Hands Up: Our take on some of the world’s most intriguing bank robberies.
When American-led forces first entered Baghdad in early April 2003, looters had already hit the Central Bank of Iraq, the fortresslike structure housing much of the nation’s treasure, including its foreign currency reserves. Troops found burst pipes and blazing fires, but the looters had been unable to penetrate the bank’s main vault or access its deposits. It turned out, however, that someone had already made a hefty withdrawal from the building — to the tune of around $1 billion, easily making this the largest bank heist in history.
At around 4 a.m. on March 18, the day before American cruise missiles began to rain down on the Iraqi capital, three large trucks pulled up to the Central Bank, and for several hours a steady stream of metal boxes — filled with some $900 million in U.S. $100 bills and $100 million in euros — were loaded onto the waiting vehicles. The heist didn’t require guns or explosives — just a handwritten note handed to the bank’s governor, insisting that the extraordinary measure was necessary to prevent the money from falling into foreign hands.
The man delivering the signed note was Qusay Hussein, the head of Iraqi security forces, and the signatory of the note, his father and the soon-to-be-deposed Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. But despite Saddam’s best efforts, the truckloads of cash did eventually fall into foreign hands — perhaps even your own.
In some ways, Saddam’s epic theft continues to this day.
It was not surprising that when push came to a cruise-missile shove, Saddam felt he could treat his country’s cash reserves as his own private piggy bank. The megalomaniac had consolidated his power and surrounded himself with yes-men to such a degree that nobody dared challenge him. So when Saddam, who had wrongly assumed that the Americans would never invade Iraq, made the last-minute demand for $1 billion, no one at the Central Bank requested a legitimate financial rationale for the withdrawal. “When you get an order from Saddam Hussein, you do not discuss it,” an unidentified Iraqi official with knowledge of the heist told The New York Times.
When U.S. officials learned that the trucks had pulled away from the Central Bank with a quarter of the bank’s hard currency reserves, they feared the funds would be used to finance the insurgency. When $650 million turned up behind a false wall of the palace belonging to Saddam’s son Uday, some officials speculated it must have come from the Central Bank. (It turned out to be Uday’s own stash.)
So had Saddam managed to make a billion dollars vanish into the dusty Baghdad air? Not quite. As with the weapons of mass destruction and his own grizzled body, which turned up in a mud shack eight months later, the dictator had not proved particularly adept at hiding things, even those he did possess. And as author James Risen chronicles in Pay Any Price, even before the U.S. had learned of Saddam’s bank heist, American troops had discovered hundreds of aluminum boxes — each containing about $4 million in $100 bills — at one of Saddam’s palaces. The money had been secretly flown to Kuwait, where military personnel were busy counting it.
When John Taylor, the U.S. Treasury Department’s undersecretary for international affairs, learned of the money, he pressed top administration officials in the Situation Room to return the funds to where they rightfully belonged at the Central Bank. But the White House and Pentagon decided to keep the money and have the newly created Coalition Provisional Authority distribute it to military commanders on the ground to use as they saw fit.
Over the next few years, the $100 bills were doled out rather indiscriminately, and Saddam’s ill-gotten gains, along with the billions of dollars of shrink-wrapped cash that U.S. planes flew into Iraq, became one of the American soldiers’ greatest temptations. “The money quickly began to disappear into the rucksacks and footlockers of the officers and enlisted personnel who had access to it,” Risen writes. “[S]ome was mailed home to wives and girlfriends. The stealing in Iraq reached epic proportions.”
Soon, pieces of Saddam’s stash started turning up in places like Yuma, Arizona, where the FBI found 91 deposits (totaling more than $440,000) made by Maj. Mark Richard Fuller, a Marine assigned to count cash in Fallujah. Army Capt. Michael Nguyen, in charge of dispensing money in Anbar province, made close to $700,000 disappear, drawing suspicion when he paid cash for a Hummer and a BMW after returning home, to Oregon. All told, around 35 U.S. service members were convicted of such theft between 2004 and 2008, and, according to Risen, “the biggest thieves have been far more elusive.”
Brand-new Hummers for American soldiers may not have been what Saddam had imagined when he sought to keep Iraq’s currency reserves out of foreign hands, but most of the Iraqi dictator’s pilfered stash undoubtedly remains in circulation. In some ways, Saddam’s epic theft continues to this day, from Yuma to Basra, proving yet again that you don’t necessarily need a gun to rob a bank or a mask to participate in the plunder.