Bin Laden's Finances Are Moving Target
By John Mintz
As government investigators begin to target the financial empire of terrorist impresario Osama bin Laden, they are discovering that his transnational network of commercial ventures and Muslim charities is as elusive and impenetrable as the cells of operatives he has funded with his millions of dollars.
Bin Laden, accused by U.S. officials of planning the two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and numerous other terrorist attacks, shrouds his finances in such secrecy and with so many front companies that American officials acknowledge it could take years to decipher them. The officials aren't even certain whether the fortune he inherited from his father, a well-connected Saudi construction magnate, amounts to the $300 million previously estimated or is closer to one-tenth that sum.
Officials say they are trying to overcome bin Laden's continuing ties to wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries who have donated funds to his Islamic social service organizations. The links have discouraged officials in the region from cooperating fully with U.S. intelligence agencies seeking access to banking records, U.S. government officials and private experts on terrorism said.
Among the leads investigators are pursuing is information supplied to Saudi intelligence agencies by Mohammad bin Moisalih, once a top bin Laden accountant. Arrested in Pakistan last year, bin Moisalih was flown to Saudi Arabia, where he began cooperating with authorities. Bin Laden almost certainly shifted funds after his treasurer's arrest, officials said.
Although bin Laden has long been suspected of financing terrorist attacks against Americans, U.S. officials say they are virtually at the start of efforts to find and penetrate his financial network. While bin Laden is connected to the world by fax and encrypted telephone communications from his headquarters in the mountains of Afghanistan, he often conducts business through personal emissaries, making transactions harder to trace.
"Money moves through mysterious channels," said a former State Department counterterrorism official. "A good deal of it moves in suitcases, and it's not always easy to track what flows for terrorist purposes."
Describing some of the challenges facing investigators, a current State Department official who has tracked bin Laden's business activities said, "A lot of it's wired somewhere else" before being routed to its intended destination. Some, he added, is entrusted to "safe hands" nephews, uncles and fellow Islamic radicals.
The Paris-based newspaper Al Watan Al Arabi has reported that bin Laden operates through holding companies in Luxembourg and Amsterdam; that he pays people unconnected to his movement to act as front men; and that he handles the multibillion-dollar opium earnings of his hosts in the extremist Muslim Taliban movement, who control Afghanistan.
But he also maintains a network of legitimate businesses, including a European fertilizer wholesaler called Wadi al-Aqiq and a Sudanese road contracting firm called Al-Hiraj, plus banks, venture capital firms and export-import ventures.
One indication of the murkiness of bin Laden's commercial ties is confusion surrounding ownership of the El Shifa plant in Khartoum, Sudan. When the facility was destroyed by a U.S. cruise missile strike last week because of evidence that it made a compound for chemical weapons, U.S. officials said the facility was part of bin Laden's economic network. But in the face of denials from the factory's ostensible Sudanese owners, administration officials have since said they are unsure of his financial interest in the plant.
Sudan's business community also disputes another assertion by the U.S. government: that bin Laden monopolizes Sudan's market in gum arabic, an ingredient in candies, soft drinks and industrial products sold in the United States. "Gum Arabic Co. has no connection whatsoever to Mr. Osama bin Laden," said the chairman of that company, Sudan's top firm in that business.
Last week, President Clinton announced the addition of bin Laden's name to a list of terrorists whose funds are targeted for seizure by the U.S. Treasury. Clinton aides said one of their goals is to locate bin Laden's bank accounts and make him so radioactive in the eyes of global bankers that they won't handle his funds. Some U.S. officials also suggested they could drain his accounts using highly classified means of information warfare involving electronic networks.
"We want to take financial action against him," a senior administration official said. "The objective is to take down the infrastructure."
Bin Laden's money is the key to his power, U.S. officials say. He needs his fortune to pay his thousands of Muslim followers, bribe officials and plan terrorist strikes.
"If you go after his money, you'll hurt him," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA official and now a security consultant. "You need cash to make his system run."
The United States has never launched such a financial attack on terrorists. In 1995 Clinton banned U.S. financial institutions from dealing with several dozen suspected terrorist individuals and groups, and Americans from donating funds to them.
But until last week the U.S. Treasury, which continually updates this list of "sanctioned" terrorists, never placed bin Laden on the list, despite the fact that the U.S. government had identified him since 1995 as the world's leading terrorist paymaster. A senior administration official said the government's understanding of his role "was evolving."
"The U.S. is not off square one" on tracking bin Laden's assets, "and I don't know how they're going to get at that," said Kenneth Katzman, a senior Middle East policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service who has tracked bin Laden for years. "Anybody who claims to know about [bin Laden's] assets is lying. . . . It's just impossible to find them. He certainly doesn't have any cash sitting in bank accounts in the United States and Europe."
U.S. investigators are hoping to obtain leads from Wali Khan Amin Shah, who started cooperating with authorities after his 1996 conviction for planning to blow up a dozen jumbo jets over the Pacific Ocean. A Muslim charity in the Philippines that was supported by bin Laden and run by a brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, financed Shah and the other plotters.
On one point U.S. officials are certain: They hold out no hope of finding bin Laden assets in the United States. He has advocated a boycott of this country for years. But they are scouring Britain for bin Laden bank accounts used to finance a Saudi dissident organization there, terrorism experts said.
The CIA and agents with Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network also will try to lay tripwires to find out when bin Laden moves funds by plugging into the computerized systems of bank transaction monitoring services operated by the Federal Reserve and private organizations called SWIFT and CHIPS that record the billions of dollars coursing through the global banking system daily.
John Moynihan, a former Drug Enforcement Administration investigator, said that unlike most criminal money-laundering, which washes dirty money into clean businesses, "bin Laden is taking clean, legitimately earned funds and turning it toward dirty purposes. Tracking that money will be doubly difficult because it hasn't aroused suspicion before."
But perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to locating the bin Laden fortune will be laid by U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. In the 1980s the Saudi government and wealthy gulf families supported his fund-raising on behalf of Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union, and they opened their checkbooks again when he set up Muslim social service agencies in war-torn Bosnia. While the Saudi government no longer supports his causes, some individuals still do, sending money to terrorists in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere, largely as a form of protection, U.S. officials said.
"The Saudis have been complicit," Johnson said. "It's one of the dirty secrets."
Staff writer Vernon Loeb and researchers Richard Drezen, Bobbye Pratt and Mary Louise White contributed to this report.
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