August 8, 2004 | The Weekly Standard

An Oil-for-Food Connection?

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.

And the timing gets interesting, especially the year 1998. Not only was that the year in which bin Laden signaled his big comeback in Afghanistan. It was also the year in which Oil-for-Food jelled into a reliable vehicle for Saddam's scams, a source of enormous, illicit income.

Oil-for-Food was set up as a limited and temporary measure, starting operations in late 1996 with somewhat ad hoc administration by the U.N., and a mandate that had to be renewed by the Security Council every six months or so. Less than a year into the program, however, on October 15, 1997, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan consolidated Oil-for-Food into what was effectively a permanent U.N. department–the Office of the Iraq Programme (OIP)–headed by a long-serving U.N. official, Benon Sevan. The Security Council still had to renew the mandate twice a year, but the process became routine.

Saddam began pushing the envelope, and it was quickly clear he could get away with a lot. Just two weeks after Annan set up the OIP, Saddam imposed conditions on the U.N. weapons inspectors that made it impossible for them to operate. Instead of shutting down Oil-for-Food, Annan on February 1, 1998, urged the Security Council to more than double the amount of oil Saddam was allowed to sell, a prelude to letting Iraq import oil equipment to increase production. Annan then flew to Baghdad to reason with Saddam, and on February 23, 1998 (having met in one of those palaces built under sanctions), Annan and Saddam reached an agreement that for at least a while allowed the weapons inspectors to return.

It was a busy time for al Qaeda as well. That same day, February 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden published his “Kill the Americans” fatwa. An intriguing feature of this fatwa was its prominent mention of Iraq, not just once, but four times. Analysts at the CIA and elsewhere have long propounded the theory that secular Saddam and religious Osama would not have wanted to work together. But Saddam's secular style seemed to bother bin Laden not a whit.

His fatwa presented three basic complaints. Mainly, he deplored the infidel presence in Saudi Arabia (i.e., the U.S. troops stationed there during and after the Gulf War). He also cited grievances about Jerusalem, while not even bothering to mention the Palestinians by name. The rest of his attention, bin Laden devoted to Iraq and “the Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people” as well as “the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance” and–here is the specific reference to U.S.-led sanctions–“the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war.”

Two paragraphs later, bin Laden picked up this theme again, calling Iraq the “strongest neighboring Arab state” of Saudi Arabia, and then citing Iraq, yet again, as first on a list of four states threatened by America–the other three being Saudi Arabia (bin Laden's old home and a big source of terrorist funding), Egypt (birthplace of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and of bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, who also signed the fatwa), and Sudan (bin Laden's former base).

UNTIL 1998, Iraq had not loomed large in bin Laden's rants. Why, then, such stress on Iraq, at that particular moment, in declaring war on America? It is certainly possible that bin Laden simply figured Iraq had become another good selling point, a handy way to whip up anger at the United States. But it is at least intriguing that the month after bin Laden's fatwa, in March 1998, as the 9/11 Commission reports, two al Qaeda members visited Baghdad. And in July 1998, “an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with bin Laden.”

Later in 1998, Saddam kicked out the weapons inspectors, and he would keep them out for the following four years. The U.N. in 1999 lifted the ceiling entirely on Saddam's oil exports and expanded the range of goods he could buy. It would keep his deals confidential to the end, and it let Saddam do business with scores of companies in such graft-friendly climes as Russia and Nigeria, as well as such terrorist-sponsoring places as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Sudan, and such financial hideouts as Liechtenstein, Panama, Cyprus, and Switzerland.

Much of Saddam's illicit Oil-for-Food money has yet to be traced. There are now at least eight official investigations into various aspects of Oil-for-Food, but none so far that combines adequate staffing and access with a focus on Oil-for-Food itself as the little black book of Saddam's possible terrorist links. The same kind of bureaucratic walls that once blocked our own intelligence community from nabbing al Qaeda are here compounded by the problem that Oil-for-Food was not a U.S. program, but on U.N. turf. And though the U.N. is the keeper of many of the records, Kofi Annan has displayed no interest in investigating the possibility that Oil-for-Food might have funded terrorists. Nor has the Bush administration pursued the matter with the speed and terrorist-tracking expertise it deserves. Millions of documents believed to contain details of Saddam's Oil-for-Food deals, quite likely including leads to his illicit side deals, are reportedly locked up in Baghdad, socked away there by Paul Bremer this past spring, awaiting an audit from Ernst & Young that is just now getting underway–and not necessarily focused on possible terrorist ties. The U.N.'s own investigation, led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, seems interested mainly in the U.N. itself. Various congressional investigators who, unlike the 9/11 Commission, are looking at Oil-for-Food, have had a hard time prying even the most basic documents out of the U.N.

The U.S. Treasury Department, in its hunt for Saddam's assets, is not looking specifically at Oil-for-Food, but has provided some of the most telling snippets of information. In April of this year, Treasury released a list of Saddam front companies its investigation has so far uncovered, including a major Oil-for-Food contractor in the UAE, Dubai-based Al Wasel & Babel. Along with trying to procure a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system for Saddam, Al Wasel & Babel did hundreds of millions' worth of business with Baghdad under Oil-for-Food, and was just one of some 75 contractors authorized by the U.N. to deal with Saddam out of the UAE. (As it happens, the 9/11 Commission found that some of the hijackers' funding flowed through the UAE, but working backward from the al Qaeda end, the trail eventually vanishes.)

But enough of facts. Let's return to the realm of possibility. Imagine:

From about 1998 on, Oil-for-Food became Saddam's financial network, a system he gamed to produce huge amounts of illicit income, in partnership with folks who helped him hide and spend it. If some of that money was going to al Qaeda while Saddam was in power, it may still be serving as a terrorist resource today. Amid all the consternation over missed signals and poor coordination leading up to September 11, is it too much to ask that someone versed in terrorist finances, and able to access both the U.N. Oil-for-Food records and the documents squirreled away in Baghdad, take a look–an urgent, detailed, systematic look–at whether Saddam via his Oil-for-Food scams sent money to al Qaeda?

For such a deal, both Saddam and bin Laden had motive and opportunity. And if you read bin Laden's 1998 fatwa with just a little bit of imagination, those mentions of Iraq, at that particular moment, in those particular ways, carry a strong whiff of what is known in our own society as product placement: a message from a sponsor.

Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a columnist for


Read in The Weekly Standard


Al Qaeda