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Bin Ladin and his aides did not need a very large sum to finance their planned attack on America. The 9/11 plotters eventually spent somewhere between $400, 000 and $500, 000 to plan and conduct their attack. Consistent with the importance of the project, al Qaeda funded the plotters. KSM provided his operatives with nearly all the money they needed to travel to the United States, train, and live. The plotters' tradecraft was not especially sophisticated, but it was good enough. They moved, stored, and spent their money in ordinary ways, easily defeating the detection mechanisms in place at the time.110 The origin of the funds remains unknown, although we have a general idea of how al Qaeda financed itself during the period leading up to 9/11.

General Financing

As we explained in chapter 2, Bin Ladin did not fund al Qaeda through a personal fortune and a network of businesses in Sudan. Instead, al Qaeda relied primarily on a fund-raising network developed over time. The CIA now estimates that it cost al Qaeda about $30 million per year to sustain its activities before 9/11 and that this money was raised almost entirely through donations.111

For many years, the United States thought Bin Ladin financed al Qaeda's expenses through a vast personal inheritance. Bin Ladin purportedly inherited approximately $300 million when his father died, and was rumored to have had access to these funds to wage jihad while in Sudan and Afghanistan and to secure his leadership position in al Qaeda. In early 2000, the U.S. government discovered a different reality: roughly from 1970 through 1994, Bin Ladin received about $1 million per year--a significant sum, to be sure, but not a $300 million fortune that could be used to fund jihad.112 Then, as part of a Saudi government crackdown early in the 1990s, the Bin Ladin family was forced to find a buyer for Usama's share of the family company in 1994.The Saudi government subsequently froze the proceeds of the sale. This action had the effect of divesting Bin Ladin of what otherwise might indeed have been a large fortune.113

Nor were Bin Ladin's assets in Sudan a source of money for al Qaeda. When Bin Ladin lived in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, he owned a number of businesses and other assets. These could not have provided significant income, as most were small or not economically viable. When Bin Ladin left in 1996, it appears that the Sudanese government expropriated all his assets: he left Sudan with practically nothing. When Bin Ladin arrived in Afghanistan, he relied on the Taliban until he was able to reinvigorate his fund-raising efforts by drawing on ties to wealthy Saudi individuals that he had established during the Afghan war in the 1980s.114

Al Qaeda appears to have relied on a core group of financial facilitators who raised money from a variety of donors and other fund-raisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia.115 Some individual donors surely knew, and others did not, the ultimate destination of their donations. Al Qaeda and its friends took advantage of Islam's strong calls for charitable giving, zakat.These financial facilitators also appeared to rely heavily on certain imams at mosques who were willing to divert zakat donations to al Qaeda's cause.116

Al Qaeda also collected money from employees of corrupt charities.117 It took two approaches to using charities for fund-raising. One was to rely on al Qaeda sympathizers in specific foreign branch offices of large, international charities--particularly those with lax external oversight and ineffective internal controls, such as the Saudi-based al Haramain Islamic Foundation.118 Smaller charities in various parts of the globe were funded by these large Gulf charities and had employees who would siphon the money to al Qaeda.119

In addition, entire charities, such as the al Wafa organization, may have wittingly participated in funneling money to al Qaeda. In those cases, al Qaeda operatives controlled the entire organization, including access to bank accounts.120 Charities were a source of money and also provided significant cover, which enabled operatives to travel undetected under the guise of working for a humanitarian organization.

It does not appear that any government other than the Taliban financially supported al Qaeda before 9/11, although some governments may have contained al Qaeda sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al Qaeda's fundraising activities.121 Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)122

Still, al Qaeda found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight.123 Al Qaeda also sought money from wealthy donors in other Gulf states.

