it's not surprising that much ofOsama bin Laden's career has been funded by dictatorships overtly hostile to the United States: Iraq, Sudan and Iran. But few realize that this cash is small change in his operations.The real shocker is that most of the money that bolsters this expansionist fundamentalism comes from America's own "allies' in this looming war: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden must be laughing all the way to the bank.
These dictatorships, which control most of the world's supply of low-cost oil, have been pumping untold millions -- some estimate billions -- into charities and other organizations that support Wahhabism, the particularly fearsome brand of Islam named after the 18th-century prophet Wahhabi, who outraged most of the Islamic world during a brief but brutal conquest of Mecca. Wahhabism is the authoritarian creed practised by bin Laden and exported to Afghanistan and the Taliban. (These financial resources are in addition to bin Laden's personal fortune.) The three governments have kept the cash flowing in hopes of appeasing the swelling fundamentalist forces in their own countries.
With friends like these, bin Laden's posse should have very few problems with President George Bush's announcement this week that he's going to freeze their U.S. assets and go after the international bank accounts of some 27 Muslim individuals and groups.
Governments -- with the exception of Iran -- provide very little direct funding to terrorist groups. Most of it is indirect, via funding for social services. Then there's everything from donations collected at mosques by ideological sympathizers to money siphoned from legitimate and illegitimate charities and shell companies.
The funding flowing from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan to bin Laden has been estimated by Yossef Bodansky, a member of the U.S. Congress's Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, to amount to at least $1.4 billion a year, mostly from Wahhabi organizations in the Gulf. Some put that figure much higher.
Sanil Dasgupta, a foreign policy and financial researcher for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, tells NOW that it will be very difficult for the U.S. to choke off any of bin Laden's funding from the Persian Gulf.
The lack of regulations makes tracking the money nearly impossible. And much of the financial movement in the region is conducted within the underground system known as "hawala," an informal banking system based on trust, leaving no paper trail.
Dasgupta says the jewellery trade is another node of economic activity favoured by terrorist organizations. "Tracking official sources of revenue is one thing,' he says. "The unofficial sources are quite another. We're talking about a very murky world here.'
Some of the more than $10 billion donated by the Saudi leadership to Islamic organizations through the ministry of religious works -- funds officially designated for social, educational and humanitarian purposes -- is said to find its way to bin Laden.
He is believed to use United Arab Emirates banks in Dubai to access monies flowing to his cause from near and far. According to UN documents, Afghanistan's national airline, Ariana, was flying planeloads of cash from Dubai to bin Laden's Afghan base in late 1999. These flights were grounded under UN-imposed sanctions against the Taliban for, among other things, ignoring a UN resolution ordering the closure of terrorist training camps..
Then there's money from drugs. Afghanistan was supposed to be slowly eradicating poppy crops used to make heroin in return for aid from the U.S. Instead, the country has become the single largest source of heroin in the world, by one U.S. government estimate accounting for more than 70 per cent of the $500 billion the trade generates annually. Poppies take up much of the still arable land in the drought-stricken country.
Micheal Sheehan, the U.S.'s coordinator for counter-terrorism, told the House Judiciary Committee last December that money from the sale of narcotics goes to arm and run the camps that bin Laden uses to train terrorists. (Sheehan could not be reached for comment.) Some international observers, Sheehan said, now believe that terrorist activities are staged to divert security forces while drug shipments are being carried out.
If we understand the way this cash seepage works, we may be able to choke off the lifeblood of the global terrorist conspiracy, not with pilots and ground troops but with border patrols, forensic audits and the hard work of investigative reporters.
John Bacher is the author of Petrotyranny. Additional reporting by Enzo Di Matteo.