Shopkeeper Yeslam Bin Ladin faces family trouble
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GENEVA -- A prominent entrepreneur in this posh Swiss city is seeking to build a luxury-goods business by turning his first name into a new brand: Yeslam.
It's a daunting task. Yeslam's last name is Bin Ladin. His half-brother is the world's most wanted terrorist.
American trial lawyers working for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks are suing Yeslam, along with other members of his family and other wealthy Saudis, for billions of dollars, contending they have hidden financial connections to Osama bin Laden (the surname is sometimes spelled differently). Now Yeslam's ex-wife, Carmen, has joined forces with the Sept. 11 victims' lawyers, as she tries to improve her divorce settlement by exposing her ex-husband's finances.
The lawsuit, which is being heard in lower Manhattan at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is drawing attention to potentially serious allegations against Mr. Bin Ladin. His ex-wife, who has been investigating his assets for years, has given the 9/11 lawyers a long list of offshore companies that she says he runs. In a court filing, she claims that "the bin Laden family including Yeslam and Osama were very close" -- and that his complex finances, also a focus of police investigators in several countries, support suspicions that the half-brothers have had financial ties.
In an interview and in court statements, Mr. Bin Ladin says he barely knows Osama, and hasn't seen his half-brother in more than 20 years. He hopes to extricate himself from the 9/11 lawsuit, which seeks to establish who gave clandestine support to Osama after he declared war on the U.S. in 1996.
Behind the legal battle is a family drama that illustrates Yeslam's unusual position in the secretive Bin Ladin clan. Born in Saudi Arabia and educated in the U.S., the 56-year-old Yeslam has long struggled to straddle the cultural divide between his native Saudi Arabia and the West.
His failed marriage to the Swiss-born Carmen was the subject of her 2004 book, "Inside the Kingdom," a best-seller in the U.S. Their eldest daughter, who goes by the name Wafah Dufour, is an aspiring pop musician and model in New York who recently posed for a risque photo shoot in GQ magazine. She has signed with Regan Media, a division of News Corp.'s HarperCollins Publishers, to star in a proposed American reality television show about her life. The show hasn't yet been picked up by a network.
The setting for much of the family contretemps is Geneva, a city favored by rich Saudis who patronize its discreet banks. Mr. Bin Ladin sometimes bumps into his daughters on the Rue du Marche, Geneva's pricey main street. He says those encounters are cordial, but he acknowledges that his daughters were once denied admission to a posh party he hosted. Mr. Bin Ladin and his daughters have seldom spoken in recent years. Each side blames the other for the estrangement.
Mr. Bin Ladin says he leaves the fighting to his lawyers and focuses on his various ventures, which include backing films and mounting a huge soiree at the annual film festival in Cannes. "I am having fun," he said during a recent Friday visit to his Geneva boutique. Clean-shaven and clad in a casual sport jacket, Mr. Bin Ladin was conducting business during the day of rest for observant Muslims, while fingering worry beads, a traditional Arab practice.
The Yeslam shop offers expensive perfume, handbags, sunglasses and watches by European designers largely geared to a wealthy Arab female clientele. Yeslam handbag models are named for historic Muslim cities including Jedda and Riyadh.
"Conjugating the historical sophistication of the orient with the demands of today's world," reads the glossy Yeslam catalogue. Mr. Bin Ladin trademarked his first name. A European court turned down Mr. Bin Ladin's effort to trademark his last name, saying it would be "contrary to public policy."
Mr. Bin Ladin is one of 54 children of a construction magnate who made billions of dollars building palaces and other projects for the Saudi royal family. Yeslam married Carmen in 1974 and graduated from the University of Southern California three years later. They settled in Switzerland in 1985.
Since their divorce in 1994, Carmen has pursued her ex-husband through the Swiss courts, seeking a larger divorce settlement than the one that pays her and her three daughters support of about 9,000 Swiss francs, or about $6,900, a month. In an interview, she says she originally agreed to that amount in exchange for a promise from Yeslam not to take their girls to Saudi Arabia.
Last week, a Swiss federal court rejected Ms. Bin Ladin's appeal of the existing settlement. She says she now hopes to go through the U.S. legal system to pressure her ex-husband to revise the settlement.
Ms. Bin Ladin claims to have discovered 76 offshore companies with connections to her ex-husband in the Bahamas and other tax havens -- claims that corporate records support. She says in her affidavit in the 9/11 case that 11 of the companies are U.S. businesses -- which could make it hard for Yeslam to convince the court that he isn't subject to U.S. jurisdiction. She says Mr. Bin Ladin has more than $100 million in assets.
Mr. Bin Ladin says all his companies are legitimate and no longer do business in the U.S. He says his net worth is in the low tens of millions of dollars. His defense lawyers have asked a federal judge to reject Ms. Bin Ladin's affidavit as hearsay. "I have not talked to my ex-wife since 1994. How would she know anything?" Mr. Bin Ladin scoffs.
The controversy is taking place amid police investigations involving Mr. Bin Ladin. Since 2003, he has been the subject of money-laundering and terrorism-finance inquiries by police in Italy and France, according to documents obtained by the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism-research group funded by private donations that works with the 9/11 families.
Mr. Bin Ladin said he has already been cleared by the Swiss government of ties to terrorism after a massive 2002-2003 inquiry and knows of no other investigations.
The French and Italian investigators have complained that the Swiss government isn't cooperating with their inquiries, Swiss government records show. One Italian police letter alleges Mr. Bin Ladin has a secret immunity deal with the Swiss government. Swiss prosecutors wouldn't comment on the subject of Mr. Bin Ladin. Mr. Bin Ladin dismissed the Italian claim, saying, "If I had immunity, I would not have had 80 policemen in my place" during a 2002 Swiss raid.
Mr. Bin Ladin says he hasn't been involved with Osama in any way since the early 1980s. Italian police think otherwise. They are investigating alleged dealings among Yeslam, Banca Svizzera Italiana, and a Switzerland-based, Saudi-founded investment firm called Dar Al Mal. A 2005 Italian financial-police memo from Milan claims the bank "has been sort of a hidden patrimonial manager of the activities linked to Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri."
Banca Svizzera declined to comment, citing Swiss bank-secrecy laws. Dar Al Mal said neither Osama nor Yeslam is a client but that another relative was once on its board. Dar Al Mal said it isn't under investigation by Italian police.
Yeslam Bin Ladin acknowledges family connections to Banca Svizerra and Dar Al Mal. "I have a brother who works with them," he said, declining to say which one. "All I can say is, it's not me."
First Published April 5, 2006 12:00 am