Arab Bank On Trial For Allegedly Funding Hamas

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In New York, a Jordanian bank is being sued by victims of terrorism who say the bank sent money to terrorists. NPR's Scott Simon talks to the New York Times's Jessica Silver-Greenberg about the case.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There's a big bank on trial, but this one's not on Wall Street. The Arab Bank based in Jordan is being tried in New York federal court. They've been accused of funneling tens of millions of dollars to the families of suicide bombers and terrorists who are affiliated with Hamas. The trial will determine whether the bank should be liable for attacks that killed Americans between 2001 and 2004. Jessica Silver-Greenberg is a business reporter for The New York Times and has been covering the story. Thanks so much for being with us.

JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Tell us please about the plaintiffs - in this case, survivors and families of people who were harmed in terrorist attacks?

SILVER-GREENBERG: So the plaintiffs in the case - there are almost 300 plaintiffs. And they represent those who were killed, injured or had a family member killed in 24 Hamas attacks.

SIMON: What are the plaintiffs' attorneys expected to argue?

SILVER-GREENBERG: Basically what they say is that the bank processed transactions on behalf of, for example, a charity - the Saudi Committee - that the plaintiffs say then sent those payments on to terrorists and their families. And they point to a spreadsheet that listed the names of martyrs and their beneficiaries, as well as the martyrs' causes of death. And say here you have the bank - Arab Bank that was processing transactions on behalf of the Saudi Committee. And the Saudi Committee, the plaintiffs allege, was then rewarding terrorists and their families for committing acts of terror.

SIMON: Now I gather in reading some of your reporting and other articles that the Arab Bank maintains they took every precaution possible.

SILVER-GREENBERG: The bank says that, you know, it had nothing to do with who the Saudi Committee chose to give money to. And they said that they vetted all of the organizations and individuals against these international lists of designated terrorists and that there were no red flags.

SIMON: How does it happen that a U.S. court even has jurisdiction in this?

SILVER-GREENBERG: This is the first case under the Anti-Terrorism Act. And the reason it's being tried here is because again it's a federal - it's a U.S. federal law. And many of the payments that we're talking about were processed through the New York-based operations of Arab Bank. So in order to clear payments, some of these transactions are routed through branches in the U.S. And so that's where you get jurisdiction.

SIMON: Jessica, are there implications for the banking industry in this case?

SILVER-GREENBERG: The banking industry broadly is paying attention to this because they are concerned about the reputational risk and the regulatory risk of doing business in countries and providing banking servicing in countries that are risky - so areas of the country that are wracked with violence, for example. It could mean doing business in any of these places in the world may just become too risky altogether.

SIMON: This may not be something that you've had a chance to look at but I guess I'm sitting here and I find myself astonished that Hamas or other groups would use banks to make those kinds of payments.

SILVER-GREENBERG: One of the very interesting parts of this story, at least for us, is that there is infrastructure that finances and relays payments to terrorists. I mean, their money has to change hands. And unless you're going to walk, you know, name your currency up and do a hand-to-hand exchange, you need an infrastructure to transmit those payments. And so this trial promises to really shed a light on how terrorism is financed - on what really is a shadowy and very interconnected network that enables payments to be sent all over the world.

SIMON: Jessica Silver-Greenberg, who will be watching the trial - a business reporter for The New York Times. Thanks so much for being with us.


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