Company News » The business behind bin Laden

Testimony in a US criminal court earlier this year by the man who has been dubbed Osama bin Laden’s former ‘chief financial officer’ has shed light on the business network that supports terrorism. Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, the self-styled paymaster to the terrorist group al-Qaida, was the most vital prosecution witness in securing the conviction of four men charged in connection with the 1998 US embassy bombs in Kenya and Tanzania. The Sudanese-born al-Fadl turned against bin Laden in 1996 when, having been caught stealing money from the group, he fled to an unnamed US embassy offering information in return for asylum. So vital was his intelligence that US security officials code-named him Confidential Source CS-1; the court artist was instructed not to sketch him and he now has a new identity – and, reportedly, almost $1m – under the witness protection programme.

Court transcripts seen by Financial Director document how al-Fadl exposed the organisational and business structure of al-Qaida, which was divided into a number of committees. These included the military committee, the fatwah and Islamic studies committee and a media committee that published a weekly newspaper about al-Qaida. Al-Fadl worked in the money and business committee, part of which was devoted to arranging any necessary passports and travel tickets, and had control over all the organisation’s cash.

Al-Fadl was instrumental in helping the terrorist organisation relocate from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Sudan in 1991. A company called Wadi al Aqiq was the first to be established there and became the ‘mother’ company for the Sudanese group. Ladin International Company was set up as an import-export business. In one instance, a cargo plane was chartered to take sugar from Sudan to Afghanistan, returning with Milan anti-tank rockets and Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Hijra Construction built roads and bridges – and could legitimately buy explosives.

Al Themar al Mubaraka was a business that owned a farm, a third of which was devoted to growing sesame, peanuts and corn; the rest of the acreage was a weapons and explosives training camp for members of al-Qaida. Taba Investment handled foreign exchange transactions, turning Sudanese pounds generated by the other business into US dollars and sterling. At one meeting with Osama bin Laden, al-Fadl asked whether the companies had to make a profit, because business was bad in Sudan and the currency too weak against the dollar. Bin laden replied, ‘Our agenda is bigger than business.’

Most disturbing of all, al-Fadl outlined how he was involved in negotiations to buy $1.5m worth of uranium from someone who claimed to have some, seemingly of South African origin. While al-Fadl testified that the uranium was to be tested before being purchased, he did not know whether the transaction went ahead – but he was paid $10,000 for his part in the negotiations.

Al-Fadl parted company with al-Qaida when, as a Sudanese paid the local equivalent of $500-a-month, he objected to what he saw as unjustly higher wages being paid to Egyptian and other members of the group. Bin Laden told him that they travelled a lot, did more work and ‘can make more money than in (the) group…He try to make them happy and give them more money’.

But, unsatisfied with his lot, al-Fadl stole about $110,000 from al-Qaida by charging clients commission on some of the sales by the trading businesses.

When he was caught, he was offered the chance of forgiveness by bin Laden – but only if he returned all the money. Al-Fadl realised he had no choice but to turn to a US embassy for help. He told embassy staff: ‘I have information about people, they want to do something against your government.’

  • This article first appeared in Financial Director magazine.

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