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Profile: Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)
Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) was a participant or observer in the following events:
Agha Hasan Abedi. [Source: Terry Kirk / Financial Times]Investigative journalist Joseph Trento will later report that in 1976, the Safari Club, a newly formed secret cabal of intelligence agencies (see September 1, 1976-Early 1980s), decides it needs a network of banks to help finance its intelligence operations. Saudi Intelligence Minister Kamal Adham is given the task. “With the official blessing of George H. W. Bush as the head of the CIA, Adham transformed a small Pakistani merchant bank, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), into a world-wide money-laundering machine, buying banks around the world to create the biggest clandestine money network in history.” BCCI was founded in 1972 by a Pakistani named Agha Hasan Abedi, who was an associate of Adham’s. Bush himself has an account at BCCI established while still director of the CIA. French customs will later raid the Paris BCCI branch and discover the account in Bush’s name. [Trento, 2005, pp. 104] Bush, Adham, and other intelligence heads work with Abedi to contrive “a plan that seemed too good to be true. The bank would solicit the business of every major terrorist, rebel, and underground organization in the world. The intelligence thus gained would be shared with ‘friends’ of BCCI.” CIA operative Raymond Close works closely with Adham on this. BCCI taps “into the CIA’s stockpile of misfits and malcontents to help man a 1,500-strong group of assassins and enforcers.” [Trento, 2005, pp. 104] Soon, BCCI becomes the fastest growing bank in the world. Time magazine will later describe BCCI as not just a bank, but also “a global intelligence operation and a Mafia-like enforcement squad. Operating primarily out of the bank’s offices in Karachi, Pakistan, the 1,500-employee black network has used sophisticated spy equipment and techniques, along with bribery, extortion, kidnapping and even, by some accounts, murder. The black network—so named by its own members—stops at almost nothing to further the bank’s aims the world over.” [Time, 7/22/1991]
Founded in 1976, Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt (FIBE) is part of the banking empire built by Saudi Prince Mohammed al-Faisal. Several of the founding members are leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the “Blind Sheikh,” Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. The growth of Islamic banking directly funds the political growth of the Islamist movement and allows the Saudis to pressure poorer Islamic nations, like Egypt, to shift their policies to the right. The Islamic banking boom is closely associated with the neoliberal free-trade philosophy of the Chicago School of Economics, with the free-trade prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund, and with conservative think-tanks like the Virginia-based Islamic Free Market Institute. FIBE is also closely associated with the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which will be found to be deeply implicated in the illegal arms and narcotics trades, and with the funding of terrorist organizations when it collapses in 1991. Investigators will also find that BCCI held $589 million in “unrecorded deposits,” $245 million of which were placed with FIBE. [Dreyfuss, 2005, pp. 164 - 175]
James Bath, who has some unexplained ties to George W. Bush, opens an aircraft brokerage firm. Investors for the firm include Texas Governor John Connally, alleged Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) Saudi front man Ghaith Pharaon, and Saudi banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, a major BCCI shareholder and husband to one of Osama bin Laden’s sisters. Time magazine will later report that “Bath’s penchant for secrecy has been frustrated by a feud with a former business partner, Bill White, who claims that Bath was a front man for CIA business operations. White contends that Bath has used his connections to the Bush family and Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen to cloak the development of a lucrative array of offshore companies designed to move money and airplanes between the Middle East and Texas.” Bath will deny White’s claims, saying, “I am not a member of the CIA or any other intelligence agency.” However, he will acknowledge knowing Bush from serving with him during his time in the Texas Air National Guard. But, as Time will note: “Even so, Bath, while insisting he is nothing more than a ‘small, obscure businessman,’ is associated with some of the most powerful figures in the US and Middle East. Private records show, and associates confirm, that Bath is a ‘representative’ for several immensely wealthy Saudi families, an unusual position for any small-time Texas businessman.” As Time will note, “The firm that incorporated Bath’s companies in the Cayman Islands is the same one that set up a money-collecting front company for Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair.” [Time, 6/24/2001] There will be further evidence linking both Bath and bin Mahfouz to Bush (see June 4, 1992 and 1988).
