U.S. fights to keep $6.6 million in al-Qaeda assets from 9/11 victims

January 22, 2012|By Chris Mondics, Inquirer Staff Writer

  • United Airlines Flight 175 collides into the south tower of the World Trade Center as smoke billows from the north tower.
United Airlines Flight 175 collides into the south tower of the World Trade Center as… (Chao Soi Cheong / Associated Press)

In a ferocious legal battle pitting government lawyers against victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Justice Department is fighting to block thousands of individuals and businesses from taking $6.6 million in frozen al-Qaeda assets seized from an alleged terrorism financier.

Frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2007, the money is sought by the attorneys for 6,000 individual victims and insurers who suffered billions in losses from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The money, in a Chicago brokerage account controlled by senior al-Qaeda operative Abu al-Tayyeb until his arrest in Saudi Arabia in 2006, drew little public notice until lawyers for 9/11 victims moved in June to collect on a 2007 default judgment.

A short time later, the Justice Department initiated legal proceedings to claim the money for itself – and keep it out of the hands of the 9/11 victims and insurers.

That triggered a fierce response from the victims’ lawyers, among them the Center City law firm Cozen O’Connor, who accuse the Justice Department of duplicity in seeking to prevent them from getting access to the money.

“The facts are that the U.S. government, under the professed guise of good intentions toward victims of al-Qaeda, is pulling out every trick in the book to prevent individual victims of Sept. 11, 2001 . . . from pursuing and attaching [al-Qaeda funds],” the victims’ lawyers said in a filing in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

Randall Sanborn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, declined to comment. He instead cited government filings arguing that the victims had missed the legal deadline for filing their claims and that the Justice Department was better positioned to distribute the money.

Those assertions have infuriated some survivors of the 9/11 attacks.

“It’s disgusting,” Sharon Premoli, who was working in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks and barely escaped with her life, said of the government’s position. “It’s not a huge sum of money. Why would they stand in the way?”