Al Qaeda frequently moved the money it raised by hawala, an informal and ancient trust-based system for transferring funds.124 In some ways, al Qaeda had no choice after its move to Afghanistan in 1996: first, the banking system there was antiquated and undependable; and second, formal banking was risky due to the scrutiny that al Qaeda received after the August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, including UN resolutions against it and the Taliban.125 Bin Ladin relied on the established hawala networks operating in Pakistan, in Dubai, and throughout the Middle East to transfer funds efficiently. Hawaladars associated with al Qaeda may have used banks to move and store money, as did various al Qaeda fund-raisers and operatives outside of Afghanistan, but there is little evidence that Bin Ladin or core al Qaeda members used banks while in Afghanistan.126

Before 9/11, al Qaeda spent funds as quickly as it received them. Actual terrorist operations represented a relatively small part of al Qaeda's estimated $30 million annual operating budget. Al Qaeda funded salaries for jihadists, training camps, airfields, vehicles, arms, and the development of training manuals. Bin Ladin provided approximately $10-$20 million per year to the Taliban in return for safe haven. Bin Ladin also may have used money to create alliances with other terrorist organizations, although it is unlikely that al Qaeda was funding an overall jihad program. Rather, Bin Ladin selectively provided startup funds to new groups or money for specific terrorist operations.127

Al Qaeda has been alleged to have used a variety of illegitimate means, particularly drug trafficking and conflict diamonds, to finance itself. While the drug trade was a source of income for the Taliban, it did not serve the same purpose for al Qaeda, and there is no reliable evidence that Bin Ladin was involved in or made his money through drug trafficking.128 Similarly, we have seen no persuasive evidence that al Qaeda funded itself by trading in African conflict diamonds.129 There also have been claims that al Qaeda financed itself through manipulation of the stock market based on its advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Exhaustive investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, FBI, and other agencies have uncovered no evidence that anyone with advance knowledge of the attacks profited through securities transactions.130

To date, the U.S. government has not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9/11 attacks. Ultimately the question is of little practical significance. Al Qaeda had many avenues of funding. If a particular funding source had dried up, al Qaeda could have easily tapped a different source or diverted funds from another project to fund an operation that cost $400, 000-$500, 000 over nearly two years.

The Funding of the 9/11 Plot

As noted above, the 9/11 plotters spent somewhere between $400, 000 and $500, 000 to plan and conduct their attack. The available evidence indicates that the 19 operatives were funded by al Qaeda, either through wire transfers or cash provided by KSM, which they carried into the United States or deposited in foreign accounts and accessed from this country. Our investigation has uncovered no credible evidence that any person in the United States gave the hijackers substantial financial assistance. Similarly, we have seen no evidence that any foreign government--or foreign government official--supplied any funding.131

We have found no evidence that the Hamburg cell members (Atta, Shehhi, Jarrah, and Binalshibh) received funds from al Qaeda before late 1999. It appears they supported themselves. KSM, Binalshibh, and another plot facilitator, Mustafa al Hawsawi, each received money, in some cases perhaps as much as $10, 000, to perform their roles in the plot.132

After the Hamburg recruits joined the 9/11 conspiracy, al Qaeda began giving them money. Our knowledge of the funding during this period, before the operatives entered the United States, remains murky. According to KSM, the Hamburg cell members each received $5, 000 to pay for their return to Germany from Afghanistan after they had been selected to join the plot, and they received additional funds for travel from Germany to the United States. Financial transactions of the plotters are discussed in more detail in chapter 7.

Requirements for a Successful Attack

As some of the core operatives prepared to leave for the United States, al Qaeda's leaders could have reflected on what they needed to be able to do in order to organize and conduct a complex international terrorist operation to inflict catastrophic harm. We believe such a list of requirements would have included

  • leaders able to evaluate, approve, and supervise the planning and direction of the operation;
  • communications sufficient to enable planning and direction of the operatives and those who would be helping them;
  • a personnel system that could recruit candidates, vet them, indoctrinate them, and give them necessary training;
  • an intelligence effort to gather required information and form assessments of enemy strengths and weaknesses;
  • the ability to move people; and
  • the ability to raise and move the necessary money.

The information we have presented about the development of the planes operation shows how, by the spring and summer of 2000, al Qaeda was able to meet these requirements.

By late May 2000, two operatives assigned to the planes operation were already in the United States. Three of the four Hamburg cell members would soon arrive.

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© 2004-2012, David A. Desrosiers. unauthorized reproduction of this work is forbidden by law.