Kamal Adham. [Source: Adham Center]Beginning in 1978, a group of foreign investors attempt to buy First American Bankshares, the biggest bank in the Washington, D.C., area. This group is fronted by Kamal Adham, the longtime Saudi intelligence minister until 1979. In 1981, the Federal Reserve asks the CIA for information about the investors, but the CIA holds back everything they know, including the obvious fact that Adham was intelligence minister. As a result, the sale goes through in 1982. It turns outs that Adham and his group were secretly acting on behalf of the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), and BCCI takes over the bank. [Washington Post, 7/30/1991; US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 12/1992] Time magazine will later report that “the CIA kept some accounts in First American Bank, BCCI’s Washington arm.” But additionally, “Government investigators now have proof that First American had long been the CIA’s principal banker. Some of the more than 50 agency accounts uncovered at the bank date back to the 1950s. BCCI owned the CIA’s bank for a decade.” [Time, 3/9/1992] The CIA soon learns that BCCI secretly controls the bank, if the CIA didn’t already know this from the very beginning. By 1985, the CIA will secretly inform the Treasury Department on the bank’s control by BCCI, which would be illegal. But no action is taken then or later, until BCCI is shut down. Sen. John Kerry’s BCCI investigation will later conclude, “even when the CIA knew that BCCI was as an institution a fundamentally corrupt criminal enterprise, it used both BCCI and First American, BCCI’s secretly held US subsidiary, for CIA operations. In the latter case, some First American officials actually knew of this use.” [US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 12/1992]
By 1979, Pakistan’s economy is on the brink of collapse. Pakistan owes large debts to international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but lacks the money to pay off its loans. The criminal BCCI bank led by Agha Hasan Abedi comes up with a scheme to save Pakistan’s economy. In 1979, the IMF says that if Pakistan increases its hard currency reserves by at least $50 million for 90 days, Pakistan’s State Bank can raise the lending limits for commercial banks. With banks able to make more loans, the economy will be able to perform better. BCCI secretly loans the State Bank the hard currency until the 90 days are over and then takes it back. Having established this system, BCCI helps Pakistan’s State Bank numerous times in subsequent years to avoid financial limitations placed on Pakistan. BCCI will finally collapse in 1991 (see July 5, 1991). [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 292-293]
According to a 1992 Congressional investigation led by Congressman Charles Schumer (D-NY), between 1979 and 1991, federal law enforcement agencies receive more than 700 tips about BCCI’s criminal activities. The criminal BCCI bank will finally be shut down in 1991 (see July 5, 1991). The tips include BCCI involvement in:
Promoting political unrest in Pakistan.
Smuggling arms to various countries, including Syria, Libya, and Iran.
Financing terrorist groups.
Links to organized crime in the US and Italy.
Time magazine reporters Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne will later comment in a book: “Too many people knew too much about BCCI, and they knew it long before the bank spun itself into bankruptcy and scandal.… That [CIA Deputy Director] Robert Gates could jokingly refer to it in a conversation with Customs chief William von Raab as the “bank of crooks and criminals” three years before the scandal broke merely reflects the run of knowledge around Washington. Indeed, it would probably have been difficult to find very many people with real power who did not know about the bank, based on the wide distribution of CIA reports.” Schumer will later conclude: “At the very least, there was nobody putting together all the pieces.… You could make a credible case that somebody told them not to do anything about BCCI.” [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 346]
Much of the billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia and the CIA to the Afghan mujaheddin actually gets siphoned off by the Pakistani ISI. Melvin Goodman, a CIA analyst in the 1980s, will later say, “They were funding the wrong groups, and had little idea where the money was going or how it was being spent.” Sarkis Soghanalian, a middleman profiting from the aid, will later say, “The US did not want to get its hands dirty. So the Saudis’ money and the US money was handled by the ISI. I can tell you that more than three quarters of the money was skimmed off the top. What went to buy weapons for the Afghan fighters was peanuts.” Sognhanalian claims that most of the money went through various accounts held at the notoriously corrupt BCCI bank, then was distributed to the ISI and the A. Q. Khan nuclear network. [Trento, 2005, pp. 318] Robert Crowley, a CIA associate director from the 1960s until the 1980s, will also refer to the aid money going to Khan’s network, commenting, “Unfortunately, the Pakistanis knew exactly where their cut of the money was to go.” An early 1990s congressional investigation led by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) will also come to the same conclusion. [Trento, 2005, pp. 314, 384]
Norman Bailey, a member of the National Security Council (NSC) whose specialty is monitoring terrorism by tracking finances, will later reveal that in the early 1980s the NSC learns that BCCI is not just a bank but is engaged in widespread criminal activity. “We were aware that BCCI was involved in drug-money transactions,” he will later say. “We were also aware that BCCI was involved with terrorists, technology transfers—including the unapproved transfer of US technology to the Soviet bloc—weapons dealing, the manipulation of financial markets, and other activities.” The main source for the NSC about this are reports from the CIA. From 1981 on, the NSC learns of BCCI’s role in illegal technology deals for Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran, and other countries. A clear picture has emerged by the start of 1984. But neither the CIA nor the NSC take any action against the bank. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 291, 315]
Pakistani finance minister Ghulam Ishaq Khan (left) and A. Q. Khan. [Source: Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clarke]In 1981, the criminal BCCI bank sets up a charity called the BCCI Foundation. Pakistani Finance Minister Ghulam Ishaq Khan grants it tax-free status, and it supposedly spends millions on charitable purposes. Khan serves as the chairman of the foundation while also running the books for A. Q. Khan’s Kahuta Research Laboratories. Ghulam Ishaq Khan will be president of Pakistan from 1988 to 1993. [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 126-127] BCCI founder Agha Hasan Abedi announces that he will donate up to 90% of BCCI’s profits to charity through the foundation, and he develops a positive reputation from a few well-publicized charitable donations. But the charity is actually used to shelter BCCI profits. Most of the money it raises goes to A. Q. Khan’s nuclear program and not to charitable causes. For instance, in 1987 it gives a single $10 million donation to an institute headed by A. Q. Khan. Millions more go to investments in a front company owned by BCCI figure Ghaith Pharaon. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 290-291] An investigation by the Los Angeles Times will reveal that less than 10% of the money went to charity. [Los Angeles Times, 8/9/1991] BCCI uses other means to funnel even more money into A. Q. Khan’s nuclear program (see 1980s).
