HSBC files and Osama Bin Laden
by Sandhya Jain on 15 Feb 2015 5 Comments

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ #SwissLeaks initiative on secret account holders in Switzerland’s HSBC bank has brought the spotlight back on the funding of Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden. A US Senate report of July 2012 had publicly revealed links between HSBC clients and Al Qaeda after a raid on the Bosnian office of Saudi-based Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), after which the US Treasury Department designated BIF as a terrorist organization.


It was originally set up as the Islamic Benevolence Committee in 1987 with offices in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to supply weapons and funds to mujahideen fighting the Soviet military in Afghanistan, and to facilitate movement of jihadis into Afghanistan. In 1992, it merged with a Philippine-based group called Benevolence International, set up by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. Now called BIF, it was incorporated as a tax-exempt non-profit in Illinois, with headquarters in Plantation, Florida by local Palestinian activist, Adham Hassoun. After detailed investigations by US agencies, it was banned by the UN Security Council as an Al Qaeda front.


A Federal indictment filed against the chief officer of BIF (United States of America vs. Enaam M Arnaout, 2001) shows the depth of US law enforcement’s information about the funding networks used by bin Laden and the al-Qaeda networks. A document filed by then US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in this case reveals extensive information about the Chechen operations. In a February 2002 press release, the Justice Department announced that Arnaout, “the executive director of Benevolence International Foundation, Inc. (BIF), a purported charitable organization based in south suburban Chicago, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, admitting that he fraudulently obtained charitable donations in order to provide financial assistance to persons engaged in violent activities overseas.” Arnaout admitted to financing Chechen fighters and agreed to cooperate with the US government in some fashion. (Fitzgerald, Patrick J., United States of America v. Enaam M. Arnaout, “Government’s Evidentiary Proffer Supporting the Admissibility of Co-Conspirator Statements,” before Hon. Suzanne B. Conlon).


According to Geneva-based Le Temps newspaper which joined the #SwissLeaks initiative, Osama bin Laden had a handwritten list of 20 patrons, called the ‘Golden Chain’. After the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, US agencies began to track Osama bin Laden’s financial network. The March 2002 raid on the BIF offices in Bosnia unearthed the list of 20 Arab names (powerful Saudi sheikhs and princes), believed to be the largest donors to Al Qaeda. Seven payments were made directly to Osama bin Laden [United Press International, 2/11/2003]. The list was authenticated by a senior bin Laden aide, Jamal al-Fadl, who defected in 1996.


While there is no certainly about the year in which the Golden Chain document was written; US counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke asserted that it dates from 1989 [US Congress, 22 October 2003]. Al-Qaeda was formed in late 1988.


The Golden Chain list became public in 2003, after which HSBC cannot claim to be unaware that these persons were high risk clients, according to the US Senate subcommittee. #SwissLeaks shows that bin Laden’s known family and many persons on the Golden Chain kept their money with HSBC, even after the exposé, which did not attract much public notice. Many members of the Golden Chain figured in the list of 8993 persons exposed by Hervé Falciani in 2008 for trying to dodge French tax authorities.


In an interview with a Pakistani journalist in 2001, Osama bin Laden said, “Al Qaeda’s supporters are aware of the cracks in the Western financial system as they are aware of the lines in their own hands.” In 2007, bin Laden released a video mocking America’s indebtedness; he advised his followers, “it is very important to concentrate on hitting the US economy through all possible means.” In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security warned that Al Qaeda was trying to infiltrate US financial institutions; Defence Department investigations showed that Al Qaeda spies were being infiltrated into the US Army.


US investigations previously revealed that Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Omar Sheikh wired money to Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker. Omar Sheikh was also behind the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by another 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (which he himself admitted).


Mark Mitchell, one of the few journalists to seriously pursue to the Golden Chain leads, observed that this elite club of Saudi billionaires could be considered as Al Qaeda’s founding fathers. They supported the organisation even after bin Laden declared war against the United States and at least one of them continued to do so up to 2013. The Golden Chain document has been authenticated by American intelligence officials and the Investigative Project for Terrorism, which has the world’s largest non-governmental database of intelligence on Al Qaeda and other jihadi outfits.


It may be pointed out that none of the Golden Chain members have been charged with any crime related to the financing of terrorism so far. However, this may change with families of victims of 9/11 filing cases for compensation in a Manhattan (US) court where a key witness (Zacarias Moussaoui) has implicated the new Saudi king as a promoter of overseas terrorism.


