/ 23 February 2022

Suisse Secrets: How Credit Suisse became the bank of spies

Suisse Bank Spies Top
Credit: James O’Brien/OCCRP

In the 2008 spy movie Body of Lies, the fictional character Hani Salaam helped CIA agents portrayed by Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to catch terrorists. What cinema-goers may not have realised was that Salaam’s character was based on a real person: a Jordanian spymaster named Sa’ad Khair.

Khair headed Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) between 2000 and 2005, acting as a key US ally in the War on Terror. But although Khair was lionised in theatres as a stylish hero helping the US, his real-life activities were more morally questionable. As well as allegedly smuggling oil, he oversaw Jordan’s role in the US’s extraordinary rendition program, running an agency accused of torturing prisoners and overseeing kangaroo courts.

In 2003, Khair opened a personal account at Credit Suisse. Over the next seven years, the account would grow to Sf28.3-million ($21.5-million) at its peak, before being closed months after his death in 2009. (The accounts discussed in this story are denominated in Swiss francs. Since the value of the franc has fluctuated over time, we have converted the account holdings to their historic US dollar equivalents.)

Khair was not the only spy who stashed large sums of money at Credit Suisse. Journalists found that at least 15 leading intelligence figures from around the world, or their close family members, were clients of the bank.

The revelations come from a huge trove of Credit Suisse banking data leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

Most of the 15 were top-tier spy chiefs in their country. The data also held a number of other spies that OCCRP has chosen not to name, because their identities could not be verified beyond absolute doubt.

Along with Khair, three of these spy chiefs have common career threads that make them stand out: Egypt’s Omar Suleiman, Pakistan’s General Akhtar Abdur Rahman and Yemen’s Ghaleb Al-Qamish.

All four ran state intelligence agencies at which they controlled large black budgets that were above parliamentary and executive scrutiny. All of these figures or their family members also held personal accounts at Credit Suisse worth large sums of money, without obvious sources of personal income that could explain the wealth.

All four had roles in key US interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, from the CIA’s early attempts to back anti-Soviet mujahideen in the late 1970s, to the first Gulf War in 1990, to the so-called forever wars launched in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

Three of the figures, Qamish, Suleiman and Khair, were in charge of agencies that were well known for being involved in torture. At least eight of their family members also had Credit Suisse accounts.

Given that these intelligence officials would be considered “politically exposed persons,” their accounts should have been carefully scrutinised and should have raised questions for Credit Suisse. According to Swiss compliance expert Monika Roth, secret service agents are considered by banks to be particularly sensitive customers.

“I wouldn’t take them as clients — that is far too risky,” Roth said, adding that intelligence chiefs are often “people with a great deal of power, questionable connections and very opaque sources of money”.

One former Credit Suisse executive told OCCRP: “In the example of an intelligence chief like Sa’ad Khair, opening an account is a red flag and many banks in Switzerland would not take it, but Credit Suisse would.”

It is not clear what, if any, due diligence processes were carried out. Credit Suisse declined to comment on individual cases, citing Swiss banking laws that prohibit banks from identifying or providing information on clients. The bank said it “operates its business in compliance with all applicable global and local laws and regulations” and that it had strengthened its “risk-management framework and control systems”.

Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. Credit: Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

Akhtar Abdur Rahman: Secret cash flows

Long before Khair was building his account at Credit Suisse, secretive officials who helped the US to fight a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan made their own connections to the institution.

In the late 1970s, the US backed seven different factions of Islamist fighters, called the mujahideen, who were battling Russia’s presence in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia matched US funding to the jihadists dollar for dollar, often sending the money to the CIA’s Swiss bank account. The end recipient in the process was Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence group (ISI), led by Akhtar.

By the mid-1980s, Akhtar was adept at getting CIA cash into the hands of Afghan jihadists. It was around this time that Credit Suisse accounts were opened in the names of his three sons.

As Mohammad Yousaf, a colleague of Akhtar’s at the ISI who later penned a book about the time, wrote: “The combined [US and Saudi] funds, running into several hundred million dollars a year, were transferred by the CIA to special accounts in Pakistan under the control of ISI.”

