Scandals: Not Just a Bank

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"We were representing a joint venture and chasing a sale of military equipment to the Belgian government. We had gone pretty far down the line when suddenly B.C.C.I. showed up, representing the Italians. I was staying at the Hilton in Brussels, and I got a phone call from a B.C.C.I. guy asking me to come down to the lobby. When I go down, there's a B.C.C.I. guy, Pakistani, and next to him is this 220-lb. French guy named Andre -- the kind of guy who stuffs people in car trunks. They have business cards with a B.C.C.I. logo. So Andre says, 'You're getting out of this thing. This is our deal.' Then the other B.C.C.I. guy says, 'You're out, and go and tell your client you're out.' They scared the hell out of me. B.C.C.I. had two functions, as bagmen and as thugs. They pushed the competition out."

Bagmen, thugs, arms deals and B.C.C.I. Common ingredients, it turns out, in the murky world of international arms sales, where experiences like that of the American dealer quoted above are common fare. While prosecutors and auditors from governments and regulatory bodies continue their scramble to unravel the role of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International in the world's first truly global financial scandal, TIME has learned that what looked like a bank was in fact a multipurpose, multinational enterprise. In the past two decades, the organization created by Pakistani financier Agha Hasan Abedi has become, among other things, a powerful player in the netherworld of international arms. Using the clandestine routes and alliances originally created for money laundering, B.C.C.I. has brokered, financed and, in some instances, initiated transactions that have often upset the uneasy technomilitary balance sought by the U.S. and other major powers engaging in government-to-government sales.

Many of the B.C.C.I.-brokered arms deals are perfectly legal, involving shipments of conventional weapons -- rocket launchers, tanks and even sophisticated jet fighters such as the Mirage 2000. But many more are not. Moreover, government sources, former B.C.C.I. bankers, and arms merchants doing business through B.C.C.I. have described the bank's more sinister role in providing nuclear-weapons technology for Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Libya -- nations widely believed to be pursuing development of the so-called Islamic bomb to counter the nuclear force they assume Israel possesses. According to these sources, B.C.C.I. has also been busy providing Pakistan and other customers throughout the Middle East with the capacity to deliver such weapons.

Though the discovery of irregularities led to the shutdown of B.C.C.I.'s banking operations last July, Abedi's $20 billion "bank" is in fact far more complex. It is a vast, stateless, multinational corporation that deploys its own intelligence agency, complete with a paramilitary wing and enforcement units, known collectively as the "black network." It maintains its own diplomatic relations with foreign countries through bank "protocol officers" who use seemingly limitless amounts of cash to pursue Abedi's goals. B.C.C.I. trades massively and for its own account in commodities ranging from grain, rice, cement and coffee to timber, carpets and anchovies. It is a force to be reckoned with in international oil markets and, through its intertwined relationship with the Gokal brothers' shipping interests, is a shipping conglomerate as well. Taken altogether, B.C.C.I. commands virtual self- sufficiency as a purveyor of goods around the world.

Through its practiced use of false documentation, the deployment of billions of dollars in unbooked letters of credit, and clandestine arrangements with compliant government officials in numerous countries, B.C.C.I. was ideally positioned for its role as arms marketeer to the world, particularly the Middle East. Though its tracks are often difficult to detect, TIME has discovered B.C.C.I.'s fingerprints on a startling array of transactions. Among them:

-- The victorious allied march into Kuwait City in the wake of Desert Storm was spearheaded by a contingent of returning Kuwaitis. Few if any noticed, however, that the Kuwaitis were riding atop Yugoslavian M-84 battle tanks -- upgraded versions of the Soviets' workhorse T-72 -- complete with East European backup personnel. Sixty-four such tanks and crews had been purchased, financed and supplied to the Desert Storm coalition forces by B.C.C.I.

-- An ongoing project in Abu Dhabi to develop a standoff land-attack missile system for the emirate's fleet of Mirage 2000s is being financed by B.C.C.I.

-- Recently B.C.C.I. brokered the sale of OF-40 Mark 2 main battle tanks -- also to Abu Dhabi -- from Italian arms manufacturer Oto Melara. B.C.C.I. later obtained and financed a dozen S-23 180-mm artillery guns from North Korea for Dubai.

