8/8/08 - squandered wealth

In today's excerpt - Osama Bin Laden, in spite of early and persistent rumors that he was a centimillionaire, lost much of his inheritance shortly after receiving it:

"Of all the myths that would come to swirl around Al Qaeda, none was greater than the fable of Osama Bin Laden's wealth. His followers ... romanticized every aspect of his leadership, but they particularly exaggerated his personal fortune. The unrestrained, poetic language employed by Islamist propogandists to celebrate Osama's battlefield achievements in Afghanistan soon extended to the subject of his bank account. To some extent, their exaggerations are explained by Osama's fundraising achievements; [which] made him appear wealthier to his comrades in Pakistan than he actually was. Still, the prosaic truth about his personal finances mattered greatly -- because of misreporting about Osama's wealth, his adversaries, particularly those in the United States, would repeatedly misunderstand him. ... Investigators for the 9/11 Commission, drawing upon classified documents later provided to the Treasury Department by the Bin Laden family and its lawyers, estimated that Osama received a total of about $24 million between 1970 and 1993 or 1994; this figure would have included his annual allowance and dividends and the $8 million distribution of 1989 but probably not the value of his shareholdings. ... Osama was wealthy, but not grotesquely so; after [his brother] Salem's death, he received a particularly large sum of cash, just as Al Qaeda was born; and following his receipt of this cash distribution ... he remained a partner in good standing in the most important Bin Laden [family] businesses. ...

"[In and around 1995] Osama's experience as a businessman in Sudan was [such that] his grandiose business schemes did not pan out. His mentors took advantage of him. His employees misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars money he could no longer afford to lose -- Jamal Al-Fadl for example took Osama for $110,000 in a series of manipulated land and commodity deals. ... As early as 1994 or 1995 'We had a crisis in Al Qaeda' recalled L'Hossaine Kherchtou one of his adherents. 'Osama Bin Laden himself said to us that he had lost all his money and he reduced the salary of his people.' He was forced to lay off as many as two thousand workers at his sunflower farm during 1995. It was an extraordinarily fast downturn -- Osama had blown through his lump-sum inheritance, his dividends, and his charitable funds in just four or five years, a total of perhaps $15 million or more. In his essays, he denounced the Saudi royal family for corruption and financial malfeasance, but he had managed his own funds with all the prudence of a self-infatuated Hollywood celebrity."


Steve Coll


The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century


Penguin Press


Copyright 2008 by Steve Coll


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