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Context of 'Late 1998: US Initiates New Effort to Stop Financing of Al-Qaeda, but to Little Effect'

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President Clinton signs a classified presidential order “directing the Departments of Justice, State and Treasury, the National Security Council, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies to increase and integrate their efforts against international money laundering by terrorists and criminals.” The New York Times will later call this the first serious effort by the US government to track bin Laden’s businesses. However, according to the Times, “They failed.” William Wechsler, a National Security Council staff member during the Clinton administration, will say that the government agencies given the task suffered from “a lack of institutional knowledge, a lack of expertise… We could have been doing much more earlier. It didn’t happen.” [New York Times, 9/20/2001]

Entity Tags: National Security Council, William Wechsler, Osama bin Laden, US Department of Justice, US Department of the Treasury, Central Intelligence Agency, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

IARA logo.IARA logo. [Source: IARA]In November 1996, the FBI monitors the progress of bin Laden buying a new satellite phone and tracks the purchase to Ziyad Khaleel, a US citizen and radical militant living in Missouri (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Newsweek will later say that this puts the Sudan-based charity Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA) “on the FBI’s radar screen” because Khaleel is one of IARA’s eight regional US directors. [Newsweek, 10/20/2004] Khaleel is monitored as he continues to buy new minutes and parts for bin Laden’s phone at least through 1998 (see July 29-August 7, 1998). He is also the webmaster of the official Hamas website. His name and a Detroit address where he lived both appear prominently in ledgers taken by US investigators from the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in 1994, a charity front with ties to both bin Laden and the CIA (see 1986-1993). That Detroit address is also tied to Ahmed Abu Marzouk, the nephew of Mousa Abu Marzouk, a high-ranking Hamas leader who is imprisoned in the US between 1995 and 1997 (see July 5, 1995-May 1997). Furthermore, Khaleel is working for the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), a Hamas-linked organization cofounded by Mousa Abu Marzook. [National Review, 10/2/2003] A secret CIA report in early 1996 concluded that the IARA was funding radical militants in Bosnia (see January 1996). US intelligence will later reveal that in the late 1990s, IARA is regularly funding al-Qaeda. For instance, it has evidence of IARA giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to bin Laden in 1999. But Newsweek will later note that “at the very moment that the [IARA] was allegedly heavily involved in funneling money to bin Laden, the US branch was receiving ample support from the US Treasury through contracts awarded by the State Department’s Agency for International Development (USAID).” Between 1997 and 1999, USAID gives over $4 million to IARA, mostly meant for charity projects in Africa. Finally, at the end of December 1999, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke gets USAID to cut off all funding for IARA. But the charity is merely told in a latter that US government funding for it would not be “in the national interest of the United States” and it is allowed to continue operating. At the same time, US agents arrest Khaleel while he is traveling to Jordan (see December 29, 1999. The US government will wait until 2004 before shutting down IARA in the US and raiding the Missouri branch where Khaleel worked. Newsweek will later comment, “One question that is likely to arise [in the future] is why it took the US government so long to move more aggressively against the group.” [Newsweek, 10/20/2004]

Entity Tags: USAID, Ziyad Khaleel, Islamic African Relief Agency, Osama bin Laden, Al-Kifah Refugee Center, Ahmed Abu Marzouk, Richard A. Clarke, Islamic Association for Palestine, Mousa Abu Marzouk, Hamas

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On August 20, 1998, President Clinton signs an Executive Order imposing sanctions against bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The order gives US officials the power to block accounts and impose sanctions on any government, organization, or person providing “material assistance” to al-Qaeda. Beginning in 1999, mid-level US officials travel to Saudi Arabia and a number of Persian Gulf countries seeking information about charities supporting al-Qaeda and attempting to put pressure of governments allowing such charities to operate (see June 1999). But these governments provide little to no assistance. The New York Times claims that by the end of 1999, “with the [US] embassy bombings receding into memory, the [Clinton] administration largely moved on. ‘These visits were not followed up by senior-level intervention by the State Department, or for that matter by Treasury, to those governments,’ [says] Stuart Eizenstadt, a Treasury official and a participant in the trips. ‘I think that was interpreted by those governments as meaning this was not the highest priority.’” William Wechsler, one US official involved in these efforts, will later claim, “We had only marginal successes.” He will cite the United Arab Emirates imposing money laundering laws for the first time in 1999 and efforts to ban flights by Ariana, the Afghan national airline (see November 14, 1999; January 19, 2001), as the main successes. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later notes that the Saudis promised information and support, but in the end gave little of either. He will claim that they “protested our focus on continuing contacts between Osama and his wealthy, influential family, who were supposed to have broken all ties with him years before. ‘How can we tell a mother not to call her son?’ they asked.” The New York Times concludes that by 9/11, “the assault on al-Qaeda’s finances had largely fallen by the wayside.” [New York Times, 9/20/2001; New York Times, 12/10/2001; Clarke, 2004, pp. 190-195]

