The Magazine

An Oil-for-Food Connection?

From the August 9, 2004 issue: On whether any of Saddam's loot made its way into Osama's pockets.

Aug 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 45 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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IF, as the 9/11 Commission concludes, our "failure of imagination" left America open to the attacks of September 11, then surely some imagination is called for in tackling one of the riddles that stumped the commission: Where exactly did Osama bin Laden get the funding to set up shop in Afghanistan, reach around the globe, and strike the United States?

So let's do some imagining. Unfashionable though it may be, let's even imagine a money trail that connects Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda.

By 1996, remember, bin Laden had been run out of Sudan, and seems to have been out of money. He needed a fresh bundle to rent Afghanistan from the Taliban, train recruits, expand al Qaeda's global network, and launch what eventually became the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, over in Iraq about that same time, Saddam Hussein, after a lean stretch under United Nations sanctions, had just cut his Oil-for-Food deal with the U.N., and soon began exploiting that program to embezzle billions meant for relief.

Both Saddam and bin Laden were, in their way, seasoned businessmen. Both had a taste for war. Both hated America. By the late 1990s, Saddam, despite continuing sanctions, was solidly back in business, socking away his purloined billions in secret accounts, but he had no way to attack the United States directly. Bin Laden needed millions to fund al Qaeda, which could then launch a direct strike on the United States. Whatever the differences between Saddam and bin Laden, their circumstances by the late 1990s had all the makings of a deal. Pocket change for Saddam, financial security for bin Laden, and satisfaction for both--death to Americans.

Now let's talk facts. In 1996, Sudan kicked out bin Laden. He went to Afghanistan, arriving there pretty much bankrupt, according to the 9/11 Commission report. His family inheritance was gone, his allowance had been cut off, and Sudan had confiscated his local assets. Yet, just two years later, bin Laden was back on his feet, feeling strong enough to issue a public declaration of war on America. In February 1998, in a London-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, he published his infamous fatwa exhorting Muslims to "kill the Americans and plunder their money." Six months later, in August 1998, al Qaeda finally went ahead with its long-planned bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden was back in the saddle, and over the next three years he shaped al Qaeda into the global monster that finally struck on American soil. His total costs, by the estimates of the 9/11 Commission report, ran to tens of millions of dollars. Even for a terrorist beloved of extremist donors, that's a pretty good chunk of change.

The commission report says bin Laden got his money from sources such as a "core group of financial facilitators" in the Gulf states, especially corrupt charities. But the report concludes: "To date, we have not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9/11 attack. Al Qaeda had many sources of funding and a pre-9/11 annual budget estimated at $30 million. If a particular source of funds had dried up, al Qaeda could easily have found enough money elsewhere to fund the attack."

Elsewhere? One obvious "elsewhere" that no one seems to have seriously considered was Saddam's secret geyser of money, gushing from the so-called Oil-for-Food program. That possibility is not discussed in the 9/11 report, and apparently it was not included in the investigation. A 9/11 Commission spokesman confirms that the commission did not request Oil-for-Food documentation from the U.N., and none was offered.

Why look at Oil-for-Food? Well, let's review a little more history. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.N. imposed sanctions, which remained in place until 2003, when the United States and its allies finally toppled Saddam. But in 1996, with the aim of providing for the people of Iraq while still containing Saddam, the U.N. began running its Oil-for-Food relief program for Iraq. Under terms agreed to by the U.N., Saddam got to sell oil to buy such humanitarian supplies as food and medicine, to be rationed to the Iraqi population. But the terms were hugely in Saddam's favor. The U.N. let Saddam choose his own business partners, kept the details of his deals confidential, and while watching for weapons-related goods did not, as it turns out, exercise much serious financial oversight. Saddam turned this setup to his own advantage, fiddling prices on contracts with his hand-picked partners, and smuggling out oil pumped under U.N. supervision with U.N.-approved new equipment. Thus did we arrive at the recent General Accounting Office estimate that under Oil-for-Food, despite sanctions, Saddam managed to skim and smuggle for himself more than $10 billion out of oil sales meant for relief.