WASHINGTON – Usama bin Laden (search ) may not be the wealthy terror financier once believed.
Recent investigations into Al Qaeda (search ) by the Sept. 11 commission and others have altered the once commonly held view that bin Laden's inheritance and massive fortune — estimated at $300 million at one point — were used to finance his operations. A network of businesses in Sudan, his base from 1991 to 1996, is also not thought to be backing Al Qaeda.
"There has been a revision of collective thinking," said Kenneth Katzman, a Congressional Research Service (search ) expert who has studied terror groat bin Laden's fortune didn't really enter into Al Qaeda that much or wasn't the driving force in Al Qaeda."
The commission's report concluded that Al Qaeda has many financing avenues and easily could find new sources, particularly given that the Sept. 11 attack cost just $400,000 to $500,000 over two years.
While the report said the government has been unable to determine the source of the attack's financing, the commission said it appears Al Qaeda's financial support does not come from bin Laden personally.
"The CIA now estimates that it costs Al Qaeda about $30 million per year to sustain its activities before 9/11 and that this money was raised almost entirely through donations," the report said.
The belief that bin Laden's net worth was so high gathered steam shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Katzman released a report, which he said recently drew on a 1996 State Department fact sheet, that indicated Al Qaeda was tapping bin Laden's $300 million personal fortune and other sources.
By February 2002, Katzman had updated the estimate, indicating that bin Laden may be worth anywhere from $50 million to $300 million, but that the group had apparently become self-sustaining. The revision attracted little notice.
Bin Laden was believed to have inherited money from his father, who oversaw the growth of a construction empire, making the bin Ladens one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia. The 17th of 52 children, bin Laden was thought primarily to be using the money to finance operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as to help him secure his place as Al Qaeda's leader.
His Sudanese businesses were believed to include an Islamic bank, an import-export company and other operations that exported agricultural products. But the Sept. 11 commission said the businesses did not provide significant income, and that when bin Laden left the country in 1996, it appears the Sudanese government took his assets.
"He left Sudan with practically nothing," the commission found. "When bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, he relied on the Taliban until he was able to reinvigorate his fund-raising efforts by drawing on ties to wealthy Saudi individuals that he had established during the Afghan war in the 1980s."
Responding to an inquiry from a Senate panel last year, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control said the overstated estimates about bin Laden's wealth and his financial backing of Al Qaeda actually trivialized the threat posed by his group.
Bin Laden's benefit to radical Islam draws on his ties to "a wealthy and influential family, which enabled him to be considered a trusted person with the ability to receive and dispose of charitable money, according to memo from the Treasury office that The Associated Press obtained in April.
Bin Laden could then direct the money to support local institutions in many countries, in an attempt to radicalize those communities and give him a base to recruit and train.
U.S. officials found information in early 2000 indicating that from 1970 to 1994 bin Laden received $1 million a year, the Sept. 11 commission found.
Bin Laden was effectively cut off from the money in a 1994 crackdown, the commission said, when the Saudi government revoked his citizenship, forced his family to find a buyer for his share of the company and later froze the proceeds of that sale. His family disavowed him.
In a recent interview with the AP, bin Laden's estranged sister-in-law said she does not believe that family members have cut him off entirely.
Carmen Binladin (search ), who has changed the spelling of her name and lives in Switzerland, said bin Laden is not the only religious brother in the family, and she expects his sisters support him, too.
Today, U.S. authorities do not believe bin Laden is tied to businesses anywhere, given that he is in hiding, said a counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.