CIA covert weapons shipments are sent by the Pakistani army and the ISI to rebel camps in the North West Frontier province near the Afghanistan border. The governor of the province is Lieutenant General Fazle Haq, who author Alfred McCoy calls Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq’s “closest confidant and the de facto overlord of the mujaheddin guerrillas.” Haq allows hundreds of heroin refineries to set up in his province. Beginning around 1982, Pakistani army trucks carrying CIA weapons from Karachi often pick up heroin in Haq’s province and return loaded with heroin. They are protected from police search by ISI papers. [McCoy, 2003, pp. 477] By 1982, Haq is listed with Interpol as an international drug trafficker. But Haq also becomes known as a CIA asset. Despite his worsening reputation, visiting US politicians such as CIA Director William Casey and Vice President George H. W. Bush continue to meet with him when they visit Pakistan. Haq then moves his heroin money through the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). A highly placed US official will later say that Haq “was our man… everybody knew that Haq was also running the drug trade” and that “BCCI was completely involved.” [Scott, 2007, pp. 73-75] Both European and Pakistani police complain that investigations of heroin trafficking in the province are “aborted at the highest level.” [McCoy, 2003, pp. 477] In 1989, shortly after Benazir Bhutto takes over as the new ruler of Pakistan, Pakistani police arrest Haq and charge him with murder. He is considered a multi-billionaire by this time. But Haq will be gunned down and killed in 1991, apparently before he is tried. [McCoy, 2003, pp. 483] Even President Zia is implied in the drug trade. In 1985, a Norwegian government investigation will lead to the arrest of a Pakistani drug dealer who also is President Zia’s personal finance manager. When arrested, his briefcase contains Zia’s personal banking records. The manager will be sentenced to a long prison term. [McCoy, 2003, pp. 481-482]
According to Alfred W. McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin, in 1983 Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq allows Pakistani drug traffickers to deposit their drug profits in the BCCI bank without getting punished. The criminal BCCI bank has close ties to the Pakistani government and the US funding of the Afghan war. It will be shut down in 1991. BCCI also plays a critical role in facilitating the movement of Pakistan’s heroin money. By 1989, Pakistan’s heroin trade will be valued at $4 billion a year, more than all of Pakistan’s legal exports. [McCoy, 2003, pp. 480]
Abdus Salam, a member of the nuclear proliferation ring run by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan (see Summer 1976 and Before September 1980), has multiple dealings with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) while residing in the US.
"No Payments" - Julio Bagiardi, one of Salam’s partners in a chain of retail stores, will say: “All he wanted to do was make a lot of deposits at the same bank. He insisted on keeping [all his deposits] at BCCI.” Salam is also “very forceful” in persuading Bagiardi and the other partners to do the same. If they do so, according to Salam, they will have access to “unlimited” cash and, if they make daily deposits, “it would never be a problem if we needed to get money.” In addition, “they [would] never have to pay nothing back,” as there would be “no payments.” Bagiadri will add that Salam “knew somebody” at the bank. David Reed, another partner in the retail stores, will confirm Salam had an account with the bank.
Unusually Generous Overdraft Loan - One transaction is the granting in 1989 of an overdraft, arranged with support from the branch in Park Lane, London. That branch’s manager recommends that its Tampa branch make a loan to Salam, but instead it grants him a “virtually unsecured” $120,000 overdraft line. The overdrafts are usually for customers with substantial account balances, so it is unclear why one is given to Salam, whose balance is “very skimpy,” according to sources for authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento. The line is later moved to one of Salam’s companies, Centaur Impex, backed only by a personal guarantee from Salam and Centaur’s assets. By this time BCCI is in serious trouble and the line is transferred to the Miami branch, which sues Salam for non-payment of the balance, around $50,000. Armstong and Trento’s sources will say that the fact that Salam “had the influence to obtain such a loan without any meaningful collateral” is “very curious,” adding that it “suggests that he may have had influence among highly placed people within BCCI and/or Pakistan.”
