CIA Net Closes on bin Laden's Dapper Banker

by Daniel McGrory
The London Times
December 1, 2001

 

* Saiid sent money for flying lessons and airline tickets * He got credit cards for September 11 hijackers * Hijackers called banker hours before boarding their flight CIA agents are narrowing the search for Osama bin Laden's banker, who they fear may finance another September 11-style attack.

Sheikh Saiid, 33, a bon vivant who has funded al- Qaeda by Pounds 200 million a year, was thought to have flown to Afghanistan on the eve of the attacks in America.

Now intelligence reports have revealed that his taste for the finer things in life stopped him from joining bin Laden in a cave hideout.

The urgency for the CIA is that Saiid has contacts among weathy benefactors in the Gulf states as well as access to enough cash to finance another terrorist attack on his own, without bin Laden's help. The suave, immaculately dressed Saudi-born financier vanished a few hours before the hijacks began, boarding a business class flight from Dubai to Karachi.

Saiid had left his departure late but he knew the precise timings for the attacks and had to wait until the hijackers sent back the money they had not used in the United States.

The suspicion is that Saiid may have stayed in Pakistan until he felt it was safe enough to fly back to the Middle East. He may have returned through an airport such as Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, where security is not regarded as thorough. Saiid is believed to have access to a number of passports under various aliases and has no shortage of rich contacts who could provide shelter. He is never photographed and was not one of the 22 named on the FBI's most wanted list released last month.

He spent his time cultivating connections with mosques, businessmen and Muslim charities as well as setting up bogus companies and aid groups.

Unlike the zealots at the top of al-Qaeda, their banker argued that he had to adopt a more luxurious lifestyle to put his donors at ease.

Investigators in the Gulf who have followed his tracks say he always preferred to pay his bills in cash. Police in Dubai have revealed that he rented a sizeable appartment and that whenever he stayed in luxury hotels he booked suites.

Nor did he follow the al-Qaeda rules on hiring economy-class vehicles. Saiid is said to have had a preference for large, air-conditioned, American-made cars.

Intelligence agents want to question him in the hope of shutting down al-Qaeda's financial empire and perhaps persuading him to betray bin Laden.

If anyone might be prepared to betray bin Laden for their own benefit then suggestions are that Saiid -also known as Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawasawi -could do it.

Intelligence agencies in Pakistan, the UAE and Ireland have revealed new details about Saiid's operations and his role in the September 11 attacks.

He is believed to have helped to finance al-Qaeda in Africa, where it was behind the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Soon after the US attacks, police in Dublin raided the offices of the Islamic Relief Agency, a Saudi-backed charity accused of fundraising for the embassy bombings in East Africa.

The office was run by Ibrahim Buisir, a Libyan whom the US suspects of being another bin Laden acolyte.

US investigators told USA Today that Saiid acquired Visa credit cards for three of the hijackers which the men used to pay for their airline tickets over the Internet. He also wired up to Pounds 70,000 to a branch of the SunTrust bank in Florida so that the men could pay for their living expenses, flight school tuition and airline tickets.

For the past three months the FBI have been piecing together Saiid's relationships with the hijackers. On September 4 three of the team sent Saiid a Federal Express package with at least Pounds 12,950 left over from their Pounds 70,000 advance. The FBI found a Federal Express return receipt in a dustbin at the Comfort Inn in Portland, Maine, where Mohammed Atta, the hijackers' leader, stayed the night before the hijacking.

The money was sent to Dubai where Saiid set up his operational base after arriving from Qatar in June.

Saiid did business through three of the hijackers: Atta, who piloted the first plane to crash into the World Trade Centre; Waleed al-Shehri who was on board; and Marwan al-Shehhi, who was at the controls of the second jet.

Shehhi had been calling the banker's mobile telephone. The last contact came from the three men hours before they boarded their flight.

Intelligence sources believe that Saiid then contacted bin Laden to say the operation was underway before he hurriedly left Dubai.

On September 8, Saiid was captured on a security camera visiting a Federal Express office in Dubai, where he retrieved the package sent by Atta.

The hijack leader had addressed it to Almohtaram, which is Arabic for "The Respected One". This was the title several of the terrorists had given Saiid.


Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Limited

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