Mujahideen in 1984. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Both Yousaf and Steve Coll — author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book Ghost Wars — claim Akhtar was the man who decided where this cash went next. To train the mujahideen in sophisticated weaponry, the CIA trusted him with millions. By 1984, the CIA’s Afghanistan budget alone was some $200-million.

Oversight was chronically lax, and Akhtar’s role has long been questioned.

One South Asian intelligence source with knowledge of Afghanistan operations told OCCRP: “It was easy at that point in time to open Swiss banking accounts of any manner or type for transfer of overt funds.”

“Akhtar was doing it to fill his own pockets,” the source said. “A lot of money was syphoned off from the Afghan war and into his bank accounts.”

One of the two Akhtar family accounts at Credit Suisse — held jointly by Akhtar’s sons Akbar, Ghazi and Haroon — was opened on 1 July 1985, when the sons were in their late 20s and early 30s. That same year, then US president Ronald Reagan would raise concerns about where the money intended for the mujahideen was going. By 2003, this account was worth at least Sf5-million ($3.7-million). A second account, opened in January 1986 in Akbar’s name alone, was worth more than Sf9-million November 2010 ($9.2-million).

Akhtar died in a 1988 plane crash that also claimed his boss, Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

Akbar and Haroon Khan did not respond to requests for comment. In a message to OCCRP, Ghazi Khan called information presented by reporters about the family’s Swiss accounts “not correct” and said it was “denied”, but did not elaborate.

Ghaleb Al-Qamish: The ‘Black Box’

As the CIA and Akhtar were collaborating on Afghanistan, Yemen’s Ghaleb Al-Qamish was starting his own rise.

By 1980, Qamish headed Yemen’s Political Security Office (PSO), which was in charge of domestic intelligence. Just as Akhtar was doing from Pakistan, Qamish recruited fighters for the Afghan war against the Soviets.

A looming figure over Yemen’s security apparatus for decades, Qamish was a key enforcer for strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled from 1978 to 2012. When Al-Qaeda bombed the American destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, Saleh tasked an initially reluctant Qamish with helping the CIA to flush out the suspects.

According to three officers who worked under Qamish at Yemen’s PSO, he was the country’s most feared security official, described as Saleh’s “black box”. The three sources, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, told OCCRP that Qamish had “an open budget of millions of dollars” to do with as he pleased.

By the time he had become Yemen’s chief spy, helping the Americans to unravel terror cells in the early 2000s, Qamish also had inexplicable millions tucked away at Credit Suisse.

His account, opened in 1999, the year before the Cole attack, was worth almost Sf5-million ($3.7-million) by 2006, the same year that some of the Cole suspects escaped a Yemeni prison. Qamish’s monthly salary was probably between $4 000 and $5 00, including allowances and bonuses, according to the former intelligence officers and official Yemeni salary law guidelines.

Qamish was accused of various abuses, including participating in the US extraordinary rendition programme, which saw millions in CIA funds lavished on officials and other helpers in allied countries. Official documents show huge payments were made to countries that hosted black sites, and those who performed torture and interrogations.

Ruth Blakeley of the Rendition Project, a group of UK academics who have investigated the US programme, said any new information that torture-linked intelligence figures had money secreted away should be carefully examined.

“If there is evidence that senior intelligence officials were gaining financially from collusion in the rendition, detention and interrogation programme led by the CIA, then that warrants thorough investigation,” she said.

If Credit Suisse questioned the source of Qamish’s money or his fitness as a client, that did not deter the bank from dealing with him. His accounts lasted long after his involvement both in the rendition program and the repression of Yemeni political opponents.

“Through the PSO, [Qamish] was in charge of arresting all elements that were seen as opponents of the regime of Saleh,” said one senior officer. Another added: “No one knew how the PSO money was spent.”

Qamish’s ties to Saleh frayed when the president began preparing one of his sons to take charge of the country. Saleh also set up a new domestic intelligence unit, the National Security Bureau, in 2002, under the command of one of his nephews, which quickly overshadowed the PSO. Slowly, the leader began pulling the rug from under Qamish’s feet.

