WASHINGTON – As recently as seven months ago, U.S. authorities detailed in open court an extensive network of companies and bank accounts established by Osama bin Laden and his terror group — enterprises as diverse as road construction and peanut farming.
Witnesses during the trial of suspects charged in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa identified businesses that bin Laden's al-Qaida group ran in Sudan to obtain equipment and cash and provide favors for the Sudanese government.
Sudan previously has provided asylum to the multimillionaire Saudi exile, whom U.S. authorities have long accused of running a global terrorist network known as al-Qaida.
Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a bin Laden associate turned government witness, recounted a 1992 meeting at which bin Laden was asked if the companies had to make money, because business was poor in Sudan.
Speaking in broken English, al-Fadl testified: "He say our agenda is bigger than business. We are not going to make business here, but we need to help the government and the government help our group, and this is our purpose."
U.S. investigators have identified bin Laden as the prime suspect in last week's terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and are tracing the money believed to have funded the operation and other terrorist groups.
"We seek to create a big picture profile of the financial infrastructure of terrorists groups," said Jimmy Gurule, the Treasury undersecretary for enforcement.
Bin Laden was charged in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings but has never been captured. He and the ruling Taliban Islamic militia in Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed hiding, have long denied terrorist involvement.
The embassy bombings case provides a glimpse of money behind bin Laden's financing, outlining wide-ranging business holdings in Sudan through which he converted currency and imported equipment.
In Sudan, "bin Laden and his group began taking actions to prepare to do battle with his enemies, particularly the United States," prosecutor Paul Butler told jurors during opening statements in the trial last February.
Al-Qaida's Hijra Construction Co. built the Thaadi -- or "revolutionary" -- Road from Khartoum to Port Sudan for the Sudanese government, which paid by giving al-Qaida ownership of the Khartoum Tannery, according to court records.
Bin Laden and al-Qaida also ran the Blessed Fruits farming business, growing peanuts, fruit, sesame, white corn, sunflowers and wheat, according to testimony.
Products were run through other countries, including Cyprus, to evade international sanctions against Sudan and allow for a more profitable sale in Europe and America, testimony showed.
Several crops were grown on a farm near Ed Damazin in eastern Sudan that also was used for weapons and explosives training, according to the testimony.
Al-Qaida also ran a fishing business on the coast of Kenya used to support members of a terrorist cell there, prosecutors further alleged.
The vast network of companies purchased products from around the world, including a used plane in the United States for bin Laden, the testimony said. The companies also bought tractors in Slovakia and trucks in Russia.
There was a profit motive.
Bin-Laden associates with U.S. or European passports sought to buy goods in other countries and sell them in Sudan at a price high enough to make a profit, according to testimony.
Another branch of al-Qaida's business focused on obtaining travel documents, both false and legitimate; the Sudanese government issued several passports identifying noncitizens as Sudanese nationals.
Dating back to Afghanistan, al-Qaida sometimes used documents of dead Muslims to help others travel, testimony showed.
Bin Laden himself was able to travel under a false name, al-Fadl said.
The trial also examined numerous bank accounts connected to bin Laden and al-Qaida in Sudan, at Barclay's Bank in London, Girocredit in Vienna, a bank in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Vince Cannistraro, former CIA counterterrorism operations chief, said he thinks most of bin Laden's companies in Sudan were aimed at winning over the government and facilitating the training of his network.
Last week's attacks probably were made possible with money from Islamic charities and front groups and wealthy Islamic businessmen, Cannistraro and other terrorism experts said.
Cannistraro said he believes it's unlikely that bin Laden is using whatever is left of his estimated $300 million inheritance to finance his terrorist network.
As far as bank accounts, those accessible to Western governments, including the Barclay's Bank account, are closed down, Cannistraro said.
Presumably bin Laden's financial transactions now go mostly through Asia, possibly including China, Cannistraro said.
Complicating the hunt for bin Laden's money is his likely use of "hawala," an underground Middle Eastern banking system, a congressional source said. Parties in essence swap money to get it from place to place and avoid detection.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he believes contributions from Islamic groups are key sources of bin Laden's financing. Such U.S. groups don't have to disclose their sources of donations and spending.