Logical Lies About Bin Laden’s Wealth

Michael Lewis, in Liar’s Poker, his classic portrait of Wall Street in the 1980s, described how he invented “logical lies” as an investment banker to explain otherwise inexplicable events to nervous clients. Asked why the dollar fell, he would confidently say: “Several Arabs had sold massive holdings of gold for which they received dollars. They were selling those dollars for marks and driving the dollar lower.” In his words: “Most of the time when markets move, no one has any idea why. A man who can tell a good story can make a good living as a broker. And it’s amazing what people will believe … selling out of the Middle East was an old standby. Since no one ever had any clue what the Arabs were doing with their money or why, no story involving Arabs could ever be refuted.” (1).

That story was unavoidable in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. No one knew anything specific about them. The magnitude of the destruction suggested that a huge financial and logistical infrastructure had been at work. With the involvement of Osama bin Laden, usually described as a Saudi billionaire and terrorist financier, and the participation of 15 Saudi hijackers, the plausibility of the financial argument coincided with a common stereotype. As Jack Shaheen’s comprehensive study of the portrayal of Arabs by Hollywood suggests, they had long been associated with “vile oil sheikhs with an eye for western blondes and arms deals and intent on world domination, or with crazed terrorists” (2). By joining two of the three stereotypes, the billionaire and the bomber (the third was the belly dancer), the events of 9/11 seemed to verify the truth of the caricature.

An instant canon on terrorist financing was established in the days after the attacks. The laundry list was familiar and mindlessly repeated: the Bin Laden $300m fortune, business fronts legal and illegal, Islamic charities, Saudis, rich Arabs, hawalas, drugs, gold and diamonds, etc. From the popular press to prestigious thinktanks, the lists were almost identical. Repetition looked like corroboration. The lackadaisical way in which the discourse on terrorist finance had been constructed contrasted with the authoritative way in which the dubious facts were cited and recited.

After 2004 there was considerable new information available about the financial war on terror, but such evidence had little impact on perceptions or policies. Key players such as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and Michael Scheuer, who headed the “virtual Bin Laden station” at the Central Intelligence Agency, published memoirs or contributed to books debunking much of what was commonly believed.

The publication of the September 11 Commission report in August 2004 helped a clearer understanding of the reality and contradicted much of the canon. The report, complemented by a terrorist financing monograph, was based on “a comprehensive review of government materials on terrorist financing from essentially every law enforcement, intelligence and policy agency involved in the effort”.

The story lives on

The report and monograph made important points: they showed how little money is needed for terror attacks; they debunked the urban legend of the Bin Laden personal fortune; and they hinted at the politicisation of terrorist financing inquiries. Since Bin Laden had been singled out in 1998 as Public Enemy Number One, the financial war was driven by the belief that his $300m fortune was the core of the al-Qaida funding network. The report confirmed that the figure was fictive. Yet the story lives on. A Google search in April 2006 yielded 154,000 hits.

The $300m factoid seems to have originated in 1996, when a State Department analyst inserted it in a fact sheet on Bin Laden (3). It was arrived at by a rough calculation based on approximate figures. The analyst divided assets of the Bin Laden group (estimated at $5bn) by the number of sons (estimated at 20). That gave $250m, which he rounded up to $300m. The calculation rested on estimates and dubious assumptions about the family, inheritance laws and practices, the actual worth of the privately-held company and its ownership structure. Though it was not even a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the figure soon gained absolute status.

Most accounts of Bin Laden after 11 September describe a cave-dwelling heir and tycoon with close ties to the Saudi establishment who ran his business empire and made shrewd moves in the stock market while plotting terrorism. The enduring legend became that “of the world’s richest terrorist, a business-savvy nomad who has used a vast inheritance and a constellation of companies to finance a global network of violence” (4).

With almost no exceptions, every news article, every thinktank report, every book of revelations on terrorist financing, has repeated the assertion that Osama bin Laden had a $300m personal fortune, the basis of the financing for al-Qaida. That figure has been unchanged since 1996: despite a life of danger, Bin Laden’s wealth stayed remarkably stable: no gains or losses, no expenses or subsidies to Taliban hosts, no confiscations and no accretions dented or inflated it.

The terrorist-finance literature was a form of magic realism–a mix of rich detail, surrealism and fantasy. Numbers were necessary, even when invented, if only to lend precise cachet to reports or analyses and, to paraphrase George Orwell, give the “appearance of solidity to pure wind”. The lawsuit filed on 15 August 2002 against several Saudi princes, banks and charities (Burnett v Al Baraka Investment and Development Corporation), which came to be called “the lawsuit of the 21st century”, sought “an amount in excess of $100trn” from dozens of defendants (5). The lawsuit was thoroughly prepared and lavishly financed. Yet on the day after it was filed, the attorneys issued a correction, claiming that a clerical error had misstated the amount asked: the plaintiffs were only asking for $1trn. Perhaps the lawyers had realised that the initial amount exceeded the GNP of all countries in the world combined.

