The Investigation: On the Trail of the Paymaster: New Details on the Ties between Bin Laden's CFO and Atta
Klaidman, Daniel, Hosenball, Mark, Newsweek
Byline: Daniel Klaidman and Mark Hosenball
On the surveillance video, he looked like any Saudi businessman, dressed in traditional white robes and headdress. On Sept. 8, three days before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Mustafa Ahmed walked into a Federal Express office in Dubai to retrieve a package mailed from Hollywood, Fla. The sender was Mohamed Atta, the man investigators believe to be the lead hijacker. In the days before the attacks, NEWSWEEK has learned, Atta and the other hijackers were in constant contact with Ahmed, wiring money to him and placing many calls to his phone in the United Arab Emirates. The last calls were made just hours before the 19 men boarded their flights. Later that day Ahmed himself took a flight, to Pakistan. He hasn't been seen since.
Investigators tracking Osama bin Laden had long suspected that Ahmed, a 33-year-old Saudi, had close connections to bin Laden's network, Al Qaeda. But his exact role was unclear. In the weeks following the attacks, the Feds concluded he was the operation's paymaster--the "financial guru," in the words of one top FBI official, who sent money to the hijackers for living expenses, flight-school tuition and plane tickets. But law-enforcement sources tell NEWSWEEK that they now believe Ahmed may have played a far more central role than they first realized. Ahmed is bin Laden's "chief financial officer," says one official. As the Feds traced bin Laden's worldwide money trail, Ahmed's name kept popping up on documents and bank records. Investigators have also linked him to a key component of Al Qaeda's operation: Saudi charities that the Feds believe secretly funnel millions of dollars to fund bin Laden's operatives.
The paper trail that first led investigators into Ahmed's shadowy financial world began at the bottom of a motel trash can. On the night of Sept. 10, Atta hunkered down in room 233 at the Comfort Inn in Portland, Maine. The next morning he would take a flight to Boston's Logan airport. At the motel, Atta tore up a FedEx Air Waybill and threw it away. Days later, federal agents searching the motel found the receipt, from a package mailed in Florida, where Atta and several other hijackers had lived until days before the bombing. …