2011-09-26 Alleged terrorist financier escaped U.S. sanction

Recently-released embassy cables reveal that, just months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush administration officials opted against freezing the assets of Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, the owner of the Nigerian corporation NASCO whom the U.S. and U.N. had identified as a significant financier of Al Qaeda.

Media reports state that evidence linked Nasreddin (a former bin Laden family employee) to the funding of international terrorism, primarily through Al Taqwa Bank, which Nasreddin directed. Described as "a major source and distributor of funds for Osama bin Laden's terrorist operations" and "the most important financial structure of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic terrorist organizations," the bank was said to boast shareholders including Arab royalty, two sisters of Osama bin Laden, and members of Hamas.

Large sums of cash were allegedly funneled through Al Taqwa Bank to Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and other groups labeled as terrorist organizations. Reportedly, Nasreddin also co-founded and financed the Islamic Cultural Institute, a "radical" Milan mosque and suspected Al Qaeda recruiting center that was allegedly connected to the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. By August 2002, the Bush administration named Nasreddin as "a key moneyman for Al Qaeda's international network." U.S. Treasury Department documents designated Nasreddin a "terrorist financier" and pledged to freeze his assets; the U.S. contacted numerous embassies worldwide, from North and South America to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The Turkish government froze NASCO's local assets and deported Nasreddin and his family.

Yet left untouched was NASCO Nigeria -- Nasreddin's main enterprise, which manufactures and markets consumer products from detergents to breakfast cereals. By 2005, an NBC News report noticed this, and asked: "why is [Nasreddin] still in business?"

Embassy cables may provide some insight. Communiques from January and February of 2002 indicate that, although the U.S. government considered shutting down NASCO Nigeria, it worried less about the ramifications of letting Nasreddin continue to finance terrorist activity than about negative publicity that the Bush administration might garner if the U.S. closed down "one of the largest private employers in mostly-Muslim northern Nigeria," thereby leaving roughly 100,000 Nigerians destitute:

"The case of NASCO reflects the delicate balance we must strike between the national security imperative to confront and combat terror and our longer-term interests in minimizing the gulf between USG [U.S. government] perceptions of our efforts and those of Muslims and the developing world."

The embassy expressed concern that Nigerian media and power-players might characterize the shuttering of NASCO by the U.S. as a ploy to eliminate competition from a major Nigerian supplier, so as to increase U.S. exports into the country. Emphasizing the U.S. commitment to "increased industrial capacity," embassy officials also worried that debilitating NASCO would "seriously impair (possibly destroy) U.S. credibility as regards economic reform ..." Of further concern was the possibility that the Nigerian government could face accusations of being a "lackey of Western interests": "Many Nigerians sympathetic to the war against terror would view this as an example of the USG using its weight to overstep its bounds ... too many Nigerians would suspect an ulterior motive behind our action. The sympathy of many Nigerians, including some now positively disposed toward us and our anti-terror efforts, would turn against us ..."

NASCO Nigeria remained in operation. Meanwhile, in 2003 the Turkish government released its freeze on NASCO's local assets. Several years later, Nasreddin was removed from terrorist financier lists, without explanation.

ImageNasreddin's son Attia currently serves as NASCO's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. In recent years, NASCO has been the recipient of awards for business; in 2008, THISDAY Newspapers listed NASCO Nigeria as one of Nigeria's top six companies for social responsibility. That same year, Mr. Attia received a lifetime achievement award, and was congratulated for his contributions to the Nigerian economy.

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