At the time of 9/11, the Bush administration was bent on implementing an agenda of financial deregulation which included dismantling much of the existing anti-money laundering apparatus. The attacks caused a sharp policy U-turn. With the zeal of the newly converted, those very people who had been intent on dismantling the legislative apparatus found themselves hastily and vigorously expanding it.

More truthiness than truth

Throughout the war on terror, organised crime analogies came easily to law enforcement agencies, as well as to influential pundits. Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most influential intellectuals in the early days of the war on terror, described Osama bin Laden as “the CEO of a multinational terrorist corporation… very imaginative at finding ways to make money from his terrorist ventures… The best way to think of the terror network is as a collection of mafia families” (6).

In the 1980s the focus was on Central and Latin American drug lords. After 9/11 the war on drugs was overshadowed by the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The massive shift of resources resulted in a substantial mismatch. Those government agents who did have some international experience and cultural-linguistic skills were typically fluent in Spanish and had no experience of the Islamic world. New experts appeared who fitted the description of management scholar Henry Mintzberg: “An expert has also been defined as someone who knows more and more about less and less until finally he or she knows everything about nothing. Perhaps this means that if you understand only certain discrete chunks, ultimately you understand nothing” (7).

Since none of the “$300m fortune” was traceable, a new industry purported to reveal the secrets of its whereabouts. Some practitioners were partisan hacks with a transparent political agenda; others were imaginative writers eager for a scoop. Those who made up the original allegations seemed well-informed and were asked for further revelations. Steven Emerson, a ubiquitous terrorist expert, said that immediately after 9/11 he “fielded 1,000 calls, many from news organisations” (8).

Another founding mythographer was Jack Kelley, star reporter of USA Today, the largest circulation daily in the US, who produced countless scoops until, in 2004, his paper discovered a “pattern of lies and deceit”. He found it easy to write about terrorism and financing. Hiding behind confidential and anonymous sources, he broke many of the stories which have since entered the journalistic bloodstream. They included an eyewitness account of young Palestinian suicide bombers and their culture of death; the revelation that prominent Saudi businessmen “worth more than $5bn” continued to transfer tens of millions of dollars to Bin Laden as “protection money to stave off attacks on their businesses in Saudi Arabia”; and the discovery of computer records in Afghan caves showing links between Chicago-based Islamic charities and al-Qaida (9). For his suicide bomb eyewitness account, he was a Pulitzer prize finalist.

With the 9/11 attacks, the lines between fact and fiction were further blurred since the unbelievability of the events lent credence to many of the wildest assertions about Arabs and Muslims. Nobody then knew much about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Americans were ready to believe he was a James Bond villain, rich enough to fund his own wars. Indeed, his hidden wealth has captured the imagination of many novelists. Chris Ryan’s Greed (a bestseller, at least according to its cover) bears more than a passing resemblance to non-fiction purporting to reveal the secrets of terrorism financing. A character says: “Al-Qaida has a lot of money. Its roots are in Saudi Arabia, and that’s a rich place. But it has a lot of support right across that region. There are contributions coming from everywhere–Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia. That’s what makes them so deadly. Fanatics we can handle. Fanatics with cash are a different story. Overall, we estimate the organisation has at least $5bn at its disposal. They hide their money, and they are good at it. So it could be a lot more” (10).

It could be said, to borrow from satirist Stephen Colbert, that there is much more truthiness than truth in the terrorist financing discourse–with truthiness defined as what you want the facts to be as opposed to what the facts are. The parallels between Bin Laden’s hidden stash and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are striking. They caused the financial war against global terrorism and regime change in Iraq. The usual suspects of terrorist financing–rich Arabs, the Saudis, Islamic charities, etc–became as familiar as the smoking guns of WMD–mobile labs, aluminum tubes, Niger uranium, etc–that helped sell the invasion of Iraq to the US public. Both wars created created a new and very real problem through pursuing an imaginary one.

IBRAHIM WARDE is adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts). This is excerpted from The Price of Fear: The Truth Behind the Financial War on Terror (IB Tauris and University of California Press, 2007)

(1) Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street (Norton, New York, 1989).

(2) Jack G Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Interlink Pub Group, New York, 2001).

(3) Kenneth Katzman, “Terrorism: Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors, 2001”, Washington, DC, Congressional Research Service, 10 September 2001.

(4) Karen DeYoung, David Hilzenrath and Robert O’Harrow Jr, “Bin Laden’s Money Takes Hidden Paths to Agents of Terror”, The Washington Post, 21 September 2001.

(5) Jennifer Senior, “Intruders In The House Of Saud”, The New York Times Magazine, 14 March 2004.

(6) Michael Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters (St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2003).

(7) Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners (Free Press, New York, 1994).

(8) Felicity Barringer, “Terror Experts Use Lenses of Their Specialties”, The New York Times, 24 September 2001.

(9) Jack Kelley, USA Today, 26 June 2001, 29 October 1999 and 30 January 2002.

(10) Chris Ryan, Greed (Arrow Books, London, 2004).

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair write: This article appears in the December edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch will feature one or two articles from LMD every month.