Washington, Sept. 3: Financial officers of al Qaida and the Taliban have quietly shipped large quantities of gold out of Pakistan to Sudan in recent weeks, transiting through the United Arab Emirates and Iran, according to European, Pakistani and US investigators.
The sources said several shipments of boxes of gold, usually disguised as other products, were taken by small boat from the Pakistani port of Karachi to either Iran or Dubai, and from there mixed with other goods and flown by chartered airplanes to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. Although it is not clear how much gold has been moved, US and European officials said the quantity was significant and was an important indicator that the al Qaida network and members of Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban militia still had access to large financial reserves.
European and US intelligence officials said the movement of gold also highlighted three significant developments in the war on terrorism: the growing role of Iranian intelligence units allied with the country’s hard-line clerics in protecting and aiding al Qaida; the potential reemergence of Sudan as a financial centre for the organisation; and the ability of the terrorist group to generate new sources of revenue despite the global crackdown on its finances.
The sources said Sudan may have been chosen because Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born al Qaida leader, and other members of the network are familiar with the country and retain business contacts there. They said traditional havens for al Qaida money on the Arabian peninsula such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates were under intense international scrutiny, while transactions in Sudan could more easily pass unnoticed. Gold has, for years, been the preferred financial instrument of the Taliban and al Qaida. Most of the Taliban treasury was kept in gold when the militia ruled Afghanistan, and taxes were often collected in gold. Just before the Taliban and al Qaida were driven from Afghanistan last year, the two groups shipped large amounts of gold to Dubai, and from there to other safe havens, according to US, European and Arab officials.
Senior US intelligence officials said they are investigating the information about the new gold shipments and had opened a case on the matter but had no further comment. “We know they are looking at new sources of revenue and are finding new ways to raise and move funds to where they are accessible,” a US official said. “The bankers are the ones that move the money and the bankers are not sitting in caves in Afghanistan.”
European and US sources said they became aware of the shipments after they occurred, and have asked the Sudanese government to take measures to halt the flow. A spokesman for the Sudanese Embassy in Washington said he had no official information about the shipments and found the information “hard to believe.”
“Sudan is not going to allow anything like this to come in knowingly,” the official said. “We are concerned about terrorism. We are on a high level of alert since September 11.”
But European intelligence sources said one of the hubs of bin Laden’s organisation continues to be Sudan, where he lived from 1991 to 1996, when he was forced to move to Afghanistan.
Although the United States and other countries have praised Sudan for its cooperation in the war on terrorism, European and US officials say that bin Laden, who invested tens of millions of dollars in the country when it harboured him, continues to have economic interests there. While living in Sudan, bin Laden operated a large construction business, bought extensive land holdings and helped found a bank.
A senior European intelligence official said there was growing evidence that Khartoum was again serving “as a sort of hub” for al Qaida business transactions. “He has banking contacts there, he has business contacts there and he is intimately familiar with the political and intelligence structure there,” the official said. “He never fully left Sudan despite moving to Afghanistan.”