-- In the past three years B.C.C.I. has brokered and financed the sale of Astros II battlefield multiple-rocket launchers from Brazil to both Iran and Iraq. The enterprise has also sold Chinese Silkworm missiles to both countries. A spokesman for Avibras Industria, maker of the Astros rocket system, concedes sales to Iraq but denies any sales to Iran or any deals involving B.C.C.I. A spokesman also allows that the company received "insignificant" financing from the Brazilian B.C.C.I. bank that was used for "domestic purposes."

-- B.C.C.I. arranged for the sale of Argentine TAM battle tanks to Iran in 1989, arms sources report. Argentina's Defense Ministry denies that any tanks were ever sold to Iran.

-- B.C.C.I. supplied Iraq with French-made Roland antiaircraft missile systems and with G-6 mobile artillery units from South Africa.

B.C.C.I. did more than finance or broker arms deals between nations that couldn't risk exposure of politically embarrassing relationships. Arms dealers from Europe and the Middle East, as well as a high-level operative from B.C.C.I.'s Karachi-based black network, have separately provided TIME with nearly identical descriptions of some of B.C.C.I.'s elaborate services for the sale of conventional weapons. "They could handle everything," says one of those sources. "Brokering, financing, letters of credit, false end-user certificates, shopping, spare parts, training and even personnel. You could order a bomb, a plane to deliver it and somebody to drop it."

With that kind of muscle, B.C.C.I. was able to secure substantial business from one of the world's pre-eminent makers of military aircraft, Dassault Aviation, the French company that produces the Mirage jet fighter. According to Arif Durrani, a B.C.C.I.-financed Pakistani arms dealer now doing time in a U.S. federal prison for illegally providing Hawk antiaircraft missile parts to Iran during the Iran-contra era, one of the biggest Mirage dealers in the world is a Pakistani multimillionaire named Asaf Ali. "Just as Ghaith Pharaon fronts for B.C.C.I. to purchase banks and businesses, Asaf is B.C.C.I.'s man in the weapons business," says Durrani, who financed many of his weapons deals through B.C.C.I. offices in London and New York City. While Durrani has made a number of other claims that have been contested by the Justice Department, another well-placed source confirms that Asaf Ali is backed financially by B.C.C.I. in his worldwide deals and that he brokers Mirages, including some top-of-the-line Mirage 2000s that were sold to Iraq, Libya and Abu Dhabi, among other countries.

In a recent deal, Asaf, displaying the political dexterity of a superpower, brokered the sale of 49 Mirage 2000s to India and then, to maintain parity, provided Pakistan with a similar number of new and used Mirages. To fill the Pakistani order, investigators looking at the deal say, he rerouted nearly two dozen Mirages, yet to be paid for, originally brokered through B.C.C.I. to Peru. A political scandal enveloping B.C.C.I. in Peru focuses in part on the financial transactions in the on-again-off-again Mirage deal. But last week a Dassault spokesman, Francois Prigent, briskly dismissed any responsibility. "The shipment to Peru is the business of Peru; what happens to planes after we make a delivery is up to them." The firm also denied connections to B.C.C.I. ("Banks are chosen by clients, not by us") and to Asaf Ali ("We don't know that man").

But arms merchants interviewed in several countries say otherwise. "Asaf Ali has been an important Dassault agent for years, and everyone knows that," says a French businessman who has worked on arms deals in Pakistan.

The arrest last month of a retired Pakistani general brought into sharp focus B.C.C.I.'s role in selling nuclear secrets. General Inam ul-Haq, who was arrested in Germany, has been sought since 1987 by U.S. authorities in connection with the purchase of nuclear weapons-grade steel for Pakistan's bomb-development program. The Justice Department says that B.C.C.I. was Inam's financier, and the U.S. is seeking his extradition. The alarm has spread to other branches of the U.S. government. In a recent letter to Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chairman John Glenn, a Democrat from Ohio, expressed concern that "B.C.C.I. has been providing financial services to agents of the Pakistani government for the illicit purchase of nuclear weapon-related commodities in the United States and in other nations." Glenn urged Thornburgh to pursue "a full examination of such activities."

"B.C.C.I. is functioning as the owners' representative for Pakistan's nuclear-bomb project," says an international businessman who has worked through the bank to supply Pakistan's nuclear-weapons and missile industry. "In the West, Abedi presented one face, but in the Muslim world, he and his bankers have always promoted themselves as a Third World, Muslim bank that would eventually dominate global finances by using oil dollars and Abedi's network of influence. And he whispered in the ears of the sheiks and the generals that he would bring them the Muslim bomb."

