The day before the World Trade Center attack, someone had a bad feeling about American Airlines. Chicago's options exchange usually gets bullish and bearish orders in equal numbers, but on Sept. 10, there was heavy betting that American's stock was headed down. On the first day of trading after the attack, the company's stock plummeted 40%--and the investors who guessed right made millions.
But was it a guess? The short selling, as it's called, of airline and insurance stocks just before the attack has prompted a chilling theory: betting against his victims is Osama bin Laden's latest fund-raising tactic. An international investigation is underway, part of a broader probe to figure out how bin Laden finances his network.
Al-Qaeda, bin Laden's global terrorist network, functions much like the fast-food franchises his followers hate. Bin Laden creates the service and brand, but the cells largely fund their activities. To keep costs down, al-Qaeda foot soldiers make money through jobs or engaging in petty crime. When Mohamed Atta, believed to have been one of the hijackers, was in Hamburg, German prosecutors say, he eked out a living selling used cars. Many of the suspects lived in run-down neighborhoods and cheap hotels. In all, experts say, the Sept. 11 attacks probably cost the hijackers only about $200,000.
Bin Laden can afford far more than that. The son of a billionaire Saudi construction magnate, he has an estimated net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars, including real estate in Paris, London and the Cote d'Azur, and as much as $150 million in stock. He runs a portfolio of legitimate businesses across North Africa and the Middle East. Companies in sectors ranging from shipping to agriculture to investment banking throw off profits while also providing cover for al-Qaeda's movement of soldiers and procurement of weapons and chemicals. Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a 10-year bin Laden employee now in U.S. witness protection, said earlier this year that trainees from around the world arrived at a bin Laden-owned Sudanese holding company--"the mother of all companies," he called it--for arms and bomb-making training.
But investigators say charity, not bin Laden's fortune, is al-Qaeda's main bankroll. Millions flow in from wealthy donors in oil-producing countries, either out of dedication to his cause or as protection money. Islamic charities take in billions a year; much of it is used for good, but not all. "Behind one charity, business or Islamic group is another," says French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard. "The result is that some of these millions are handed over to Islamic fighters and terrorists."