The Libyan Rebel Bank Heist

A $500 million example of rebel craftiness

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As the Libyan rebels struggle to stay afloat financially, the White House and Congress are still debating whether to send the opposition some of the Libyan regime's assets that the U.S. has frozen. Yet long before the rebels pleaded with the international community for funding, The Washington Post reports this morning, they turned to a scrappier solution: a bank heist.

Ali Tarhouni, the rebels' finance minister, tells the Post that, back in late March, he ordered managers at the Benghazi branch of the Central Bank of Libya to use their keys to open two secure vaults at the institution and hired a locksmith to drill a hole in a wall and tinker with a combination to unlock a third, whose key was in Tripoli. The rebels came away with just over $500 million to pay government salaries and operational expenses, subsidize food, and support besieged cities and towns (two months later, about $120 million remains). "Let me put it this way: We robbed our own bank," Tarhouni says, noting that when he first saw the cash he thought, "That's not enough to run an economy in a war" ($500 million, after all, is pennies compared with the $32 billion in frozen Libyan assets in the U.S.). The rebel finance minister adds that the crafty bank robbery provides more evidence that the opposition is ready to run the country.The Post, meanwhile, points out that rebel leaders haven't been able to harness oil revenue as they had hoped and don't have the infrastructure to collect taxes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.