While munitions-control experts in the U.S. have evidence that B.C.C.I. played a role in the delivery of munitions-grade nuclear hardware and technology to Iraq and Iran, it is the Pakistanis who are the chief beneficiaries of Abedi's multifarious services. "You can't draw a line separating the bank's black operatives and Pakistan's intelligence services," says an international arms broker, who provided details of recent B.C.C.I.-generated orders for nuclear-bomb supplies for Pakistan. "And in Karachi his bankers are surprisingly patriotic."

Sources also point to China as a supplier of nuclear hardware for Pakistan, as well as missile-delivery systems for Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, including a B.C.C.I.-brokered sale of midrange ballistic missiles to ( the Saudis in 1988. By way of explanation, they cite B.C.C.I.'s close banking relations with China, where $400 million in assets were frozen after the bank's offices were shut down in July. Abedi's bank had been the first Western-style bank allowed to operate on the communist mainland, in part because of Abedi's early support of CITIC, the Chinese investment company that is the doorway to China's military-industrial complex. China, starved for hard currency, has thus far not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or missile-technology-limitation agreements.

Arms dealers are not the only ones to describe a pact between Abedi's bank and China's weapons industry: according to State Department sources, China has also used B.C.C.I. as a middleman in Silkworm missile sales to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Silkworm missiles sold to Iraq and Saudi Arabia were equipped with sophisticated Israeli-manufactured guidance systems, the government sources say. Arms dealers who have done business with B.C.C.I. say its officers attracted illegal deals because the bank provided documentation and letters of credit for arms being shipped, for example, as agricultural machinery, and that it routinely handled arms moving out of Eastern Europe and masked technology transfers from the West into Soviet bloc countries. The East bloc trade was so lucrative that Abedi traveled to Moscow in 1985 to promote more weapons deals and to lobby for permission to open B.C.C.I. branch offices in the Soviet Union. Former employees have told TIME that B.C.C.I. associates found it easy to bribe arms-factory managers and officials within the Soviet Union because of low pay, but that perestroika had cut into B.C.C.I. profits there. Reason: some government officials who favored the bank because of payoffs had been removed from their positions.

The very act of operating simultaneously as a bank and as a broker gives B.C.C.I. an enormous advantage: it is instantly able to fund virtually any deal it wants and empower any middleman it chooses to pull such a deal off. The B.C.C.I.-brokered sale of F-4 Phantom jet parts to Iran from the U.S. offers a good illustration of the process. The deal starts when B.C.C.I. learns from its sources in Iran that it wants to buy spare parts. B.C.C.I. and its agents then research the supplier market to obtain the price of the materiel. Because U.S. restrictions on the sale of such equipment to Iran make this particular deal illegal, B.C.C.I. next provides a falsified end-user ; certificate saying the jet parts will be sold to Israel. The bank then opens a letter of credit -- a form of financing only a bank can do -- in favor of the seller or the seller's agent and arranges to ship the parts. Because B.C.C.I. is a large bank, it can afford to pay off the seller immediately, then turn and collect a vastly larger sum from Iran.

In spite of the virtual global shutdown of B.C.C.I., the bank remains intact in its traditional haven, Pakistan. Though other press reports maintain that Abedi is physically frail and often incoherent, TIME has interviewed several business associates who say he remains a major figure in the international weapons trade. He has held a press conference within the past month, and is in the process of licensing a new bank in Pakistan, called the Progressive Bank.

In the meantime, B.C.C.I. is even now brokering an arms deal to Abu Dhabi, involving the sale of 45 South African G-6 mobile artillery pieces. If B.C.C.I. can hold it together, sources say, Abu Dhabi may buy as many as 55 more of the same pieces.

The Price Waterhouse audit that led to B.C.C.I.'s seizure last July covered only its banking activities. It said nothing about immensely profitable deals in other businesses, notably weaponry. Nor could it account for profits it could not see. And while the enterprise's known banking services are shut down around the world, virtually the full cadre of B.C.C.I.'s black network, arms traders and global operatives remain unindicted, unaccused and at large. The best guess of many of the sources TIME interviewed is that they will simply move on, perhaps under the umbrella of Pakistan's newest bank.


CREDIT: TIME Chart by Steve Hart and Nigel Holmes