"No Recollection" of Salam - When Armstrong and Trento investigate the relationship between Salam and BCCI for a 2007 book, they will have difficulty obtaining information. The court has destroyed records, the lawyers say they have too, BCCI’s liquidators are unable to provide any information, prosecutors and investigators involved in proceedings against BCCI say they knew nothing about Salam, and the various officials of the bank where Salam deposited his money every day for years “either would not return phone calls, denied knowing who Salam was, or claimed that, while the name did ‘ring a bell,’ they could recall no specifics about their former client.” [Armstrong and Trento, 2007, pp. 108-111]
Paula Hawkins. [Source: Public domain]In 1984, Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL) meets with Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan. During the meeting, she mentions that she is concerned about a Pakistani bank that is laundering money out of the Cayman Islands. Her staff later clarifies to Zia that she was referring to BCCI (which technically is not a Pakistani bank, but almost all of its top officials are Pakistani). As a result, Abdur Sakhia, the top BCCI official in the US, meets with Hawkins in the US a short time later and assures her that BCCI is not laundering money out of the Cayman Islands. Then officials from the Justice Department, State Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) meet with Hawkins’s staffers and assure them that BCCI is not the subject of any investigation. Weeks later, the State Department formally notifies the Pakistani government that BCCI is not under investigation. As a result, Hawkins drops her brief interest in BCCI. However, by this time the State Department, Justice Department, and DEA have all been briefed by the CIA about BCCI’s many criminal activities. Apparently, this information is deliberately kept from the senator. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 324-325]
The CIA sends a report on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and its drug-related activities to other US government departments. It follows up with a report about BCCI’s links to notorious terrorists such as Abu Nidal, the most wanted man in the world at the time. Similar reports follow in 1986. However, the Justice Department, Treasury Department, and other departments keep silent about what they know and no action is taken against the bank. [US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 12/1992; Cooley, 2002, pp. 93]
An ailing Agha Hasan Abedi in 1991. [Source: Associated Press]NBC News later reports that CIA Director William Casey secretly meets with the head of the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) from 1984 until 1986, shortly before Casey’s death. The NBC report, quoting unnamed BCCI sources, will claim that Casey met with BCCI head Agha Hasan Abedi every few months in a luxury suite at the Madison Hotel in Washington. The two men allegedly discussed the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages transactions and CIA weapons shipments to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. The CIA denies all the allegations. [Associated Press, 2/21/1992] But books by Time magazine and Wall Street Journal reporters will corroborate that Casey repeatedly met with Abedi. [Scott, 2007, pp. 116] Casey also meets with Asaf Ali, a BCCI-connected arms dealer, in Washington, DC, and in Pakistan. On one occasion, Casey has a meeting in Washington with Abedi, Ali, and Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 308]
By 1984, huge amounts of arms and ammunition for the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan are pouring into Pakistan. These weapons are funded by the CIA and Saudi government, and generally come into the port of Karachi. The criminal BCCI bank has an enforcement arm nicknamed the “Black Network.” Time magazine reporters Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne will later describe it as “a Karachi-based cadre of bank operatives, paramilitary units, spies, and enforcers who handled BCCI’s darkest operations around the globe and trafficked in bribery and corruption.” By 1984, BCCI and its Black Network takes effective control of Karachi’s port, dominating Pakistan’s customs service there with bribery and intimidation. BCCI is thus in a position to dominate the flow of supplies to the mujaheddin. Pakistan’s military handles the flow of weapons from Karachi to the Afghan border, but once there the supplies have to be carried by mules to reach the mujaheddin fighting in remote Afghan mountain ranges. BCCI controls this part of the supply chain as well. Sometimes BCCI personnel simply transport the supplies across Afghanistan to Iran and then sell them there for a profit. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 66, 315-316] The US government is aware of BCCI’s support role and cooperates with it. For instance, in 1987 USAID asks BCCI to buy 1,000 more mules to help the mujaheddin. [Los Angeles Times, 9/3/1991] At almost every step of the way, BCCI takes a cut of the profits and often steals some of the supplies. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 66, 315-316]
Wreckage from the Gander crash. [Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]Shortly after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, Arrow Air Flight 1285 stalls and crashes about half a mile from the runway. All 256 passengers and crew on board are killed, including 248 US soldiers. The plane was coming from Egypt and refueling in Newfoundland before continuing on to the US. The crash will initially be widely reported to have been an accident, caused by icing on the airplane wings. Official US and Canadian investigations will also support this conclusion. However, information will later come out suggesting it was not an accident:
Members of Islamic Jihad, a branch of the Hezbollah militant group (not to be confused with the Islamic Jihad group headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri), immediately take credit for the crash. In one call to the Reuters news agency in Beirut, the caller knows details of the plane flight not yet mentioned in the press.
Within hours of the crash, Major General John Crosby arrives at the crash site and reportedly tells maintenance workers he wants to “bulldoze over the crash site immediately.” The White House also quickly publicly claims there is “no evidence of sabotage or an explosion in flight,” despite the fact that Hezbollah has just taken credit for the crash and the investigation is just beginning. While the site is not bulldozed, there is no effort to meticulously sift the wreckage for clues, which is standard procedure for such air crashes.
