Features

The freeze squeeze

National | Some big U.S. companies rely on Sudan's gum arabic, an asset that Washington may have to freeze if it is serious about disrupting al-Qaeda's financial support

Issue: "Elaine Chao: Unlikely star," Nov. 3, 2001

Just as the United States' air war against the Taliban regime entered its third week, the ground war in Afghanistan took off. This, said homeland defense czar Tom Ridge, meant the United States was "fighting two fronts in the same war," making U.S. territory safe and fighting terrorist sympathizers in Afghanistan. He did not mention a third and vast front: the rest of the world.

What the administration is saying little about, experts are calling the "intercontinental theater." It presents the Bush administration with its most far-reaching and enigmatic challenge so far: hunting down and eliminating Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda operatives as they have dispersed across the globe. Police have arrested more than 1,000 people in over 40 countries worldwide. Last week arrests included suspects in northern Alberta, Canada, and in Australia.

European investigators have uncovered cells in Spain, Germany, and Italy and have thwarted additional terror plots. Sixty-two countries, including the United States, have ordered their financial institutions to freeze assets. On Sept. 23 and Oct. 12 the United States named businesses from Germany to Yemen that it believes are fronts for Mr. bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. But as the worldwide crackdown mounted, so too did the realization that al-Qaeda may yet have more forms of escape. Fighting along the third front-eliminating terrorists on the move and the financial system that supports them-could be the trickiest of all.

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News accounts around the globe suggested in recent weeks that Mr. bin Laden had slipped from U.S. surveillance and fled Afghanistan. He was reported to be in Indonesia, then in Malaysia.

Strongest of the rumors are those suggesting Mr. bin Laden could be in Sudan. He enjoyed the protection of that government from 1991 to 1996. During that time he was known to travel the region-from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back to the Horn of Africa-by chartered jet with wives, children, and militant followers in tow. If he escaped Afghanistan, the passage to Port Sudan would be a familiar one.

The largest Red Sea outlet along Sudan's coast, Port Sudan is a regional mecca for international shipping traffic, air travel, and oil export. Mr. bin Laden built a major highway through northern Sudan that ended there. The coastal city became the launching pad for Mr. bin Laden, working through his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to smuggle al-Qaeda-trained fighters to Somalia in 1993. They supplied and supported the ambush on UN forces in Mogadishu, which killed 18 American soldiers. Mr. bin Laden has many adherents in Port Sudan, obligated to him both financially and ideologically. In addition, sources inside Sudan's capital, Khartoum, say Mr. bin Laden keeps a house in the Bahri area of Khartoum North.

Mr. bin Laden's financial bridge in Sudan is likewise viable. U.S. freezes have touched few assets there. A former Sudan government official told WORLD that Mr. bin Laden continues to operate one, if not more, acacia forests. Sudan's acacia trees are a plentiful source of commercially valuable gum arabic. Thorny and ranging in size from large bush to towering specimen, they are productive both in the wild and under cultivation. One bin Laden acacia forest is approximately 60 miles south of Khartoum near a town known as the site of an al-Qaeda training camp. Heavy artillery is reportedly still stored there. Other holdings are in the acacia-rich western areas of Darfur and in the east near Damazin, where Mr. bin Laden once owned a plantation.

Gum arabic is an essential ingredient in soft drinks, candy, and diet foods. It is also used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paint, and in the printing process. The National Soft Drink Association, which successfully lobbied the Clinton administration to exempt gum arabic from sanctions against Sudan, which barred most commercial transactions, reports that "almost 90 percent of the world's reliable supply" of gum arabic comes from Sudan. For U.S. drink and candy manufacturers, the gum is a hot commodity because no synthetic alternative has the same emulsion, or consistency, of the natural resin.

Gum arabic is harvested as sap. It is dried before shipping and can be successfully reconstituted. Tapping and harvesting the trees in Sudan's semi-arid mid-regions is physically demanding, labor-intensive work. Those familiar with Mr. bin Laden's gum arabic holdings say they have relied on tenant and-some suspect-slave labor. Harvested gum arabic is stored at bin Laden farms in Soba before it is transported to Port Sudan for export. A government-led consortium, Gum Arabic Company of Sudan, Ltd., handles all exports of the commodity. According to the ex-government source, the Sudan Shipping Line, a Khartoum government-owned fleet with access to the Suez Canal, ships the gum arabic. Exports go to Jordan and then overseas to Western and other markets.

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