Recent investigations into al-Qaida — including one by the Sept. 11 commission — have substantially altered the commonly held view that Osama bin Laden’s inheritance and massive fortune are being used to finance his international terror operations.
While bin Laden isn’t poor, he’s not worth the $300 million once believed. Nor is he thought to be directly financing his terror group with his personal wealth or a network of businesses in Sudan, where he operated from 1991 to 1996.
“There has been a revision of collective thinking,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Congressional Research Service expert who has studied terror groups. “The new thinking is that bin Laden’s fortune didn’t really enter into al-Qaida that much, or wasn’t the driving force in al-Qaida.”
The report from the Sept. 11 commission concluded that al-Qaida has many financing avenues and could easily find new sources, particularly given the attack’s price tag of just $400,000 to $500,000 over two years.
While the report said the government has been unable to determine the source of the attack’s financing, the commission said it appears al-Qaida’s financial support doesn’t come from bin Laden personally.
Al-Qaida's main revenue source: Donations
“The CIA now estimates that it costs al-Qaida about $30 million per year to sustain its activities before 9/11 and that this money was raised almost entirely through donations,” the report said.
The belief that bin Laden was worth such staggering sums gathered steam shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Katzman released a report — drawing on a 1996 State Department fact sheet, he said recently — indicating that al-Qaida was tapping bin Laden’s $300 million personal fortune, along with other sources.
By February 2002, Katzman had updated the estimate, indicating that bin Laden may be worth anywhere from $50 million to $300 million, but that the group had apparently become self-sustaining. The change got little notice.
Bin Laden was believed to have inherited money from his father, who oversaw the growth of a construction empire, making the bin Ladens one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia. The 17th of 52 children, bin Laden was thought primarily to be using the money to finance operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as to help him secure his place as the leader of al-Qaida.
The Sudanese businesses were believed to include an Islamic bank, an import-export firm, and other operations that exported agricultural products. But the Sept. 11 commission said that the businesses did not provide significant income, and that when bin Laden left in 1996, it appears the Sudanese government took his assets.
‘He left Sudan with practically nothing’
“He left Sudan with practically nothing,” the commission found. “When bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, he relied on the Taliban until he was able to reinvigorate his fund-raising efforts by drawing on ties to wealthy Saudi individuals that he had established during the Afghan war in the 1980s.”
Responding to an inquiry from a Senate panel late last year, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said the overstated estimates about bin Laden’s wealth and his financial backing of al-Qaida actually trivialized the threat posed by his group.
Perhaps even more dangerous, bin Laden’s benefit to radical Islam is that he — “coming from a wealthy and influential family” — was considered a trusted person and had the ability to receive and dispose of charitable money, the office wrote in a memo, obtained by the Associated Press in April.
Bin Laden could then direct the money to support local institutions in many countries, in an attempt to radicalize those communities and give him bases to recruit and train.
Still, bin Laden is not thought to be poor. U.S. officials found information in early 2000 indicating that from 1970 to 1994 bin Laden received $1 million a year, the Sept. 11 commission found.
Bin Laden was effectively cut off from the money in a 1994 crackdown, the commission said, when the Saudi government revoked his citizenship, forced his family to find a buyer for his share of the company and later froze the proceeds of that sale. His family disavowed him.
Family members could still be aiding fugitive
However, in a recent interview with the AP, bin Laden’s estranged sister-in-law said she does not believe that family members have cut him off entirely.
Carmen Binladin, who has changed the spelling of her name and lives in Switzerland, said bin Laden is not the only religious brother in the family, and she expects his sisters support him, too. “They are very close to Osama,” she said.
Today, U.S. authorities do not believe bin Laden is tied to businesses anywhere, given that he is in hiding, said a counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“There is no doubt that he and his organization have been financially hurt and have had trouble moving money around,” said the official, who couldn’t put a dollar figure on bin Laden’s worth now. “That said, the al-Qaida organization still has the capability and financial wherewithal to plan and launch terrorist attacks.”