Qamish removed the last of his assets from Credit Suisse — worth about Sf3.8-million ($4-million) — in January 2011, just as crowds were taking to the streets of Aden in the first sparks of the Arab Spring. He was removed from his role as PSO chief in 2014 by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had come to power after Saleh’s overthrow.

Yemeni protestors chant slogans during a demonstration to demand the resignation of president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Nowadays, Qamish lives in Istanbul. In recent years he has taken a back seat, but his sons apparently remain active in business in Yemen, Bahrain, Brazil and Turkey. Qamish did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Omar Suleiman: Egypt’s feared enforcer

In a January 2009 diplomatic cable leaked to Wikileaks, Margaret Scobey, then the US ambassador to Egypt, said spy chief Omar Suleiman was used by the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship as an enforcer. She added that Mubarak was “not one to lose sleep” over Suleiman’s brutal methods.

Credit Suisse did not seem overly worried about Suleiman either. Despite the fact that he was personally linked to torture by victims of the US’s rendition programme, members of Suleiman’s family kept much of their wealth with the bank.

In February 2003, while Suleiman’s US allies hatched plans to invade Iraq, his family members were making preparations of their own: financial ones. That month, a Credit Suisse account in their names was opened. It would later swell by millions.

Like Akhtar, Khair and Qamish, Suleiman was seen as a trusted US ally.

Weeks before the Suleimans’ account was opened, then US secretary of state Colin Powell, speaking to the UN, outlined why then president Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq urgently needed to be toppled. When Powell told the UN he had evidence of Iraq’s training of Al-Qaeda in chemical weaponry, the source he relied on was a victim of Suleiman’s intelligence regime: Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi.

Al-Libi, a Libyan, had been captured in Pakistan in 2001 before being rendered by the CIA to Egypt in 2003. He would confess, Egyptian handlers told him, because “three thousand individuals had been in the chair before him”, and they had all done so. After being squashed inside a tiny box, Al-Libi would later say he told the Egyptians “what they wanted to hear”.

Suleiman tended to get what he wanted.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman (right) meets with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a hotel in Tel Aviv in November 2010. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

As the Iraq War moved from pitched battles into a counter-insurgency, Suleiman’s family’s wealth bulged. By 2007, four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, their account at Credit Suisse was worth Sf63-million.

The Suleiman family did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The account outlived Egypt’s Mubarak dictatorship, which fell in 2011 under the weight of the Arab Spring. After Mubarak was ousted, Swiss authorities said they were freezing the assets of figures linked to him and his government. But it seems the crackdown didn’t apply to the Suleimans. There is no evidence in the data that the account was closed, despite multiple concerns raised elsewhere about the crimes of the patriarch.

Besides overseeing torture, Suleiman was also involved in the agency’s clandestine financial transactions.

At Mubarak’s trial, a judge cited testimony from Suleiman and other officials that Hussein Salem — an Egyptian tycoon and known frontman for the intelligence service — owned a variety of companies in gas and other sectors for the spy agency. The judge wrote that Suleiman had admitted that his intelligence agency set up front firms for “national security” reasons, often using Salem.

Salem was also a Credit Suisse client. He had several accounts, with one holding assets worth Sf105-million ($79.3-million) by 2003. It was named in legal proceedings when investigators alleged that it had been used to pay and receive what looked like corrupt commissions to executives at FlowTex, a German company prosecuted for massive fraud.

The origin of their fortunes may never be known, but experts say the secret holdings of these intelligence figures raise questions about how they may have benefitted from illegality.

“Don’t forget that Mubarak wanted his generals and intelligence chiefs to steal money,” said Robert Baer, an ex-CIA agent who served in the Middle East. “Because anybody who’s not making money in a position like that can’t be trusted. Those are the people that make coups d’etat.”

Sa’ad Khair: Jordan’s action hero

Jordan’s Sa’ad Khair was made for the big screen. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who wrote the novel on which the movie Body of Lies was based, described him as “brilliant but emotionally wounded”.

But the interrogations carried out by Khair’s GID were highly illegal, according to reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch reported that the GID served as “proxy jailer” for the CIA, “holding prisoners that the CIA apparently wanted kept out of circulation,” just as Suleiman’s intelligence forces had done in Egypt. The rights group documented at least 14 prisoners the US sent to Jordanian custody for likely torture between 2001 and 2003.

