Although he has lived meagerly on the plains and in the cavernous mountains of Afghanistan for roughly a decade, Osama bin Laden is no stranger to wealth. In fact, he was born into extraordinary privilege in Saudi Arabia in 1957.
Osama's father, construction magnate Mohammed Awad bin Laden, paid the wages of every Saudi government worker out of his own pocket for a six-month stretch during the 1960s, according to the biography a source close to Osama bin Laden provided to producers of the PBS series "Frontline." The Saudi government subsequently decreed that all Saudi construction jobs go to the elder bin Laden's firm. The bin Laden family remains one of the wealthier and more prominent clans in Saudi society.
Exactly how bin Laden amassed the funds that bankroll his worldwide terrorism cartel will probably never be known. Most of his money came from his stake in the family business, from which he still apparently profits. While he has been publicly condemned as the family's black sheep by some of his siblings, others continue to share the mother company's wealth with him.
While leading opposition forces against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, bin Laden raised large sums of money from other rich Saudis who supported his cause. This may still be the case in recent years.
Osama bin Laden's wealth has been estimated at between $50 million and $300 million dispersed in at least 55 countries. Some of his money is invested in seemingly legitimate and successful businesses, which may funnel profits back to al Qaeda, bin Laden's terrorist network. U.S. Treasury Department officials alleged recently that honey merchants in Yemen have helped move money and arms for al Qaeda, a charge those merchants denied October 15.
Bin Laden keeps his money on the run, often shifting it from one bank account or business to another to stay ahead of investigators. Since the September 11 attacks, however, the Bush administration has launched unprecedented efforts to freeze assets believed to finance al Qaeda. Britain, Germany and France have taken similar steps. According to The New York Times, Saudi Arabia has been less cooperative than U.S. officials would like, although the United States has avoided criticizing the Saudis publicly.
A recent CNN report revealed that Mohammed Atta, leader of the September 11 attacks, was wired $100,000 from an unidentified Pakistani during the year prior to the hijackings. Then, shortly before September 11, he wired $15,000 back to a source in the United Arab Emirates, perhaps indicating that he had used $85,000 to prepare for the attacks. While it may never be known exactly how much was spent on underwriting the September 11 attacks, they weren't cheap. The 19 terrorists took costly flight lessons, were housed on U.S. soil for months and flew first class on September 11.
Despite being waged in corporate and government offices rather than on the field of combat, the battle to cut off Osama bin Laden's funds may prove the most crucial in the U.S. war against terrorism. Money has made al Qaeda more prominent, and arguably more dangerous, than any previous terrorist group. To reduce that threat, the United States and its allies will have to choke its cash flow.
For more information on the money behind Osama bin Laden, go to PBS's "Frontline" Web site (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/).
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An MTV News Staff report
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