Bin Ladin's Global Cash Machine -
A Profit With Every Soft Drink
By Martin Bentham
The Telegraph - London

Every time a soft drink is sold in the world, there is a chilling possibility that Osama bin Laden's wealth increases - and with it the power of his terrorist network to wage war on the West.

Most drinks contain gum arabic, a substance that prevents particles settling in the bottom of a can or bottle. Much of it is produced in Sudan by the Gum Arabic Company, in which bin Laden has owned a large slice.

Although it is unclear precisely how much involvement he now has in the gum arabic trade, he has already earned tens of millions of pounds from the soft-drinks industry - providing years of finance for his Islamic terrorists.

"It is possible that every time someone buys an American soft drink, they are helping to fill Osama bin Laden's coffers," said Simon Reeve, the author of The New Jackals, a recent book on the Saudi dissident's network.

Bin Laden's earnings from gum arabic, which is also used in other foodstuffs and cosmetics, comprise only a part of his fortune.

He is thought to have earned £18 million from a building contract for the expansion of the Islamic shrines at Mecca and Medina. Other revenue has come from currency trading and various businesses. Drug running in Afghanistan is now thought to be a principal source of his income. In the past, he has even been funded by the CIA.

The exact extent of his fortune can only be guessed at. The most authoritative estimates indicate that he is worth up to £300 million.

"Bin Laden has resources and capabilities greater than many national governments," said Daniel Benjamin, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.

"Bin Laden started off with a fortune, but that is now irrelevant because of his ability to garner funds throughout the Islamic world. These come from rich sheikhs in the Gulf and the charity plate in radical mosques."

He was born in Riyadh, in 1957 - one of more than 50 children of Mohammed bin Laden, the founder of a construction firm with a vast turnover. When his father died, he used his share of the wealth to enjoy a playboy life in Beirut in the early 1970s. Soon, however, he married and trained in management and civil engineering.

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he funded Islamic resistance fighters. Money flowed in to help him - notably from the CIA - but also, it is thought, from other governments.

When the Red Army pulled out in the late 1980s, bin Laden concentrated on expanding his al'Qaeda organisation - also known as The Base - which had been set up during the Afghan war. It began supporting the worldwide "Islamic struggle" through terrorist actions against those deemed to be oppressing Muslims.

Paul Wilkinson, of the centre for the study of terrorism and political violence at St Andrews University, in Scotland, said al'Qaeda's various components were used to move money, information and people around the world. This allowed bin Laden to act as a "super facilitator" for terrorists - some linked to other groups such as Islamic Jihad.

"His is a hydra-headed organisation," said Prof Wilkinson. "Its transnational nature makes it very difficult to stem the flow of funds."

A rare glimpse of al-Qaeda's inner workings came at the New York trial of four bin Laden-sponsored terrorists, convicted in July for their role in two US embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 that killed 224 people.

Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, who says he was once the group's paymaster, told the court of a global web of bank accounts. One, he claimed, was at Barclays Bank in London. The terrorist group was highly organised, he said, with its own finance committee.

Mr al-Fadl fled al-Qaeda in 1996 after he was caught taking illicit commissions from its international trading business. He turned himself over to American investigators.

Barclays Bank said yesterday that there was no record of any of its accounts being linked to bin Laden. A spokesman said: "We have carried out extensive checks to ensure that we are adhering to the legal guidelines."



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