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Probes redefine bin Laden's role

Al Qaeda seems to operate without his fortune, they find

ASSOCIATED PRESS/September 3, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden may not be the wealthy terrorism financier once believed.

Recent investigations into Al Qaeda by the Sept. 11 commission and others have altered the commonly held view that bin Laden's inheritance and massive fortune -- estimated at $300 million at one point -- were used to finance his operations. It's also believed that a network of businesses in Sudan, his base from 1991 to 1996, is not backing Al Qaeda.

"There has been a revision of collective thinking," said Kenneth Katzman, a Congressional Research Service expert who has studied terrorist groups. "The new thinking is that 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, 2001, attack cost just $400,000 to $500,000 over two years.

Although the report said the government could not determine the source of the attack's financing, the commission said it appears Al Qaeda's financial support does not come from bin Laden.

"The CIA now estimates that it cost 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, when Katzman released a report that he said drew on a 1996 State Department fact sheet. That sheet indicated that 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 $50 million to $300 million, but that the group apparently had become self-sustaining. The revision attracted little notice.

Bin Laden was believed to have inherited money from his father, who oversaw a construction empire that made the bin Ladens one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia. The 17th of 52 children, bin Laden was thought to be using the money to finance operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, and to secure his place as Al Qaeda's leader.

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911:  The Road to Tyranny