I first heard of a plot to rob al Qaeda from Kevin Reeve. Reeve is proprietor of OnPoint Tactical, a survivalist services firm based in southern Utah. He has trained Navy SEALs, international business executives, and Hollywood film crews alike in the art and science of off-grid medicine, wilderness tracking, and what Reeve calls “urban escape and evasion.”
Indeed, Urban Escape and Evasion is the official name of a three-day course run by Reeve, its aim to give participants the skills they need to break free from potential abductors. As a participant in one such workshop, I spent a long weekend with Reeve and other attendees in the conference room of a La Quinta budget hotel near Nellis Air Force Base north of Las Vegas. As our training wound down, late in the afternoon of the first day, Reeve relayed an extraordinary tale. It might even be true.
In early 2006, Reeve explained, OnPoint Tactical was approached by a rather unusual client. In fact, when we spoke about the subject again several months later by telephone, Reeve emphasized how strange—even surreal—the man’s story was. Nonetheless, he said, this much was certain: One day a man showed up at an OnPoint Tactical training exercise, accompanied by two federal security guards.
This gentleman, whose name Reeve would not reveal in order to maintain client anonymity, had been arrested a few years earlier for a spree of sophisticated bank robberies in Los Angeles. As a condition of his sentence being reduced, even potentially commuted altogether, the man had been asked to assist with an incredible task.
He had been asked to plan bank heists against al Qaeda.
In the wake of 9/11, aggressive new financial regulations led to a gradual freezing of al Qaeda’s international monetary transfers. As investigative journalist Loretta Napoleoni has shown, a sustained wave of illicit reinvestment in cash and portable commodities—including gold and diamonds, which were easy to transport and nearly impossible to track—filled the breach. Al Qaeda was forced to go analog.
These pressures had significant long-term effects on the group’s financial operations. They compelled, for example, a near-complete “restructuring” of the group’s finances, including “the movement of large quantities of gold out of Afghanistan,” Napoleoni writes in her book Terror Incorporated: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks. Al Qaeda’s gold was a source of fungible, universally recognized wealth—as well as an obvious vulnerability.
The group’s previously invisible monetary network was thus forced to materialize, taking on new physical form in the shape of unmarked bags of cash, gold bars, and truckloads of precious metal traveling backcountry roads through some of the most politically unstable parts of the world, many of them soon to become active war zones. Writing for The New York Times, Matthew Rosenberg has shown that Osama bin Laden himself was something of a “gold bug,” urging al Qaeda operatives to invest ransom money in bullion, rather than U.S. dollars or real estate. And all of that gold had to be stored somewhere.
Al Qaeda, in other words, was setting itself up for the ultimate bank heist.
As recently as last week, The Wall Street Journal reported on the inadvertent consequences of anti-terror regulation, where well-intended legislation has had the unfortunate effect of driving dark money yet further underground and out of reach. Journalists Rob Barry and Rachel Louise Ensign describe massive cash bundles being flown into and out of the United States, piling up at exchange sites in cities such as Dubai and in the public markets of the breakaway capital of Hargeisa, Somaliland. Fishing nets repurposed as monetary containers bulge with bricks of cash in the accompanying photographs.
Disrupting al Qaeda had thus become something of a hands-on concern, an analog job in a world of cash shipments and black-market gold, Reeve explained. This is what spurred the U.S. government to the realization that it would need to harness the—shall we say—rare talents of successful bank robbers if it wanted to interrupt and seize the group’s distributed assets. Al Qaeda operatives would be so busy looking for drones or uniformed soldiers, the government’s reasoning went, that they would miss these black-clad cat burglars slinking into their vaults and delivery trucks.
For a hardened bank robber, it would seem to be the perfect assignment: design and implement a series of heists that will deprive the world’s worst terrorists of their riches, and avoid prison in the process. And who better to do this, of course, than the best bank robber in Los Angeles—a city once considered by the FBI to be the “bank robbery capital of the world”? The person would go from a fugitive on the wrong side of the law to a free agent of the state, knocking off vaults, safes, and caravans on the other side of the world. It’s a criminal dream come true.
Reeve’s anonymous client had been given an opportunity to put his skill set to patriotic use, assisted by U.S. intelligence in choosing and scoping out his targets. He would have been required to hand over his haul, of course, offloading black tactical bags stuffed with gold and diamonds to clandestine U.S. trucks and helicopters registered under shell corporations. But, at the same time, Reeve’s trainee would slowly but surely be working off a near-life sentence back home.
