One reason the Bush Administration gave for going to war in Iraq was Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to terrorists. So it is ironic that one of the partners in a big Iraqi firm being used by US contractors in Iraq is also a founding partner in an organization that's been identified as helping fund Al Qaeda. So far, however, neither the government nor the contractors have shown much concern.
Sadoon Al-Bunnia is one of three principals in one of Iraq's oldest companies, the Al-Bunnia Trading Company. The Iraqi firm has become a major subcontractor for US firms working under US government contracts in Iraq. But, as documents obtained by The Nation from the Lugano office of the Swiss Federal Commercial Registry show, Sadoon Al-Bunnia is also a founding partner of a Swiss-registered firm called the Malaysian Swiss Gulf and African Chamber (MIGA), which the US government and the United Nations Security Council have designated as funders of Al Qaeda.
MIGA is one of fourteen businesses controlled by Ahmed Idris Nasreddin and Youssef M. Nada. Then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said in an August 29, 2002, news release that businesses in the Nasreddin-Nada network "appeared to be providing a clandestine line of credit to a close associate of Usama bin Laden and as of late September 2001, Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaida organization received financial assistance from Youssef M. Nada." (Attempts to reach the Al-Bunnia Trading Company in Baghdad were unsuccessful.)
Asked about the Al-Bunnia-Al Qaeda connection, Treasury spokesman Taylor Griffin said the law is unambiguous. "The basic story is this: MIGA was designated, Al-Bunnia was not," said Griffin. By "designated," Griffin was referring to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists compiled by Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. American individuals and firms are prohibited from doing business with any person or organization on the list. "Certainly [Al-Bunnia's] association with MIGA should raise some due diligence concerns," Griffin said. "But it is not necessarily wrong for a US company to do business with him, and it is certainly not illegal."
Agreeing with that assessment is Bechtel, which signed up the Al-Bunnia Trading Company as its first Iraqi subcontractor to work on the reconstruction of Iraq's Al Mat bridge. "Al Bunnia was vetted through the [US-led Coalition Provisional Authority]," Bechtel spokesman Howard Menaker said in an e-mail. "During the background investigation, there was nothing found that indicated we could not work with Al Bunnia. Further, there were additional informal discussions with other individuals and advisors to us but again nothing indicated wrong doing nor that we would be precluded from doing business with Bunnia." Another firm with close ties to the White House that's angling to help clients win Iraq contracts, GOP lobbyist Haley Barbour's New Bridge Strategies, proudly announces on its website that its local partner in a consortium bidding on a contract is "led by the Al-bunnia family who are a leading commercial group in Iraq with over 80 years experience in Iraq."
To be sure, who gets put on Treasury's "terrorist" list is not exactly a strict science, legal experts say. Georgetown law professor David Cole notes that "groups are designated behind closed doors, in a secret process, without any notice, without any hearing and even without any substantive criteria for what counts as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. It's just a term the Bush Administration made up." Nonetheless, it does seem odd that the US government cares so little about its own efforts to break the chain of Al Qaeda's financing. But then, the boondoggle that is postwar Iraq appears to operate under a different logic from that used by the Administration to justify the war.
Laura Rozen is a journalist who covers national security issues from Washington, DC.
Copyright © 2003 The Nation