Golden Chain member Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz (d. 2009) founded National Commercial Bank, the single largest financial institution in the Middle East. Sheikh Mahfouz was close to the bin Laden family and reportedly helped Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed, build Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company. Some of his firms, notably Al Khaleejia, SEDCO, and the Saudi Sudanese Bank, did business with companies founded by Osama bin Laden. Sheikh Mahfouz founded the Muwafaq Foundation, managed by Yasin al-Qadi until the US government declared Muwafaq an “Al Qaeda front” and designated Yasin al-Qadi as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” Khalid bin Mahfouz’s lawyer admitted that bin Mahfouz contributed a small amount to fund the mujahidin in the late 1980s, but only at the behest of the US and Saudi Arabia [Wall Street Journal, 18 March 2003].


Sheikh Saleh Abdullah Kamel owns Dallah Albaraka, a conglomerate involved in banking, stock trading, construction, and media. He owns the Saudi al-Baraka Bank, which US government investigators believe supported Al Qaeda in Sudan during the 1990s and gave Hamas over $20 million to open its own bank, the al-Aqsa Bank. According to the list, he also gave money to Adel Batterjee, a wealthy Saudi businessman and founder of BIF and its predecessor Lajnatt Al-Birr Al-Islamiah [United Press International, 2/11/2003] The US declared him a terrorist financier in 2004. The al-Aqsa Bank, meanwhile, quickly formed a joint venture with Citibank, which shunned the US Treasury advice to disband the enterprise.


Sheikh Ibrahim Muhammad Afandi owns some of Saudi Arabia’s most influential businesses, including Saudi Industrial Services Company, Great Saudi Development & Investment Company, and Arabian Company for Development and Investment Limited. He controls BSA Investments, a big private equity fund active in the US.


Abdel Qader Faqeeh is chairman of major corporations and financial institutions, including Bank Al Jazeera and the Savola Group which recently merged with Azizia Panda to become Saudi Arabia’s 13th largest company. His business partner is another Golden Chain member Sheikh Saleh al-Din Abdel Jawad, CEO of blue chip General Machinery Agencies, in Jeddah. He has a joint venture business with Sheikh Mahfouz.


Sheikh Rahman Hassan Sharbatly is a board member and major shareholder of Beirut Ryad Bank SAL, Egyptian Gulf Bank, and several other financial institutions. He and Sheikh Mahfouz are partners in a multi-billion dollar investment outfit called Middle East Capital Group and were board members of the Saudi Arabian Refinery Company, which refines much of the world’s oil supply. Sheikh Sharbatly and Sheikh Faqeeh are partners in a unit of Sheikh Faqeeh’s Savola Group.


Other donors on the Golden Chain are the “Bin Laden brothers”, whose first names are not mentioned; they gave money to Osama bin Laden (listed as recipient); Saudi millionaire Wael Hamza Julaidan, one of the founders of al-Qaeda (recipient) and declared by the US as a terrorist financier in 2002; Sheikh Abdel Hadir Taher, a former governor of the Saudi state oil company Petromin and former director of Saudi European Bank; and Sheikh Ahmad Turki Yamani, a former Saudi minister of petroleum and former director of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. He is president of Investcorp, one of the world’s largest hedge fund and private equity outfits.


Sheikh Sulaiman Abdul Aziz al-Rajhi, patriarch of the wealthiest family in Saudi Arabia and one of the 100 richest persons in the world, directs several hedge funds that manage billions of dollars, several stock brokerages, and the Al Rajhi Bank that controls the Stock Exchange of Saudi Arabia.


A US Senate investigative committee report of 2013 revealed that Al Rajhi Bank was still (as of 2013) dealing with Al Qaeda, and laundering Al Qaeda money through HSBC. The British bank paid a modest fine for this and other money laundering infractions. Sheikh Rajhi’s companies have around $100 billion in cash at their disposal. He reportedly founded the US-based SAAR Network, named after him, which was dissolved after a raid by federal agents in 2002.


Kevin Fenton observed in Disconnecting the Dots (2011) that most of the 9/11 hijackers were discovered through their banking transactions: “In this context, it is worth noting that Global Objectives, a British banking compliance company, identified fifteen of the nineteen hijackers as high-risk individuals and established database profiles for them before the attacks. ... The list of high-risk people maintained by Global Objectives was available to dozens of banks”, and presumably included HSBC.


Certainly, there is no evidence that HSBC or Al Rajhi Bank had prior knowledge of 2001, but both institutions exhibited gross indifference to the “know your client” (KYC) rules in the race to batten their balance sheets. US Senate investigators later noted that HSBC Middle East continued ties with Al Rajhi Bank even after HSBC’s Group Compliance had decided to sever the relationship between the bank and other HSBC affiliates due to terrorist financing concerns”. HSBC also continued to supply US bank notes to Al Rajhi Bank.


Despite possessing the list for over a decade, Washington possibly has not taken action against any of the Golden Chain members on account of their proximity to the Saudi government, which is an important ally in the Middle East. That is also the reason why 28 pages of the US Congress final report on the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, believed to have exposed Saudi ties to Al Qaeda, were redacted.

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