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Money no object to Osama bin Laden

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Ostrich raising in Kenya. Forestry interests in Turkey. Diamond trading in Africa. Bridge construction in Sudan. Agricultural holdings in Tajikistan.

Those are some of the businesses Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, is said to own and which may have helped finance the most lethal terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil, experts say.

"Money is the least of Osama bin Laden's worries," said Faisal Salman, an expert on Arab affairs.

Bin Laden is the top suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, a citadel of capitalism, yet he earned his money much like a traditional capitalist.

He uses his estimated $300 million in financial assets to fund his al-Qaida network of as many as 3,000 Islamic militants, according to a report published last week by the Congressional Research Service.

Money on the move

Bin Laden's businesses also provide him with a way to move his money around the globe and avoid detection by authorities seeking to cut him off from his wealth. Another source of funding is millions of dollars in donations from wealthy individuals.

In addition to his investments, bin Laden inherited a fortune from his father, a construction business magnate.

Experts say the cost of last week's airborne attacks -- including pilot training, accommodations, travel expenses and first class tickets for the hijackers -- couldn't be more than $1 million. It's a sum bin Laden could easily afford.

Bin Laden's wealth and his connections with prosperous families in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations were not a cause of worry to Western countries, including the United States, in the 1980s.

One-time good guy

Then, he was one of the good guys, using the funds to buy arms and supplies for the war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, a crusade backed by the United States.

But it was also during that time, experts say, that bin Laden started putting down roots for one of the world's most extensive financial networks, one that would eventually bankroll al-Qaida -- Arabic for "the base."

During that period, he succeeded in persuading Muslim clergymen in several Arab countries to issue a religious edict making it legal for Muslims to offer their zakat, alms given annually to the poor, to the Arab fighters in the Afghan war.

"Money poured in from millions of Muslims who supported his quest to expel the infidels from Muslim lands," said Salman, the Arabic affairs expert who is managing editor of Beirut's As-Safir newspaper.

He believes a big chunk of those donors are still giving money to bin Laden even though the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

Until the Sept. 11 attacks, individuals in Saudi Arabia were donating $1 million to $2 million a month through mosques and other fund-raising avenues to help bin Laden, Saudi sources said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. But Saudi authorities are cracking down on such donations in the aftermath of the attack.

Al-Qaida not only funds its own operations. Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, calls the group "the merchant bank for terrorism."

Often small, free-lance, militant groups seek financial help from al-Qaida. As long as the planned attack is against Western, especially American, interests, al-Qaida can support it.

Money likely moves around by transfers between businesses, by wire and by couriers toting briefcases filled with cash. Wealthy families have also indirectly financed bin Laden's operations, sending money to sons in schools abroad.

Ziad Jarrah, one of 19 suspects in the attack, asked his family earlier this month to urgently wire him $2,000 on top of his monthly stipend of $2,000, according to his uncle, Jamal Jarrah.

It's been hard for authorities to track bin Laden's assets and freeze them because they're tied to businesses that seem legitimate but are basically front companies for al-Qaida.

Experts said the businesses, ranging from food processing plants to ostrich farms, generally are not in bin Laden's name and are small operations.

One of bin Laden's businesses was the Hijra Construction Company in Sudan, which built roads and bridges and bought explosives to clear the way, according to testimony at the U.S. Embassy bombing trials. Bin Laden's Taba Investments fund, also of Sudan, was used to change Sudanese currency into dollars and British pounds.

There is also evidence, experts say, that mosques, Islamic charities and other non-governmental organizations have diverted some of the money they have raised in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world to al-Qaida.

"People think they're contributing to a humanitarian cause and it winds up in bin Laden's pocket," said Mike Ackerman, a former CIA operations officer who is managing director of the Ackerman Group, an international security consultant based in Miami.

Muslim groups came under scrutiny in the United States in the early 1990s following claims they were channeling funds to the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as to other Islamic movements.

But Western governments have been reluctant to crack down on those groups because they did not want to be seen as discriminating against Muslims. And it was hard to connect the groups to terrorism.

Knowing all they did about bin Laden, why have Western authorities allowed his businesses to thrive?

One reason, Standish said, is that some countries where bin Laden's companies are based have been reluctant to give the United States and other Western countries the access they needed to move against bin Laden.

A major problem has been Western complacency. "We've been sort of fat and happy and very complacent in this country," Ackerman said.


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