British actor Mark Strong (right) played a character based on Sa’ad Khair in the 2008 motion picture Body of Lies. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Amnesty International, citing victim testimony, reported that the GID obtained more than 100 confessions via torture, and then sent these cases to Jordan’s state security court, which handed out death penalties to the most unfortunate.

Senior GID officials would later deny holding prisoners for the US, or that torture even took place. 

“Khair, along with then prime minister Abul Ragheb, institutionalised high-level corruption that continues to haunt Jordan today,” a Jordanian politician told OCCRP.

Iraqi oil on the cheap

Khair  has long been accused of secretly profiting from illicit oil trading from the early 2000s onwards. Some opposition deputies even called for Khair to face charges, but he never did. The story has dogged him, but no proof was ever offered.

OCCRP reporters searched for evidence. What they found was intriguing but not definitive. A handful of off-the-record sources close to the situation repeated the story that Khair and the GID oversaw a front company that traded in oil sourced in Iraq, but none showed firm evidence.

By looking at records and following tips, reporters identified an oil company called Harranah, run by Abdulrahman Abu Hassan, a long-time friend of Khair. Abu Hassan said he has long heard the same rumours — that he became rich because of Khair and the GID — but flatly denied that Khair had any involvement in his company.

Abu Hassan admitted he did get fuel oil from Iraq “almost for free”, then sold it abroad at international market prices. He said Iraq’s prime minister at the time, Ayad Allawi, sold the oil so cheaply because Jordan had given him safe haven after an assassination attempt by the government of Saddam Hussein.

Abu Hassan said his oil shipments by truck, about 300 each day, were protected by Khair’s GID when they crossed borders, but that was as far as the relationship went. Abu Hassan said that Khair was not involved in the business and did not profit from it. Even much of his own profit, he said, was donated to Jordanian veterans’ associations. He also said Jordan’s finance and energy ministries earned hundreds of millions from services related to the wider business.

Reporters never found evidence Khair was involved, or that he had discussed involvement in the oil business with anyone before he died. To Abu Hassan, the rumours of Harranah being a GID front are nonsense.

“Everybody accused Jordanian intelligence because they were facilitating [trading] for us,” Abu Hassan said. “[But] I asked them to.”

Khair’s run would eventually come to an end. In May 2005, he was removed from his GID post by King Abdullah. Khair died at a luxury hotel in Vienna in December 2009.

Three years earlier, his account at Credit Suisse was worth Sf28.3-million ($21.5 million). A Credit Suisse account opened in 2006 by Khair’s brother Saeed, a ground engineer for King Hussein’s two private jets, was worth Sf13-million by 2011, before being closed in 2014. Khair’s wife at the time of his death, Janiche Frayeh, had her own account that was worth Sf6-million ($5.9 million) in 2010. Her account also closed in 2014.

Saeed Khair told OCCRP that, given his brother Sa’ad’s sensitive position, “it should not surprise you that he never shared any information with me about his work in intelligence.” He said he knew nothing of any Credit Suisse account set up by his brother, and that he himself never set up any accounts. He said all his taxable income “has been declared to the tax authority in Jordan”. He said he never shared a bank account with, or received funds from, his brother.

In a message to OCCRP, Frayeh said questions about the family accounts at Credit Suisse were “weird and strange and outrageous”.

She described Khair as “an honourable man who fought terrorism all his life so people like myself and your group can live safely in this life.” She said she had not opened a Credit Suisse account, had “no idea” about any funds there, and was merely a “house wife”.

‘Something Very Precious’

For intelligence figures, working with Credit Suisse offered a service that was hard to find in an increasingly globalised world.

“These banks represent something that for the intelligence community is very precious: secrecy,” said one European intelligence officer on condition of anonymity. “This confidentiality makes their services very useful for covert operations.”

A former German intelligence director in the Middle East told OCCRP and partners he was not surprised that high-ranking secret service employees from undemocratic countries would bank in Switzerland. Such accounts can serve as a back-up, the source suggested, set aside in the event that the regimes these spies serve are overthrown, or they themselves fall out of favour.