As a legally ambiguous geopolitical asset—an Omega Man alone amidst terrorist bank vaults, speaking with his invisible handlers over encrypted satellite phones—he was encouraged to practice his trade, moving through anonymous hotel rooms in foreign capitals and across disputed borders in remote mountain valleys, cultivating sources, accumulating floor plans and maps, and assembling black-market safe-cracking tools.
If the man succeeded, then a small team of assistants—perhaps other bank robbers renditioned to the front lines from L.A. and Phoenix, Miami and Seattle—would have joined him, thus expanding this motley operation. The best bank robbery crew ever assembled, operating under U.S. state supervision, would bring al Qaeda to its knees one robbery at a time.
As an urban legend, the tale is certainly compelling. Disabling an international terror network through selective high-stakes burglaries, pulled off with the precision of acupuncture: The story of Reeve’s nameless client suggests an impossible, even absurd, scenario.
But is it really an urban legend?
Reeve would not—or, most likely, could not—reveal anything more about his mystery man. Yet, even today, a decade later, he still talks about this unusual client, fixating on the man’s two federal handlers and speculating with relish as to what was really going on.
Upon my return from Las Vegas, I began reading media reports of bank robberies in Los Angeles from the late 1990s to early 2000s, wondering if I might catch a narrative detail or two that would somehow indicate that this was the guy: this folkloric L.A. super-burglar sent overseas to destroy al Qaeda, one sack of cash after another.
Instead, I found a series of real-life characters who would have made Elmore Leonard proud. There was the woman who stole an armored car before disappearing to Europe for several years, where she apparently worked as a maid, nearly penniless despite her lucrative crimes. She later returned to Los Angeles, where she gave herself up to federal authorities. There was the pair of active-duty Marines who went on a bank and supermarket robbery spree on the edges of Los Angeles County in the late 1990s, all while on a weekend break from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base.
In another case, a man given the nickname of the “Kangaroo Bandit,” due to a large backpack he wore across his chest, hit an estimated 21 banks in one year alone and appeared to have had weapons training, according to the FBI agent who tracked him. Most fantastic of all, perhaps, was the athletic Mormon bank robber—active in Phoenix, not Los Angeles—who looked so much like actor Sean Penn that Penn’s body double was actually arrested by the FBI on two occasions.
Imagining any of these figures infiltrating terrorist cash rooms overseas was a stretch—yet stranger things have happened. The CIA has backed schemes involving exploding cigars to assassinate Fidel Castro and the FBI has set up elaborate sting operations against the Mob, deploying fake bushes that pop open like umbrellas to hide federal agents in the event of impending discovery. If post-9/11 anti-terror legislation had inadvertently become a kind of state-sanctioned burglar-rehabilitation scheme—well, in many ways, it wouldn’t actually be that hard to believe.
Retired FBI special agent William J. Rehder was head of bank crime investigation in Los Angeles throughout the 1990s, a decade that, at its worst point, saw a new bank heist every forty-five minutes of every workday. Those were something of the war years for law enforcement personnel. Rehder has since been described as “America’s foremost authority on bank robberies,” so I got in touch with him to discuss the prospect of someone hiring a convicted Angeleno bank bandit for these sorts of adventures overseas. He was unconvinced, to put it mildly.
Grudgingly, however, Rehder soon laughed at the sense of irony. He pointed out that some of today’s most ruthless terrorist groups—including ISIS—effectively started out as bank robbery networks, funding their operations through the seizure of funds from under-protected vaults throughout Iraq and Syria. Huge stockpiles of reconstruction money sent courtesy of the American taxpayer were successfully targeted and added to the ISIS war chest—so, Rehder admitted, sending someone over there to rob the robbers would at least have a delicious symmetry. The hand that giveth becomes the hand that taketh away.
We may never know the truth of the alleged Los Angeles super-burglar retrained to fight al Qaeda. It could have been a hoax, a ruse, even a story deliberately invented by Kevin Reeve to dupe a gullible East Coast journalist—or, of course, the man could still be out there, teaching master classes in the geopolitics of burglary to a growing corps of apprentice thieves. The intriguing epistemological uncertainty here is that, even if he was real, even if he had stolen tens—hundreds—of millions of dollars from terrorist financiers, until someone talks there is no way of finding out.
Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, published this week by FSG Originals.