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.
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.
The Treasury Department on Oct. 12 blocked transactions with 39 individuals and organizations suspected of ties to al-Qaeda, in addition to the 27 named by President Bush on Sept. 23. Gum Arabic enterprises did not make the list, although two Yemeni honey enterprises with ties to Mr. bin Laden did. "We are not commenting at this point on why certain organizations may or may not be on the list," Treasury spokesperson Tasia Scolinos told WORLD. "We will likely name additional enterprises in the days and weeks and months to come."
While the gum arabic trade may be financing future terrorist activities, Bush administration officials believe they have reason to go slow on freezing it. The White House has courted President Omar el-Bashir, seeking intelligence on al-Qaeda since Sept. 11. Also, Mr. Bashir's totalitarian structure doesn't lend transparency to the country's financial and economic system.
Even if the U.S. government were to decide to shut down the gum arabic flow from Sudan, Treasury officials could encounter resistance from U.S. manufacturers. The National Soft Drink Association issued a press release Sept. 20 defending Sudan's gum arabic market and denying a bin Laden connection. Spokesman Sean McBride said the association based its statement on a Sept.19 memo from the State Department indicating it had "no information to substantiate" allegations of a bin Laden stake in the gum arabic trade. Mr. McBride said, "In these times it is prudent for [government officials] to investigate, and our members will comply with any changes in the law" on licensing the import of gum arabic.
Gum arabic interests are closely tied to other bin Laden agriculture ventures in Sudan that have eluded the U.S. assets freeze, if not French and other intelligence sources. "Osama bin Laden controlled a huge portion of gum arabic and other agriculture business," noted Sudan analyst and Smith College professor Eric Reeves. "When he left Sudan would he magically walk away from it all with no bin Laden residue of involvement? That is nonsense."
Mr. bin Laden at one time had as much as $500 million deposited in the Sudanese Central Bank and $50 million in Al Shamal Bank in Khartoum. He shifted financial tactics after leaving Sudan in 1996 and again after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. He began to rely more on unconventional Middle Eastern banking practices known as hawala, using chits and verbal agreements of storefront operators to move money from place to place without leaving a paper trail. He also parked money in seemingly legitimate businesses. That is why the United States cited in its Oct. 12 freeze entities like Al-Hamati Sweets Bakeries and Al Shifa Honey Press (whose Yemen address in Treasury documents reads, "by the Shrine Next to the Gas Station").
Mr. bin Laden also began using Islamic charities as front organizations. The Oct. 12 freeze included Muwafaq Foundation. In 1997 the United Nations gave $1.4 million to the Sudan-based charity, a member of its Operation Lifeline Sudan relief effort, which in turn is largely funded by the U.S. government. U.S. officials say Muwafaq, which al-Qaeda founded, served as a front for raising funds and laundering money for Mr. bin Laden.
The UN and Operation Lifeline Sudan also have supported DAWA, or Al-dawa Al-islamiya, another Khartoum-based relief agency that is a suspected front for al-Qaeda. It allegedly runs hospitals and clinics for refugees in northern Sudan. Visitors to its website could make automatic donations to the DAWA account at Al Shamal Bank. The financial institution took in $50 million from Mr. bin Laden in the 1990s, and finally landed on the Oct. 12 Treasury freeze list after a French intelligence report unveiled its al-Qaeda ties. Since then, DAWA's website has been "under construction."
U.S. Rangers may capture Osama bin Laden on President Bush's terms, "dead or alive." They may destroy the Taliban and whatever support al-Qaeda has bartered from Afghanistan. But as the United States learns more about the global web of operatives and their finances, the third front looks do-or-die, too. Without winning it, Americans may ruefully learn that al-Qaeda terrorism can go on without both head and headquarters.