Mubarak, whom they regard as a Muslim apostate and a political appendix of the United States.

A vast majority of Egypt's 70 million people would probably agree with such an assessment, and polls have shown that Egypt's alliance with the US concerning the anti-terrorism campaign is far from popular. That is not to say that Egyptians condone wanton attacks on civilians - particularly tourists - but the Mubarak regime's reputation for corruption, cronyism and repression is such that any embarrassment to it resonates well among everyday people.

However, the tragic attacks last week - reportedly aimed at Israeli tourists - were far more than an embarrassment for Mr Mubarak. They were most certainly aimed at disrupting the Egyptian economy, for whom tourism constitutes the biggest source of revenue - more than US$2 billion annually, almost equal to the annual economic and military aid Egypt receives from the United States.

The attacks also highlighted that, notwithstanding US President George W. Bush's repeated triumphalist statements about getting the upper hand over global terrorism, it continues hydra-headed. One day it's Indonesia. Then it's Pakistan. Saudi Arabia hasn't been immune. Al-Qaeda has turned up in the Philippines, and now Indian authorities report that its operatives have fashioned an alliance with separatists in Kashmir and in the resource-rich states of India's northeast region.

But Egypt holds a special appeal for the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. He recruited two leaders of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Mr Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late Muhammad Atef, into the top ranks of Al-Qaeda. Scores of Egyptian militants have "graduated" at al-Qaeda training camps in Taliban-run Afghanistan during the 1990s. Jamaat al-Islamiyya has a presence in Egypt, Sudan and other countries. Its spiritual leader, the blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, is serving a life sentence in the United States for his involvement in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. (In April 2002, the US Justice Department said that Abdel Rahman had tried to direct further terrorist operations from his cell in Minnesota.)

The fact that the attacks in the Sinai came in the home stretch of the US presidential race could scarcely have been a coincidence. They also drew attention, however implicitly, that Mr Bush global campaign against terrorist is in disarray. His own organisations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, cannot agree on a coordinated approach. European countries - with exceptions such as Britain and Germany - have been less than cooperative, often claiming a lack of available resources to participate in a worldwide anti-terrorism campaign.

Tourism isn't just Egypt's biggest industry; it's also that of the world. According to the World Tourism Organisation, nearly a billion people travel each year to a foreign country. That translates into revenues of more than US$600 billion. If you add the revenues of the passenger transport industry - which is integral to tourism both domestic and foreign - then the overall revenue figure rises to US$1.2 trillion. Only illegal narcotics generate more revenue - about US$3 trillion each year, according to US law enforcement authorities.

And tourists can be notoriously panicky - and understandably so. After the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, the tourism industry was hurt so badly by the fall in international travel that its decline also hurt subsidiary businesses such as the entertainment and clothing industries; tourists were simply not shopping as much.

It's taken three years for these businesses to pull out of their recession, and even then places like Singapore and Indonesia haven't quite returned to their halcyon days. Some former tourist havens such as Kashmir haven't recovered at all from the conflict caused by terrorism. The Himalayan territory - which is claimed by both India and Pakistan - earned more than US$300 million annually until the early 1990s. Now tourism is practically nonexistent.

There's an old saw among investigators that says: Follow the money. Where do Al-Qaeda and its terrorist brethren get their money? After all, it takes cash to buy guns and bombs. It takes money to purchase plane tickets. Operatives need to be trained, housed, fed and clothed. Al-Qaeda, Jamaat al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad are known to be the beneficiaries of largesse from sources in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. Wealthy - but religiously conservative - individuals in Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco, are also significant donors.

And how much US law enforcement officials reckon is funneled to terrorist groups each year? At least US$4 billion, possibly more.

The money is usually laundered through countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have been known to offer shelter to known terrorists.

For example, until not too long ago, Mr Dawood Ibrahim of India lived openly and lavishly in Dubai. For years he ran Mumbai's underworld; his operatives murdered businessmen who refused to accede to his extortion. Then Mr Ibrahim went into the arms business, providing sophisticated weapons to thugs who used them to bomb Mumbai's Stock Exchange and other public facilities. At one point, Mr Ibrahim - who was enamoured with film actresses - also financed several movies.

Then one day he abruptly transferred his residence to Dubai. After a few years there - during which he openly entertained figures from India's film industry - he moved to Karachi, Pakistan. He's still there; nowadays he calls himself a philanthropist.

So do a couple of other Indians who live in London. They are legitimate businessmen in the sense that they are into enterprises like automotive parts and edible oil.

But they are also arms merchants. One Indian group used to sell arms to the late Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi of Iran. After the Islamic revolution of 1979 during which he was deposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his fellow theocrats, this Indian group developed a close relationship with the mullahs who continue to rule Iran and who, according to the US State Department, provide arms to terrorist groups such as the Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine.

Similarly, Tamil expatriates in Europe and Canada have been known to send money to support the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka. In the 1970s and 1980s, Sikhs settled in Britain and Canada funded the irredentist Khalistan movement, which called for the secession of Punjab state from India.

While military and undercover operations against terrorism are necessary and laudable, it's going to take accelerated cooperation among law enforcement authorities and the world's financial institutions to track the flow of funds to militant groups. By cutting off their money supply, you will most certainly cut off their hands.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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