How Bin Laden Funds His Network

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The day before the World Trade Center attack, someone had a bad feeling about American Airlines. Chicago's options exchange usually gets bullish and bearish orders in equal numbers, but on Sept. 10, there was heavy betting that American's stock was headed down. On the first day of trading after the attack, the company's stock plummeted 40%--and the investors who guessed right made millions.

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But was it a guess? The short selling, as it's called, of airline and insurance stocks just before the attack has prompted a chilling theory: betting against his victims is Osama bin Laden's latest fund-raising tactic. An international investigation is underway, part of a broader probe to figure out how bin Laden finances his network.

Al-Qaeda, bin Laden's global terrorist network, functions much like the fast-food franchises his followers hate. Bin Laden creates the service and brand, but the cells largely fund their activities. To keep costs down, al-Qaeda foot soldiers make money through jobs or engaging in petty crime. When Mohamed Atta, believed to have been one of the hijackers, was in Hamburg, German prosecutors say, he eked out a living selling used cars. Many of the suspects lived in run-down neighborhoods and cheap hotels. In all, experts say, the Sept. 11 attacks probably cost the hijackers only about $200,000.

Bin Laden can afford far more than that. The son of a billionaire Saudi construction magnate, he has an estimated net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars, including real estate in Paris, London and the Cote d'Azur, and as much as $150 million in stock. He runs a portfolio of legitimate businesses across North Africa and the Middle East. Companies in sectors ranging from shipping to agriculture to investment banking throw off profits while also providing cover for al-Qaeda's movement of soldiers and procurement of weapons and chemicals. Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a 10-year bin Laden employee now in U.S. witness protection, said earlier this year that trainees from around the world arrived at a bin Laden-owned Sudanese holding company--"the mother of all companies," he called it--for arms and bomb-making training.

But investigators say charity, not bin Laden's fortune, is al-Qaeda's main bankroll. Millions flow in from wealthy donors in oil-producing countries, either out of dedication to his cause or as protection money. Islamic charities take in billions a year; much of it is used for good, but not all. "Behind one charity, business or Islamic group is another," says French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard. "The result is that some of these millions are handed over to Islamic fighters and terrorists."

Some of bin Laden's money is in mainstream institutions--the Saudis froze his assets after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, though he may have money in Switzerland, England and numerous other countries--but al-Qaeda also makes heavy use of hawala, an informal Islamic banking network that has operated for generations in Asia and the Middle East. Hawala, Hindi for "in trust," links brokers around the world who advance funds to depositors on a handshake and, sometimes, a password. In remote areas, a broker may have little more than a rug and a phone. In larger cities, including some in the U.S., brokers often operate from the back of a store. With no wire transfers, balance sheets or financial statements, hawala leaves no trail for law enforcement to follow. It's like the Mob, says William Wechsler, a former National Security Council official who chaired a task force on bin Laden's finances. "There's no shortage of will to attack the Mafia, but we haven't completely destroyed its financing system," he says. "Imagine the difficulty of going to these other countries where you have no banking system and questionable political will."

The U.S. has made halting efforts to grab bin Laden's funds. The Clinton Administration issued an Executive Order targeting them in 1998 and froze the assets of Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines, which allegedly transported bin Laden's forces and equipment. But it never got bin Laden's money.

Now, the feds say, things will be different. President Bush is rolling out the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, designed to dismantle terrorists' financial bases. Past efforts have focused on financial data relating to a single crime. But FTAT will look at terrorist organizations worldwide. The information gathered, says Treasury Under Secretary Jimmy Gurule, will be used "for the express purpose of identifying and disrupting" terrorists' funding. Switzerland has agreed, and Sudan and the Cayman Islands reportedly agreed, to open their books to U.S. investigators. The Administration has also been asking governments like those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to cut off funds from individuals and companies that fund bin Laden. And some Islamic charities will be coming under increasing IRS scrutiny.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has announced that Treasury, the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Chicago Board of Options Exchange have launched a "full-fledged investigation" of the short selling. If the trades originated in the U.S., brokers may have records of who did the buying. But if they came from overseas, where buyers can hide their identities, they will be harder to trace. Last week regulators from Germany, Britain and other countries held a conference call to coordinate their inquiries. None has reached a conclusion.

If al-Qaeda engaged in short selling, brokerage records may point to as-yet-undiscovered conspirators. There could be pressure to change how stock transactions are cleared, making it harder to act anonymously. That would take away from bin Laden and other terrorists their most ghoulish form of financing: cashing in on the carnage they create.