9/11 families seek billions in damages from Afghan foreign reserves to settle Taliban lawsuit

·3 min read
A man stands in the rubble, and calls out asking if anyone needs help, after the collapse of the first of the twin towers of the World Trade Center Tower in lower Manhattan, New York - DOUG KANTER /AFP
A man stands in the rubble, and calls out asking if anyone needs help, after the collapse of the first of the twin towers of the World Trade Center Tower in lower Manhattan, New York - DOUG KANTER /AFP

Families of people killed in the 9/11 attacks are asking for billions from Afghanistan's seized foreign reserves as damages to settle a court case against the Taliban.

The White House will advise a court this week whether the families should receive some $7bn (£5bn) of Afghan central bank funds locked in the Federal Reserve since the Taliban takeover.

Lawyers for the families say the money now belongs to the Taliban and should therefore form damages under a decade-old court judgment which found the militants liable for helping al-Qaeda, the New York Times reported.

But the seizure of money belonging to a country trapped in a spiralling humanitarian crisis to pay off American claimants has been condemned as “grotesque”.

The suspension of international aid to the country after the Taliban's victory, as well as sanctions against the militant leadership, have tipped the country deeper into an economic collapse since August.

United Nations figures estimate more than three million Afghans cannot feed themselves and more than a million children are at risk of starvation.

A New York court in 2012 awarded families billions of dollars of damages against al Qaeda, the Taliban and many Iranian state organisations for their roles in the attacks. The Taliban had hosted Osama bin Laden while the 9/11 attacks were plotted.

The US Justice Department has been negotiating with lawyers for the families about a potential deal to divide up the money if the government supports their attempt to seize it.

Fiona Havlish, whose husband worked on the 101st floor of the South Tower, and Ellen Saracini, whose husband was a pilot of one of the hijacked planes, have called on Joe Biden to help them.

“After our husbands were killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we have spent many years fighting to achieve justice on their behalf,” they said in a statement.

“Together with the others in our case, we obtained an enforceable money judgment against the Taliban and now call on President Biden to ensure the funds we have attached go to us and not the terrorists who played a role in taking the lives of our loved ones.”

Any decision to hand the money over would incense the Taliban, who two weeks ago wrote an open letter to Congress appealing for the funds to be unfrozen.

But it would also face criticism from Afghans and international officials who said the seized money did not belong to the Taliban and would be better used trying to alleviate the country's crisis.

One senior international official working on Afghanistan told The Telegraph it was “hard to imagine a more regressive transfer of wealth”.

Laurel Miller, Washington's former special representative to the region, added: “If the US performs legal gymnastics to use Afghan central bank assets to pay US claimants, Washington should consider the reality that no one in Afghanistan or the region (and few more broadly) will ever believe the move to be other than naked politics.”

Meanwhile the World Bank is proposing to channel $500 million from a frozen aid trust fund to humanitarian agencies who could prop up the country's collapsing health system.

The bank's board members were due to meet on Tuesday to redirect funds from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) in an attempt to get badly needed money to the health sector while still bypassing the Taliban.

Hundreds of thousands of civil servants, doctors and teachers have gone without pay for months after donors halted aid when the militants took power.

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