The inside story of how U.S. terrorist hunters are going after al Qaeda
Al Qaeda's finances came into sharper focus, too. Estimates of bin Laden's wealth after 9/11--cited as high as $300 million--turned out to be wildly exaggerated. The Saudi heir had squandered his fortune years before. Al Qaeda's finances were, instead, built on a foundation of charities, mosques, fund-raisers, and businesses that had financed the jihad movement since its formative war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. CIA officers were joined by Treasury and FBI agents in tracing how al Qaeda moved its money--through international banks, hawala underground bankers, and the purchase of commodities like gold and gemstones.
For years, U.S. officials suspected al Qaeda's key support moved through a network of Islamic charities, most of them based in Saudi Arabia and tied to influential Saudis. The evidence of this was now damning. The CIA's interrogations of al Qaeda's top man in Southeast Asia revealed how the group used funds from the Saudi-based al Haramain Islamic Foundation. The Afghan offices of another Saudi outfit, al Wafa Humanitarian Organization, allegedly functioned as an al Qaeda subsidiary--until it was bombed by U.S. warplanes.
Even after 9/11, the Saudis proved less than cooperative. Frustrated, the CIA took matters into its own hands, hacking into Middle Eastern bank accounts to chart the flow of funds to al Qaeda operatives, intelligence sources tell U.S. News. Other times, case officers offered bribes and came away with bank statements and account numbers. By early March last year, U.S. officials had frozen the assets of a half-dozen foundations and urged other nations to do the same. On March 19, Bosnian authorities raided eight locations tied to the Benevolence International Foundation, a multimillion-dollar Islamic fund with offices in nine countries. Inside, officials found weapons and explosives, pilfered government documents on terrorism, plus videos and literature calling for holy war and martyrdom. But the real surprise lay within a sole computer at the foundation's Sarajevo office.
It was a file directory like that on any other PC, except this one was marked Tareekh Osama, Arabic for "Osama's History." As they peered inside, investigators were stunned. The contents were no less than al Qaeda's founding documents: scanned letters, records of meetings, photographs, and more--some of it in bin Laden's own handwriting.
The files laid bare al Qaeda's history in its own words--how it grew from a network backing anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan in the late 1980s into a global crusade against infidels everywhere. There was correspondence about moving weapons, money, and people; an organizational chart; and documents on the group's involvement in the Bosnian and Sudan civil wars in the early 1990s, then in Chechnya, in 1995. In a court filing unsealed in April this year, U.S. prosecutors called the files "a treasure-trove." Of special note was a handwritten list of names, topped by a verse from the Koran--"And spend for God's cause"--followed by 20 wealthy donors to the al Qaeda network, dating apparently from the late '80s. Known as the Golden Chain, the roster included some of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest men: three billionaire bankers, top industrialists, and a former government minister. After each man appeared a second name, in parenthesis, suggesting who received money from the donor. "Osama" appeared after seven entries.