An FBI forensic team flies to Newfoundland within hours of the crash, but then merely sits in a hotel room. After 36 hours, the team accepts a declaration that terrorism was not involved and returns home. The FBI will claim the Canadian government did not allow its team to visit the site. [Time, 4/27/1992]
In 1988, the nine-member Canadian Aviation Safety Board will issue a split verdict. Five members will attribute the crash to ice formation and four members will claim it was the result of an explosion. A former Canadian Supreme Court justice will be appointed to decide if there should be a new investigation. He will conclude that the available evidence does not support ice on the wings as being a cause, let alone a probable cause, of the crash. But he will also rule against a new investigation, saying it would cause more pain to the victims’ families. [Time, 4/27/1992; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 12/12/2005]
Later declassified autopsy reports will show that soldiers had inhaled smoke in the moments before they died, indicating there was a fire on board before the plane hit the ground. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 12/12/2005]
Five witnesses in the remote location where the plane crashes will sign sworn statements that they saw the plane burning before it fell.
An examination of the fuselage will show outward holes, indicating an explosion from within.
Four members of the refueling crew will assert there was no icing problem before the plane took off. The plane crashed about one minute after take off.
Six heavy crates were loaded into the plane’s cargo bay in Egypt without military customs clearance. Witnesses will claim that weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles, were being stockpiled in Egypt near where the plane took off. At the time, the US was secretly selling these types of missiles to Iran as part of an arms-for-hostages deal.
In the wake of public exposure of the Iran-Contra affair, it will be revealed that Arrow Air is a CIA front company and was regularly used by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North to ship arms.
Most of the crash victims are US Airborne troops returning from multinational peacekeeping duties in Egypt, but more than 20 Special Forces personnel were also on board. They were from elite counterterrorist units often used on hostage rescue missions.
Just days before the crash, Iranian officials threatened to retaliate after North sent them a shipment of the wrong missiles. North wrote three days earlier that he was determined to continue arms shipments. “To stop now in midstream would ignite Iranian fire,” he wrote, adding, “Hostages would be our minimum losses.” One theory will be that Iran used militant surrogates connected to Hezbollah to punish North for sending the wrong missiles. [Time, 4/27/1992]
Gene Wheaton, a private investigator hired by victims’ relatives unsatisfied with the official explanation, will claim that a duffel bag stuffed with US currency was found in the wreckage. Two men in civilian clothes, who other personnel at the crash cite believe were from the CIA, took custody of the money. Neither the money nor the heavy crates will be mentioned by the official investigation.
In the early 1990s, two Time magazine reporters will be writing a book about the BCCI bank scandal. They will develop a reliable source, a private arms dealer using the alias Heinrich. Heinrich will tell them that a large amount of cash was on the Gander flight and he will tell them this before any accounts of cash being on the plane are reported in the media. Heinrich, who takes part in numerous arms deals with high-level BCCI officials, will tell the reporters: “This money on the plane was money that [BCCI founder Agha Hasan] Abedi, money that the bank had provided US intelligence for covert operations. The money was being used by the American military. I have no idea what for. You don’t ask these kinds of questions of these people.…. One of the bank men—perhaps I should call him an associate of the bank men—was a little angry about this money. He believed it was being, ah, appropriated, by some of the Special Forces soldiers. Someone else thought perhaps it was being diverted to another operation. I only know that the subject of the Gander crash came up and these people talked about BCCI money going down with it.” [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 231-233]
Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Heinrich”, Agha Hasan Abedi, Central Intelligence Agency, Oliver North, Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad Organization, Gene Wheaton, John Crosby
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Iran-Contra Affair
Months before the National Security Council (NSC)‘s Oliver North sets up his network to illegally divert funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), the NSC uses the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI—see July 22, 1991) to channel money to the Contras. This money is sent from White House-controlled funds to Saudi Arabia to “launder” its origins, then deposited into a BCCI bank account controlled by Contra leader Adolfo Calero. [Time, 7/22/1991]
By 1987, Abu Nidal is the world’s most well-known terrorist. His group has killed over 300 people. But in 1987 his attacks generally come to a halt. A French intelligence report in 1988 explains this is because Middle Eastern governments begin paying large sums of protection money in order not to be attacked. For instance, the government of Kuwait deposits $80 million into Nidal’s BCCI bank account in London in 1987. Kuwait will later deny the payments took place, but counterterrorism experts will dismiss the denials and say that such payments to Nidal were common. In 1988, the Defense Department will conclude that one third of Nidal’s money comes from his own businesses (he is an illegal arms dealer), one third from Arab governments, and one third from various blackmail schemes. Most of these transactions, including Nidal’s arms dealing transactions, are made through Nidal’s BCCI bank account in London, and US and British intelligence has been monitoring his account there since at least 1986 (see 1984 and After). But apparently they merely gather information and make little attempt to shut down Nidal or his finances. Nidal will eventually close out his London accounts in 1990. [Wall Street Journal, 8/9/1991; Los Angeles Times, 9/30/1991] Nidal will finally be murdered in mysterious circumstances in Iraq in August 2002. He will apparently stop his attacks around 1994. [Guardian, 8/20/2002]
US Justice Department headquarters. [Source: GlobeXplorer]Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) stumbles across the criminality of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) while investigating international drug trafficking as part of a congressional oversight committee. He soon starts a vigorous congressional investigation of BCCI, and New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau launches a vigorous investigation as well. [New York Times, 7/29/1991] However, Kerry’s and Morgenthau’s investigations are consistently stifled. Kerry will later say that, “with the key exception of the Federal Reserve, there was almost [no]… information or cooperation provided by other government agencies.” [US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 12/1992] Kerry will later conclude that the Justice Department in particular went to great lengths to block his and Morgenthau’s investigations “through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from not making witnesses available, to not returning phone calls, to claiming that every aspect of the case was under investigation in a period when little, if anything was being done.” After the Bank of England shuts down BCCI in July 1991 (see July 5, 1991), making big headlines, Under Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller takes over Justice Department efforts on BCCI and assigns many new attorneys to the case. But Kerry will ultimately conclude that the indictments the Justice Department brings forth against BCCI after that time were narrower and less detailed than those of Morgenthau’s, and often seemed to be in response to what Morgenthau was doing. [US Congress, 12/1992] Kerry submits his report on BCCI in December 1992, and after that investigations into BCCI peter out. President Bush will appoint Mueller to be director of the FBI shortly before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001).
