A Sheikh and the money trail

Print edition : October 13, 2001

THE gossamer web linking Jammu and Kashmir terrorists with the September 11 attacks on the United States is starting to stand out in stark relief. Early this month, German authorities came across information that Ahmad Omar Sayeed Sheikh, a close associate of Jaish-e-Mohammad commander Masood Azhar, may have played a key role in the September 11 attacks. Azhar, informants told the German internal security service, may have sent a draft for $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the men who crashed an aircraft into the World Trade Centre in New York. The draft, sources say, was sent in the summer of 2000 employing a pseudonym. Atta is thought to have returned $15,600 through the hawala channel just before the attack. An Egyptian national, Atta is believed to be among the central figures responsible for conceptualising and executing the attacks on the U.S.

Officials of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation are now looking into Atta's possible links with Sheikh. Sheikh, along with his long-time mentor Azhar and a third terrorist, Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, had been released from jail in December 1999 in order to secure the freedom of 155 passengers and crew on Indian Airlines flight IC 814, which was hijacked by terrorists to Kandahar. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, Sheikh became involved with Islamist fascist groups while a student, and went on to be a key member of the United Kingdom-based armed action group al-Hadeed. After his release in Kandahar, Sheikh did not return to the U.K. and stayed on in Pakistan in an Inter-Services Intelligence-provided safe house in Islamabad.

In October 1994, Sheikh had organised the abduction of one American and three British tourists from a low-budget hotel in New Delhi to press for Azhar's release. The hostages were driven to a safe house near Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where police officers located them on October 31 that year. Sheikh and his accomplice, Pakistani national Abdul Rahim, were arrested after a brief shootout, in which an Uttar Pradesh Police commando was killed. The four hostages were brought out unharmed. The kidnapping was the second in a series of three kidnappings of foreign tourists to secure Azhar's release.

After his release, Sheikh spent time making contact with several terrorist organisations in Afghanistan and Taliban head Mullah Mohammad Omar. While Azhar went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammad, focussed on Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh concentrated on building international contacts for the Islamic Right through his old network in the U.K. Although he had received arms training at the Salam Fassi camp at Miranshah, Pakistan, in 1993, guns were no longer part of his job. Osama bin Laden, say Indian officials who have monitored Sheikh's career, played a key role in this career move. Indian intelligence believes that Sheikh, who helped set up a website propagating jehad, was also tasked to help create a secure, encrypted web-based communications system.

Little is so far known about how Sheikh may have passed on funds to Atta. The Jaish-e-Mohammad has two known accounts with the Allied Bank, at Binori in Karachi (account number 1697) and Khayabeya in Rawalpindi (account number 1342-0). These accounts, run using the names of Khadri Mohammad Sadiq and Bahsud Ahmad, have been used to deposit funds raised from West Asia, the U.K. and the U.S. Before his arrest in 1994 in Srinagar, Azhar had visited several countries in Africa, West Asia and the U.K. on fund-raising missions. It is unlikely, however, that either of these accounts was used to handle funds meant for Atta.

If the information made available to German intelligence on Sheikh turns out to be correct, it might throw light on how the September 11 attacks were funded. According to Time magazine, Atta received at least two wire transfers of funds from Egypt, on September 8 and 9. U.S. investigators have said they believe Atta handled funds passed on from Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian businessman who ostensibly controlled a bank account in Germany held by Mustafah Ahmad, bin Laden's head of finance. No one is, however, talking about where the funds deposited in this account came from. The role of Sheikh and others like him could hold the key to this so far unanswered question.

There is also the possibility that the September 11 attacks were, so to speak, self-financing. The U.S. has ordered some 5,000 banks to check accounts that may belong to 27 entities, made up of 13 terrorist groups, 11 individuals and three charities. One New York-based bank announced in late September that it had frozen $3.8 million in suspect accounts, while banks in the United Kingdom have frozen an estimate $68 million. Some experts believe these funds were made up mainly from earnings from bin Laden-controlled legitimate businesses. If this is true, it would make little sense for Sheikh to be passing on funds to Atta.

"As things stand," says one senior Indian intelligence official, "the information is still very speculative. While there is no doubt that Sheikh was close to bin Laden, the precise nature of that relationship and of his financial activities still have to be discovered." Curiously, there seems to have been little international pressure on Pakistan to hand the terrorist over. Last month, the U.K. served a letters rogatory on India, asking for information on Sheikh in relation to the 1994 kidnapping of its nationals. It is unclear why it has taken that country so long to initiate the legal proceedings, and why the U.S. has chosen not to act so far. These mysteries, like the many others that have come to attention since September 11, could give rise to some interesting answers in the weeks to come.

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