This hypothesis was echoed by Baer, the former CIA agent.

“In the Arab world, you’re only in your job for so long,” said Baer. “You and your clan have to steal what you can and create a nest egg. Switzerland is the safest place, once you’ve got your accounts set up.”

Losing favour, it seems, is one of the main hazards of the spy world. After the fall of Mubarak in 2011, Suleiman threw his hat into the ring to lead Egypt, but was disqualified as a candidate. He died at the Cleveland Clinic months later, in July 2012, of natural causes.

As well as navigating the internal power struggles of repressive regimes, spies also have practical problems that Swiss banking may have helped to solve.

“Spy agencies and terrorist organisations sometimes work in the same way,” said former Mossad officer Avner Avraham. “They have the same problems. They have to transfer money from point A to point B, to pay someone, and they don’t want anyone to know who’s the one paying and how it’s being transferred, or where it’s coming from.”

Graham Barrow, a UK-based financial crime expert, said the enormous sums involved in Credit Suisse accounts connected to intelligence figures should have raised red flags for the bank.

“There’s no reason why a senior intelligence operative can’t open a bank account, but they’ve got to give a reason why they want that account and what they’re going to use it for,” he said. “Then the account has got to be used in the way they said they were going to use it.

“If at any point there’s a discrepancy, the bank should be raising red flags.”

Other spies in the data

Journalists found almost 40 accounts in the Credit Suisse data linked to intelligence officials from almost a dozen countries. These include:

  • Former Venezuelan army captain Carlos Luis Aguilera Borjas, known as “The Invisible One”, who served as Hugo Chavez’s bodyguard in the 1990s, then director of Venezuela’s intelligence services for two years in the early 2000s. He resigned in about 2002, having failed to prevent a coup attempt that almost overthrew the president. Aguilera then focused on business, and is said to have banked about $90-million from an allegedly corrupt deal to overhaul a Caracas metro line.

    Aguilera opened one account at Credit Suisse in June 2011 and within a few months it was worth almost Sf7.8-million ($8.6-million). Another, linked to a legal entity he controlled, was opened in July 2011 and held a maximum value of almost Sf5-million.

    Aguilera did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Khalaf Al-Dulaimi, chief financial officer of the Iraqi Secret Service under Saddam Hussein, held a corporate account with a high balance of Sf178-million, and a personal account with Sf2.5-million. A lawyer for the late Dulaimi called the report “old news” and “not accurate”.
  • In Egypt, an account was held by Ashraf Marwan, a spy whose allegiances were as murky as his finances. While serving as an intelligence adviser to his father-in-law, then president Gamel Abdal Nasser, Marwan is known to have leaked intelligence to Israeli forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — but his family and other supporters claim the information he gave Israel was fake. 

Marwan’s account at Credit Suisse, listed under a legal entity, was opened in 2000. By that time he’d left intelligence work behind and moved to the UK, where he purchased a stake in Chelsea Football Club. Seven years later he was dead, after a mysterious fall from his London balcony. His wife, Mona Nasser, later told the press his death was retribution for betraying Israeli intelligence. Nasser did not respond to questions sent by OCCRP.

  • From Germany, former secret police officer Jürgen Czilinsky held an account worth some Sf218-million ($206-million) as of January 2010. Czilinsky had left Germany after the collapse of communism, landing in the Republic of the Congo, where he reportedly set up a waste-management business. Repeated attempts to contact Czilinsky were unsuccessful.
  • Also in the data are accounts belonging to figures with ties to Uzbekistan’s intelligence services, which multiple human rights organisations have accused of torture, forced disappearance, and arbitrary detention. In 2009, former intelligence officer Ikram Yakubov told BBC Newsnight he’d witnessed these abuses firsthand, and claimed he had been forced to fabricate evidence against people he knew were innocent.
  • Other accounts were linked to intelligence figures from Iraq, Jordan, Montenegro, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen. The oldest holding dates back to the mid-1970s.

Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID. Data expertise was provided by OCCRP’s Data Team. Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk. This story was first published by OCCRP.