The war against terrorism will have many fronts, but the fight may already have started on one of the least bloody and most promising. In launching efforts to trace financial transactions by hijackers and other terrorists back to the source of the funding, investigators of the Sept. 11 attacks already have shed light on the scope of the planning and the network of planners.
They also have uncovered an obvious need. America must demand more cooperation from international financial institutions, and insist that they do a better job of reporting suspicious activity. Those who resist ought to face sanctions. President Bush had it exactly right Monday when he put banks around the world on notice: "If you do business with terrorists, if you support or sponsor them, you will not do business with the United States of America."
According to the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, established by the "Group of Seven" industrialized nations well before these attacks, the global financial system "launders" between $600 billion and $1.5 trillion a year.
If a financial institution suspects money is being moved just to make it more difficult to trace, reports are supposed to be filed. But financial institutions often are protective of client confidentiality. Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service, for example, estimates two-thirds of the banks in Britain make no reports at all involving the movements of unusually large sums of money, the appearance of poorly explained funds or changes in the pattern of account transactions.
"People are not doing enough reporting of suspicious transactions," a spokesman for the intelligence service told the British news agency Reuters.
America's response to the terrorist attacks must include several steps, noted James Lindsay, a foreign affairs scholar with the Brookings Institution. Those steps include intelligence gathering, isolating and pressuring states that support terrorism, strikes whenever and wherever clear targets present themselves and better control over the flow of money to and from terrorist organizations.
At the request of the FBI, major national and industry financial watchdog groups are checking millions of financial records for transactions involving the known hijackers and other suspects. Credit card companies are doing the same, in hopes of establishing a transaction trail. But any well-versed terrorist group is likely to have covered its tracks with circuitous transactions, legitimate or at least plausible financial moves, multiple identities and other ploys.
Investigations also now are under way, here and abroad, into suspicious stock trading that could indicate terrorist groups were seeking to profit from the attacks that were about to take place. The trading essentially involves "bets" investors were making that the stocks of some industries -- insurance, major Wall Street investment firms and the parent-company owners of American and United Airlines, whose planes were hijacked -- would drop in value.
Japan also has banned financial transfers to people linked to Afghanistan's Taliban movement and Swiss finance ministry investigators have frozen at least one account, but both countries so far report no solid links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.
Despite the difficulty, the task of ferreting out terrorist-related financial transactions is essential. While suicide acts of terrorism involving single bombs, or captured airliners used as weapons, may not be expensive, underwriting thousands of terrorists waiting in isolated terrorist cells throughout 60 countries is. Choking off the funding would be a major step toward killing the beast, or at least limiting its reach.
Countries or banks who fail to cooperate in those efforts are casting their lot with the terrorists. And this country needs to act accordingly.