Dirty Money

Paul Foot

  • A Full Service Bank: How BCCI stole millions around the world by James Ring Adams and Douglas Frantz
    Simon and Schuster, 381 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 671 71133 4
  • Bankrupt: The BCCI Fraud by Nick Kochan and Bob Whittington
    Gollancz, 234 pp, £4.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 575 05279 1
  • The BCCI Affair: A Report to The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by Senators John Kerry and Hank Brown
    US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 800 pp, September 1992
  • Inquiry into the Supervision of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International by Lord Justice Bingham
    HMSO, 218 pp, £19.30, October 1992, ISBN 0 10 219893 4

When the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed down on 5 July 1991, a million people throughout the world lost their deposits. Many of the losers were from the Third World; small businessmen who had struggled to make a living in countries other than their own, and who had been impressed by BCCI’s multilingual staff and its often-trumpeted concern for the starving millions.

No previous bank collapse has caused so much distress. Many of the Shocked depositors believed for a short while that their tragedy was the result of an act of God, or at least of some financial misfortune, such as a Stock Exchange crash, which could not have been foreseen. But as the months dragged on without a penny compensation, and as the articles and books and reports started to be published, the astonishing truth emerged. The BCCI scandal had nothing to do with misfortune. It was the result of systematic fraud, conducted by what the New York District Attorney called ‘a corrupt and criminal organisation’ over a period of nearly twenty years.

The mastermind behind the fraud was Agha Hassan Abedi. Abedi had what is known inside banks as charisma and outside banks as a nice line in drivel. He ‘inspired’ his staff to work hard by writing them homilies about God and loyalty. ‘It is in the medium of giving,’ he wrote, ‘that life flows into life, and God’s divinity in all its embracing fullness, shines and rains softly, smoothly and blissfully on His Creation.’ That sort of thing impressed the entrepreneurs who made their names in the Eighties. Anita Roddick, for instance, whose Body Shop is one of the few such enterprises which has not yet gone bust, proudly quoted a slice of Abedi gibberish in her modest account of her magnificent achievements. Abedi’s blarney was always aimed upwards, at the great minds and hearts of world society, and for that reason was consistently successful.

His insights were few, but he made the most of them. First among them was the understanding that there was an awful lot of money floating around in the Gulf sheikhdoms. From his native Pakistan, Abedi made a bee-line for Abu Dhabi, the richest of those states, and wove his ridiculous spell round the billionaire Sheikh Zayed and the millionaire families who formed his court. In exchange for the millions necessary to start the bank which was his life’s dream, Abedi could provide anything those families wanted. Senator Kerry’s report reveals:

The prostitution handled by BCCI was carried over from practices originally instituted by Abedi at the United Bank, when, working with a woman, Begum Ashgari Rahim, he cemented his relationship with the Al-Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi through providing them with Pakistani prostitutes ... She first won the favours or attention of the ruling family by arranging to get virgin women from the villages from ages 16 to 20. Rahim would make payments to their families, take the teenaged girls into the cities and there taught them how to dress and how to act, including the correct mannerisms appropriate to their intended roles as short-term sexual companions for the sheikhs ... There was substantial competition among clothiers and jewellers for her business.

This sort of thing worked wonders, and before long the Abu Dhabi sheikhs were putting up the money for the new bank. But Abedi was not satisfied with a nice little earner in the Middle East. He wanted to win to his divine mission the most important people in the Western world. The basic principle which drove him on was that important people make the important decisions, and even the most important people have their price. The price for Bert Lance, a close friend of President Carter, and briefly a member of Carter’s Administration, was obvious. Poor Bert had got into trouble with his own bank at home in Georgia and owed about three million dollars. Abedi lent him the three million. It was never repaid of course, but the two men were firm friends for life. Another much more distinguished convert was Clark Clifford, the beautifully-spoken lawyer who had been a friend of the Kennedys and Defence Secretary to Lyndon Johnson. When Abedi first met him Clifford was looking for a cause – especially if it had a few million dollars attached to it. Adams and Frantz describe in detail one deal in which Clifford and his partner Robert Altman, well-known in Washington social circles since he was married to Wonderwoman, bought and sold shares through BCCI and ended up with $9.8m in their pockets. Kerry reveals that Clifford’s and Altman’s firm was paid some $45m in legal fees by BCCI. That sort of money persuaded Clifford to help BCCI to take over the biggest bank in Washington, through a number of not so subtle devices, despite being told by US Government regulators that they could do no such thing.

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