William von Raab. [Source: Sobran.com]In 1991, the Financial Times will report, “[T]here are persistent allegations that slush funds [at the criminal BCCI bank] were used for illegal, covert CIA operations.” US Customs Commissioner William von Raab will later allege that in the autumn of 1988, as he is preparing arrests regarding drug money laundering charges against a BCCI subsidiary in Florida, he approaches CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates for help. Gates does give Raab a CIA document about BCCI. But, according to the Times, “Gates failed to disclose the CIA’s own use of BCCI to channel payments for covert operations, which the customs chief learned about only later—and thanks to documents supplied to him by British customs agents in London.” The Times will cite the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal as one example of how the CIA used BCCI for covert operations. [Financial Times, 8/10/1991]
Khalid bin Mahfouz. [Source: CBC]Shortly after 9/11, the London Times will report that Osama bin Laden stayed at the London estate of Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz. “Sources close to the bin Mahfouz family say that about 10 years ago, when bin Laden was widely regarded as a religious visionary and defender of the Muslim faith, he visited the property and spent ‘two or three days’ on the estate, relaxing in its open-air swimming pool, walking in the grounds and talking to bin Mahfouz. What the men discussed remains a mystery.” Bin Mahfouz was a major investor in the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which is closed down around this time (see July 5, 1991). [London Times, 9/23/2001] Bin Laden was also heavily invested in BCCI at the time (see July 1991). There are other reports of bin Laden visiting London around this time (see Early 1990s-Late 1996), and even briefly living there (see Early 1994). The name “bin Mahfouz” appears on the “Golden Chain,” a list of early al-Qaeda financial supporters (see 1988-1989). Bin Mahfouz denies any terrorist link to bin Laden.
In March 1991, Sen. John Kerry’s Senate investigation of the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) investigation hears about a secret CIA report on BCCI that was given to the Customs Service. Kerry’s office asks the CIA for a copy, but is told the report does not exist. After months of wrangling, more and more information about the CIA’s ties to BCCI comes out, and the CIA eventually gives Kerry that report and many other reports relating to BCCI. But crucially, the CIA does not share documents on CIA operations using the bank. Kerry’s public report will conclude, “Key questions about the relationship between US intelligence and BCCI cannot be answered at this time, and may never be.” [Nation, 10/26/1992; US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 12/1992]
BCCI logo. [Source: BCCI]In early 2001, anonymous US officials will say that when the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) is shut down in July 1991 (see July 5, 1991), Osama bin Laden suffers a heavy blow because he has put much of his money in the bank and he loses everything he invested there. As a result, he begins to launder money from the drug trade to make up for the lost revenue. He cooperates with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is already diverting profits from the Afghan drug trade to help finance Islamic terrorist movements. Others claim bin Laden begins his involvement with the drug trade several years later. [United Press International, 3/1/2001] It also seems that bin Laden’s financial network eventually grows to at least partly replace the role of BCCI for Islamist militant financing (see After July 1991).
