Osama bin Laden has been called "the Ford Foundation of terrorists", for his funding of operations such as the suicide attacks in the United States, the US embassy bombings in East Africa and the attempted millennium bombings in Jordan and western Europe, from a global financial network that embraces both clandestine and legitimate means.
According to US security officials, Bin Laden has operatives in 63 countries who form part of a global financial network with thousands of accounts.
But the worldwide crackdown launched by the US following the 11 September suicide hijackings, to choke off the core of his operations, the money pipeline from Bin Laden's business interests to his loose-knit terrorist network, is likely to prove infinitely more difficult than running the elusive Saudi Arabian-born renegade and his key associates to ground. Over the years, Bin Laden, using the millions of dollars he inherited from his construction magnate father, has built up an intricate financial empire that is so diffuse, and concealed behind so many front companies and multi-layered cut-outs, that US investigators who began targeting it after the East Africa bombings in August 1998 found it almost as impossible to penetrate as Bin Laden's underground cells.
The Bush administration's intensified effort, armed with sweeping new powers and the support of dozens of countries and international organisations around the world, may have better luck after many years of inertia in tackling the problem of financial crime.
Global financial centres such as New York, London, Frankfurt and Milan have frozen around $100 million in assets allegedly tied to Bin Laden, since 11 September and investigations are currently underway elsewhere. In November, the 183 members of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pledged to join the campaign to freeze terrorist assets. But, according to financial experts, the US and its allies still face many years of painstaking detective work to crack his murky trans-national web. And even as they inch their way through the maze, Bin Laden and his financial chieftains are undoubtedly shifting their assets around to create new networks that will elude them.
This is particularly true in the Middle East, the source of much of Bin Laden's funding and a region where, according to a senior official of the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCen), a branch of the US Treasury, "probably no area in the world has fewer records for money-laundering...