by James Risen, The New York Times
WASHINGTON - Even as the Sept. 11 hijackers pumped hundreds of thousands
of dollars into commercial banks to finance the terrorist operation, they
never tripped any of the American banking system's alarms intended to warn
federal regulators of the suspicious movement of cash, investigators have
The hijackers, largely financed by a series of cash infusions sent by
suspected middleman for Al Qaeda in the Persian Gulf region, moved at least
$325,000 into about 35 American accounts without any of the banks' issuing
reports of suspicious activity to federal regulators. Without any such red
flags from the banks, federal financial investigators never scrutinized
of the accounts before Sept. 11, officials said.
Some federal investigators said they now believed that the hijackers
careful not to raise suspicions and not to run afoul of American
reporting requirements by keeping many of their initial transactions
less than $10,000.
The terrorists also apparently avoided transactions that involved large
amounts of cash.
Banks have to report cash deposits of $10,000 or more to the Financial
Crimes Enforcement Network of the Treasury Department.
New details on the financing of the attacks became public as the House
subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security prepared to release a report
on intelligence lapses and abilities before Sept. 11. The panel conducted
separate inquiry from the broader investigation into lapses by intelligence
and law enforcement that is being conducted by a joint Congressional
The House subcommittee is widely expected to find that the United States
needed to focus more intensely on counterterrorism before Sept. 11 and to
propose legislation to improve coordination among federal agencies.
Financial safeguards also failed to detect the money trail behind the
Sept. 11 plot. Even when the hijackers began to receive much larger amounts
of money, their transactions did not prompt any of the banks that they were
using to file federal reports of suspicious activity. In fact, because they
received most of their money through wire transfers of funds directly into
commercial bank accounts, the hijackers were able to avoid having to make
large cash deposits, and so skirted several important bank reporting
requirements, officials said.
F.B.I. officials have said that in some cases the hijackers used fake
Social Security numbers to open their accounts, but that bank officials
never checked or questioned those numbers. If the banks had realized that
accounts had been opened with bogus Social Security numbers, they would
been required to file reports of suspicious activity to federal regulators,
The banks' failure to scrutinize the application forms for the accounts
let the hijackers gain access to the commercial banking system.
None of the banks used by the hijackers filed so-called currency
transaction reports, routine filings that banks have to make to the federal
government on any cash transaction of $10,000 or more. Banks have to file
currency transaction reports even when they have no reason to believe that
the transaction is suspicious.
But even those reports do not necessarily raise red flags with government
investigators. Instead, the government asks commercial banks to monitor
patterns of transactions that appear suspicious and gives the banks broad
guidelines, rather than fixed standards, on what to look for.
None of the banks detected unusual patterns in the hijackers' accounts,
and none filed suspicious activity reports with the Treasury Department,
Beginning in the summer of 2000, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who
investigators theorize were two leaders of the 19 hijackers, began to
receive a series of wire transfers from the United Arab Emirates.
F.B.I. officials said the bureau believed that the transfers were sent
Mustafa Ahmed al-Hisawi, who has been identified as a financial manager
Osama bin Laden. Mr. Hisawi is widely believed to have fled to Pakistan
before Sept. 11, but only after receiving unused cash back from the
In June 2000, Mr. Shehhi received a $4,790 wire transfer in Manhattan
from the United Arab Emirates. The next month, a second transfer, for
$9,985, was wired from the emirates to a SunTrust bank account in Florida
opened jointly by Mr. Atta and Mr. Shehhi. On Aug. 7, 2000, an additional
$9,485 was wired from the emirates to that account, a transfer quickly
followed by a wire transfer of $19,985 from the emirates to the account
Aug. 30 and a $69,985 wire transfer from the emirates on Sept. 18.
Officials at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said banks were
required to report such transfers to the government. Instead, banks have
keep records of wire transfers of more than $3,000 for five years.