A Time magazine cover story on BCCI. [Source: Time Magazine]The Bank of England shuts down Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the largest Islamic bank in the world. Based in Pakistan, this bank financed numerous militant organizations and laundered money generated by illicit drug trafficking and other illegal activities, including arms trafficking. Bin Laden and many other militants had accounts there (see July 1991). [Detroit News, 9/30/2001] One money-laundering expert later claims, “BCCI did dirty work for every major terrorist service in the world.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002] Regulators shut down BCCI offices in dozens of countries and seize about $2 billion of the bank’s $20 billion in assets. BCCI is the seventh largest bank in the world. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), owns 77% of the bank at the time of its closing. He and the UAE government will end up losing about $8 billion. About 1.4 million people had deposits in the bank and will end up losing most of their money. [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 98-99] American and British governments were aware of its activities yet allowed the bank to operate for years. The Pakistani ISI had major connections to the bank. [Detroit News, 9/30/2001] The Bank of England is forced to close BCCI largely because of outside pressure. Beginning in February 1991, the mainstream media began reporting on BCCI’s criminal activities as more and more whistleblowers came forward. [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 95] However, as later State Department reports indicate, Pakistan remains a major drug trafficking and money-laundering center despite the bank’s closing. [Detroit News, 9/30/2001] Most of the bank’s top officials will escape prosecution, and remnants of the bank will continue operating in some countries under new names (see August 1991). A French intelligence report in 2001 will suggest the that Osama bin Laden will later build his financial network on the ruins of the BCCI network, oftentimes using former BCCI officials (see October 10, 2001). [Washington Post, 2/17/2002]
On July 11, 1991, retired Pakistani Brigadier General Inam ul-Haq is arrested by German authorities in Frankfurt. His arrest sheds light on the links between the criminal BCCI bank, the Pakistani government, and the A. Q. Khan nuclear network. In 1987, US intelligence attempted to arrest ul-Haq in the US for buying nuclear components there meant for Pakistan’s nuclear program, but some US officials tipped off the Pakistani government about the sting and only a low-level associate of ul-Haq’s was caught (see Before July 1987). [Wall Street Journal, 8/5/1991] The CIA had long known that ul-Haq was one of A. Q. Khan’s key procurement agents, in addition to being close to the Pakistani ISI. [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 161] Ul-Haq’s arrest comes just one week after BCCI was shut down worldwide, and he seems linked to that bank as well. In the sting four years before, the Luxembourg and London branches of BCCI helped finance a shipment of nuclear materials out of the US. Shortly after his arrest, Senator John Glenn (D-OH) says that BCCI involvement in his could be a “smoking gun” for US investigators to learn how Pakistan’s nuclear program was financed. [Wall Street Journal, 8/5/1991] Ul-Haq is extradited to the US and convicted in 1992 of attempting to export nuclear related materials to Pakistan. He could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, but the judge merely sentences him to time served (several months in prison) and a $10,000 fine. [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 228]
According to investigators working with Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986), the Iran-Contra affair is closely linked to the burgeoning scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI—see 1976, 1978-1982, 1981-1991, 1981-1983, 1984-1986, January 1985, December 12, 1985, February 1988-December 1992, March 1991-December 1992, and July 5, 1991.) Former government officials add that the CIA kept secret funds hidden in BCCI accounts, and used the monies to fund covert operations in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Investigators confirm that a US defense intelligence organization used BCCI to maintain a secret “slush fund” for financing covert operations. And, months before National Security Council (NSC) official Oliver North set up his network for diverting funds to the Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), the NSC used BCCI to divert funds to the Contras (see Early 1986). [Time, 7/22/1991]
Ghaith Pharaon. [Source: Mike Stephens / Getty Images]In the wake of the July 1991 shutdown of the criminal BCCI bank (see July 5, 1991), the Pakistani government indicates that it is willing to shelter BCCI figures wanted in other countries. For instance, an international arrest warrant is issued for BCCI front man Ghaith Pharaon, and Pakistan has signed an extradition treaty with the US and other countries. But in August 1991, Pakistani Interior Minister Shujaat Hussain, who has authority to block extraditions, states flatly that Pharaon is his friend and he will give him citizenship, protection from extradition, and even immunity from local prosecution. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times reports that some other senior and mid-level BCCI managers being investigated in the US have already fled to Pakistan. Technically, BCCI is not a Pakistani bank, but 10,000 out of BCCI’s estimated 12,000 employees are Pakistani. The Times reports that Hussain has made clear that “BCCI’s blameless and blamed alike can find shelter from investigations into the bank’s conduct in any of the more than 70 countries where it operated.” Asked if Pakistan would extradite BCCI founder Agha Hasan Abedi, Hussein flatly states, “We will not allow it.” Furthermore, BCCI’s offices remain open in Pakistan and the government has stated that it will not investigate the bank. [Los Angeles Times, 8/12/1991] A majority of the bank is owned by Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the UAE similarly indicates that it will not extradite any of the 18 top BCCI managers living there. The UAE is also sitting on most of BCCI’s financial records. [Time, 8/3/1992] BCCI branches in the UAE are not shut down either, but are simply renamed to become the National Union Bank. [BBC, 8/5/1991] Many years later, Pakistan will still be protecting BCCI figures such as Pharaon (see June 8-August 10, 2006 and June 8-August 10, 2006).