Entity Tags: William Wechsler, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

William Wechsler.William Wechsler. [Source: CAP]Shortly after the US embassy bombings in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the US launches a new interagency effort to track bin Laden’s finances. There had been a previous interagency effort in 1995 but it had fizzled (see October 21, 1995). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke sets up a task force. He orders it to find out how much money bin Laden has, where it comes from, how it is distributed, and to stop it. Clarke appoints William Wechsler, a National Security Council staff member, to head the task force. The task force begins an investigation of bin Laden’s finances (see Late 1998). Clarke later writes that he and Wechsler “quickly [come] to the conclusion that the [US government] departments [are] generally doing a lousy job of tracking and disrupting international criminals’ financial networks and had done little or nothing against terrorist financing.” [New York Times, 9/20/2001; Clarke, 2004, pp. 190-191] Clarke will later claim there was only limited effort from within the US government to fight bin Laden’s financial network. He will assert that within weeks of setting up the interagency effort, it was determined that only one person in the US government, a lowly Treasury Department official, appeared to have any expertise about the hawala system, an informal and paperless money transfer system used by al-Qaeda that is popular with Muslim populations worldwide (see 1993-September 11, 2001). Clarke will later write that the “CIA knew little about the [hawala] system, but set about learning. FBI knew even less, and set about doing nothing.” The FBI claims there are no hawalas in the US, but Wechsler finds several in New York City using a simple Internet search. Clarke will say, “Despite our repeated requests over the following years, nobody from the FBI ever could answer even our most basic questions about the number, location, and activities of major hawalas in the US—much less taken action.” The efforts of other departments are not much better. The one Treasury official with some expertise about hawalas is eventually let go before 9/11. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 192-193] Efforts to pressure governments overseas also meet with little success (see August 20, 1998-1999).

Entity Tags: William Wechsler, Richard A. Clarke, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Central Intelligence Agency, US Department of the Treasury

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

According to Time magazine, “The US was all set to join a global crackdown on criminal and terrorist money havens [in early 2001]. Thirty industrial nations were ready to tighten the screws on offshore financial centers like Liechtenstein and Antigua, whose banks have the potential to hide and often help launder billions of dollars for drug cartels, global crime syndicates—and groups like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization. Then the Bush administration took office.” [Time, 10/15/2001] After pressure from the powerful banking lobby, the Treasury Department under Paul O’Neill halts US cooperation with these international efforts begun in 2000 by the Clinton administration. Clinton had created a Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center in his last budget, but under O’Neill no funding for the center is provided and the tracking of terrorist financing slows down. Spurred by the 9/11, attacks, the center will finally get started three days after 9/11 (see October 2000-September 14, 2001). [Foreign Affairs, 7/2001; Time, 10/15/2001] Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later claim that efforts to track al-Qaeda’s finances began to make significant headway in 2000, after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin stepped down and was replaced by Larry Summers. But, Clarke will claim, “When the Bush administration came into office, I wanted to raise the profile of our efforts to combat terrorist financing, but found little interest. The new President’s economic advisor, Larry Lindsey, had long argued for weakening US anti-money laundering laws in a way that would undercut international standards. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, was lukewarm at best toward the multilateral effort to ‘name and shame’ foreign money laundering havens, and allowed the process to shut down before the status of Saudi Arabian cooperation was ever assessed.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 195-196]

Entity Tags: Clinton administration, Paul O’Neill, Richard A. Clarke, Bush administration (43), US Department of the Treasury, Larry Summers, Lawrence Lindsey, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline


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