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Driving bin Laden to the bank

by Howard Williams

The ongoing irritations and atrocities caused by the Auto(mobile)cracy are legion. Excessive automobile driving has caused the slaughter of over 40,000 people every year — in this country alone. This unclean and undignified form of transportation has spewed massive clouds of pollution and carelessly turned up our home planet’s thermostat while being the biggest chunk of our homeland’s trade imbalance. Every day, on streets all over the world, privately owned cars get in the way of working people while causing incessant and often deafening noise levels. Gridlock fuels road rage and countless other psychological and social maladies. Ironically, excessive driving damages the very roads that cars use. And it has even fatally corrupted the ancient and once innocent joy of drink with travel.

To all these and many other miseries caused by the Auto(mobile)cracy we must actually add financing of terrorism.

In various media articles reporting the sources of terrorist wealth, we learn many interesting things about Al Qaeda multi-national operations. Last September a San Francisco Chronicle story from the wire services mentioned ostrich farms in Africa and forests in Turkey. A Wall Street Journal article reported about an Al Qaeda–owned mine in East Africa that yields the rare tanzanite gem. Another WSJ story reported that the FBI suspects some hedge funds may be a source of the terrorist multi-national’s income. Several news stories report Al Qaeda’s part in the Middle Eastern honey trade.

Al Qaeda also receives donations from oil-wealthy Gulf Arabs.

Then along came a November 29 Financial Times series by Mark Huband and other reporters claiming that the exotic enterprises and honey economy weren’t so sweet. It turns out that bin Laden and his cohorts — like many multi-national execs — aren’t such great businessmen after all. Most Al Qaeda operations make only small or no profits, the FT articles stated. It’s those donations from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and other oil states that keep Al Qaeda in business. According to the FT article, probably most of Al Qaeda’s wealth “has been donated, particularly from Saudis and from Kuwait, source of millions a month “(emphasis mine). The September Chronicle article about ostriches and forests mentioned almost in passing that Saudi subjects send at least one million dollars per month to bin Laden, an amount matched by wealthy Kuwaitis. Wealthy persons in other petro-states send princely sums each month to Al Qaeda. And the donors come from surprising places. A Los Angeles Times article by Stephen Braun and Judy Pasternak reported that “several high-ranking dignitaries from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates” gave money and supplies to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in return for being allowed to hunt Afghanistan’s endangered wildlife.

So what is the real source of Al Qaeda wealth? To paraphrase George Stephanopoulos: It’s the oil economy, stupid.

The fabulous wealth of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil states comes only from oil. The Gulf’s many millionaires and billionaires have received their money by oil and maintain their incomes and lavish expenses by oil. Oil income — steady as long as millions of Americans remain addicted to cars — permeates the Saudi economy. A businessman in Jiddah or Dubai may be a skilled and successful jeweler or — as bin Laden’s father was — a multi-millionaire construction company owner. But in each case his even wealthier clients will be in the oil business. Directly or indirectly, almost all Saudis and Gulf Arabs receive their money from the unnatural American thirst for oil. From American gas pumps flow the steady streams of petrodollars to the coffers of these rich men who then send much of that same Yankee gas pump money to Al Qaeda.

As you might guess, our tax dollars get into this too. David Losman of the Cato Institute estimates the cost of defending Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to be thirty to sixty billion dollars each year. Using the lower number means that each American taxpayer is still assessed at least 200 bucks each year to defend very rich people who are financing anti-American terrorists. In return Americans get to pay them ten billion dollars for oil. That’s right: we spend at least 30 billion in security to buy 10 billion in oil. And, in an arrangement that only super-rich Gulf Arabs and super-rich Western oil bosses are truly happy with, US troops guard the oil-drilling sites. By extension they also guard the Saudi royal family and the holy cities of Islam, matters that further complicate the Middle Eastern crises.

Nor is Al Qaeda the only beneficiary of petroleum-based terrorist funding. November articles in the Economist and the Wall Street Journal report Saudi financing of the terrorist group Hamas. The Hamas tactic of bombing civilians helps bog down chances for peace in the Holy Land.

The media reassure us that the US government is doing something about all this. The Treasury Department is freezing terrorist assets and US diplomats are urging Saudi Arabia to crack down on donations to bin Laden. But it’s not that simple and even our successes show how far we have to go. A November 15 Wall Street Journal article cites US Treasury Department data stating that $56 million in suspected terrorist accounts have been frozen. However 56 million is only a start. Time Magazine (November 26) quoted French terror expert Roland Jacquard: “The flow of that money — more than $300 million per year — continues. And it will take years, if not decades, of Western pressure on Arab societies to submit . . . such funds to regulation. If bin Laden disappears, someone else will step up and find the same funding.” As of this writing (December 20), bin Laden has indeed disappeared and that funding will be there as long as we drive cars — with or without American flags on the antennas. Other reports in the business press further detail more difficulties of breaking up the financial offices of the oil-terror complex.

During World War II posters urged Americans to conserve oil for the nation’s war effort. One poster warned that if “you drive alone, Hitler rides with you.” Today it logically follows that if you drive alone, bin Laden rides with you.

Bravely facing this simple fact — that overconsumption of oil has financed the worst atrocity ever against Americans — offers the chance to do what the legion of other offenses by the Autocracy have hitherto failed to do. Namely, awaken us to the terminal perils of our addiction to cars and oil. Awareness that our excessive driving is funding terrorism can force us to truly confront our addiction to oil.

It is one thing to be in an accident. And those with lung diseases who are quietly strangled by pollution are merely the unseen “collateral damage” of the Autocracy. But to send money through the multi-national oil industry to the Al Qaeda murderers is a jarring action that will eventually force more and more consciences to wake up. It’s one thing to lose your grip on the steering wheel and hurt a pedestrian; it’s another to buy plane tickets for Mohammed Atta and his cohorts.

In light of this, George W. Bush’s urging us to buy more cars – and therefore more oil from the Persian Gulf petro-states — should be identified as aid to the enemy that puts not one more cent into Al Qaeda’s portfolio but rather millions of dollars. Perhaps during a respite from the Afghan and American assault on his hideout, bin Laden may have found time to turn on CNN. He could take some comfort from the news that car sales in the US are rising. As long as this happens, the same system that nurtures him today will provide for his successors.

George W. Bush may not be willing to face the reality that Al Qaeda funds start at gas pumps in San Francisco and Peoria, but more of us are. The topic of addiction to oil and its fatal repercussions has come up on news shows and even made the cover of the Economist recently. The latter is fascinating news as the Economist is a conservative British publication and as we all know US right-wingers secretly – and sometimes openly — yearn and pine for rule by Britannia. On Politically Incorrect statements against our national addiction to oil have drawn favorable response from the audience. Keep in mind that this is in a place — Southern California — that is the spiritual homeland of the Drive to the Corner Store Cult.

Excessive driving financed the Al Qaeda multi-national network. Excessive driving financed Al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11. Excessive driving financed bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora.

Howard A. Williams served as an aid worker on ten journeys to Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1989 and 1997. Like most aid workers there he had the dubious distinction to learn about bin Laden several years before he became famous.