In July 1991, the criminal BCCI bank is shut down (see July 5, 1991), and Osama bin Laden apparently loses some of his fortune held in BCCI accounts as a result (see July 1991). But while bin Laden loses money, he and his future second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri gain influence. Other Islamist militants have been heavily relying on BCCI for their finances, and in the wake of BCCI’s collapse they are forced to bank elsewhere. Author Roland Jacquard will later claim that “following [the bank’s closure], funds [are] transferred from BCCI to banks in Dubai, Jordan, and Sudan controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the money [is] handed back to organizations such as the FIS [a political party in Algeria]. Another portion [is] transferred by Ayman al-Zawahiri to Switzerland, the Netherlands, London, Antwerp, and Malaysia.” [Jacquard, 2002, pp. 129] Author Adam Robinson will come to similar conclusions, noting that when BCCI collapses bin Laden has just moved to Sudan, which is ruled by Hassan al-Turabi, who has similar Islamist views to bin Laden. Robinson writes, “Without a system by which money could be transferred around the world invisibly, it would be relatively simple for terrorist funds to be traced. Dealing with this crisis fell to al-Turabi. In desperation he turned to Osama.… The future of the struggle could come to rest on Osama’s shoulders.” Over the next several months, bin Laden and a small team of financial experts work on a plan to replace the functions of BCCI. Bin Laden already knows many of the main Islamist backers from his experience in the Afghan war. “During the summer of 1991 he discreetly made contact with many of the wealthiest of these individuals, especially those with an international network of companies.… Within months, Osama unveiled before an astonished al-Turabi what he called ‘the Brotherhood Group.’” This is apparently a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. Robinson says this group is made up of 134 Arab businessmen with a collective wealth of many billions of dollars. The network will effectively replace BCCI for Islamist militants. [Robinson, 2001, pp. 138-139] A French report shortly after 9/11 will confirm that bin Laden’s network largely replaces BCCI (see October 10, 2001). Right around this time, bin Laden is seen at the London estate of Khalid bin Mahfouz, one of the major investors in BCCI (see (1991)).
A 70-page French intelligence report claims: “The financial network of [Osama] bin Laden, as well as his network of investments, is similar to the network put in place in the 1980s by BCCI for its fraudulent operations, often with the same people (former directors and cadres of the bank and its affiliates, arms merchants, oil merchants, Saudi investors). The dominant trait of bin Laden’s operations is that of a terrorist network backed up by a vast financial structure.” The BCCI was the largest Islamic bank in the world before it collapsed in July 1991 (see July 5, 1991). A senior US investigator will later say US agencies are looking into the ties outlined by the French because “they just make so much sense, and so few people from BCCI ever went to jail. BCCI was the mother and father of terrorist financing operations.” The report identifies dozens of companies and individuals who were involved with BCCI and were found to be dealing with bin Laden after the bank collapsed. Many went on to work in banks and charities identified by the US and others as supporting al-Qaeda. About six ex-BCCI figures are repeatedly named, including Saudi multi-millionaire Ghaith Pharaon (see October 10, 2001). The role of Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz in supporting bin Laden is emphasized in the report. In 1995, bin Mahfouz paid a $225 million fine in a settlement with US prosecutors for his role in the BCCI scandal. [Washington Post, 2/17/2002] Bin Laden lost money when BCCI was shut down, but may have benefited in the long term as other militants began relying on his financial network instead of BCCI’s (see July 1991 and After July 1991). Representatives of bin Mahfouz will later argue that this report is false and was in fact prepared by Jean-Charles Brisard and not the French intelligence service. Bin Mahfouz has begun libel proceedings against Mr. Brisard, claiming that he has made unfounded and defamatory allegations, and denies that he has ever supported terrorism. [Kendall Freeman, 5/13/2004 ]
Ghaith Pharon’s yacht, photographed in 2005. [Source: Yachtmati]The FBI and Italian paramilitary police raid a luxury yacht owned by Saudi multimillionaire Ghaith Pharaon, but do not find him. Since 1991, there has been an international arrest warrant for Pharaon due to his prominent role in the criminal BCCI bank. Shortly after 9/11, a French intelligence report linked him to Osama bin Laden (see October 10, 2001). Pharaon’s yacht was raided off the coast of Sicily. The yacht was not seized. Despite being wanted for 15 years, Pharaon has managed to continue to run a large business empire. The FBI describes Pharaon as extremely wealthy with “numerous contacts within governments around the world.” [ndependent, 8/16/2006] On August 10, 2006, the FBI puts out an all points bulletin for Pharaon. [ABC News, 8/10/2006] A Middle Eastern newspaper notes that, “In the past few years, Pharoan’s super yacht—which he named Le Pharaon after himself—has repeatedly been seen moored alongside luxury yachts of the rich and famous.” In June 2005, it was seen moored next to the personal yacht of Saudi King Abdullah in a Greek port. Two years earlier, it was seen parked next to another Saudi royal family super yacht near Beirut. [Khaleej Times, 6/13/2006] But there has been no reported word on him since, and the FBI has taken the webpage about him off their website.
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