9/11 plaintiffs move to seize $7 billion in Taliban assets in the U.S.; Justice Department ponders whether to intervene

the Taliban
A Taliban handout shortly after their takeover last month.

By Dan Christensen,

The Taliban’s August takeover of Afghanistan has prompted 9/11 plaintiffs to ask the Federal Reserve of New York to seize that government’s assets to satisfy a $7-billion judgment assessed against the Taliban for its previous government-sponsored acts of terrorism and support for al Qaeda that resulted in “murder and mayhem” on 9/11.

The plaintiffs won default judgments in December 2011 against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and other “non-sovereign” defendants who did not contest lawsuits against them. At the time, the Taliban was out of power. The judgments in favor of the “Havlish” plaintiffs were approved by New York U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels, presiding judge in the massive civil suit whose principal defendant is Saudi Arabia. The Havlish case, titled in the name of insurance company executive Donald George Havlish Jr. who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, is one of dozens of individual lawsuits consolidated before Judge Daniels.

The plaintiffs’ writ of execution served by the U.S. Marshals Service on the Federal Reserve on Sept. 13 says that because the Taliban – “AKA the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – now “claims ownership of, and control over, all property” belonging to the former government, the judgment “can now be enforced against any and all assets belonging to the government of Afghanistan.” That includes assets held by the Federal Reserve “in the name, for the benefit, or on the account of Da Afghanistan Bank,’’ the central bank of Afghanistan.

The exact amount being sought: $7,045,632,402.79.

“You have to identify the assets and file individual attachments for each. There is money in the Federal Reserve that is designated for the Taliban,” said Dennis Pantazis, a Birmingham, AL  attorney for the Havlish plaintiffs. “All we are doing is seizing the amount that’s in the Federal Reserve.”

U.S. obtains temporary stay

But the plaintiffs won’t be collecting any time soon. Three days after the writ was served, U.S. Magistrate Sarah Netburn granted a Justice Department request to temporarily block it while the U.S. decides whether it wants to intervene.

Dennis Pantazis

“The United States is actively considering whether to file a Statement of Interest,” says a letter to the court by New York Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Tinio. “The process for deciding whether to file a Statement of Interest involves coordination among interested government agencies and the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice through the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division.”

Those interests likely involve the state of U.S.-Taliban relations and whether the U.S. might want to use the Fed-held funds of that impoverished nation as leverage in future bilateral negotiations.

The letter says the U.S. is considering making a similar filing in another pending civil damages case against the Taliban brought in Texas by seven U.S. citizens who were injured in Afghanistan on Jan. 4, 2016 when “terrorists rammed a truck full of explosives into the armored gates of Camp Sullivan, a compound for foreign and Afghan civilian contractors and detonated it.” A writ of execution issued in that case seeks $138.4 million in Taliban assets held by the Federal Reserve. A stay of the writ was issued in that case, too, by New York U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla.

In both cases, the U.S. was given until Oct. 14 to notify the court if it will file a statement.

Evidence against the Taliban

Judge Daniels granted final judgment on liability against the Taliban on the basis of evidence presented in court by lawyers for dozens of Havlish plaintiffs. There are thousands of plaintiffs suing Saudi Arabia, but only the Havlish plaintiffs obtained a judgment against the Taliban.

The evidence is summed up in the plaintiffs’ 2008 complaint. “The Taliban movement started among the Afghan refugees trained in the religious schools of Pakistan financed by private Saudi funding. Armed with religious fervor and supplied by Pakistani army intelligence, these seminarians/students were organized into a fighting force,” the complaint says. “The Afghan Civil War enabled the Taliban’s gradual takeover of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime imposed their ultra-purest vision of Islam with strict religious doctrine. Accordingly, the Taliban regime was deeply hostile to women, Shiites and minorities.”

The complaint says the Taliban, “operating as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” was found by President Clinton to have supported terrorist activities, according to his July 4, 1999 executive order, an order continued by President George W. Bush three months before 9/11. After the terrorist attacks, Bush again designated the Taliban as having supported the terrorists in addresses to a joint session of Congress in September 2001 and to the American people on Oct. 15, 2001.

Taliban leadership also “admitted that it harbored, supported and was working in concert with Osama bin Laden, the leader and organizer of defendant Al Qaeda,” the complaint says.

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