The Finance Minister Who Robbed A Bank

May 12, 2011

Robert Smith

When the Libyan rebels went to look for someone to run their war economy, they went to an unlikely source: An economics teacher at the University of Washington.

Ali Tarhouni fled Libya 40 years ago after speaking out against Moammar Gadhafi. "I was given a choice to leave the country or go to jail," he says. His name wound up on a Gadhafi hit list in the 1980s.

He went back after the civil war broke out earlier this year. Now he's living in Benghazi, working as the finance minister for the rebels. His first job: Raise money to pay for the revolution.

The first place he wanted to look was the central bank. But he couldn't get in, because the rebels didn't have all the keys.

There's a branch of the central bank in Benghazi ... We had to see if there's cash, and it turned out there are three keys for it. We had two, and one was in Tripoli ... So I issued an order basically to rob the central bank.

So how did he pull it off?

Basically, dug a hole. They were thinking about dynamiting the thing. But we were afraid whatever currency we have there would burn. The money I found was about ... 500 million dinars.

That's about $200 million. Not a bad start, but not enough to fund the revolution.

Next step: Try to get at the money Gadhafi stashed in banks around the world. Those assets have been frozen, but Tarhouni saying to the countries where the money is stashed: Don't give me Quadafi's money. Lend me the money until we win. The assets can stay frozen and simply be collateral for a loan.

But what if Gadhafi wins?

"That's not going to happen," Tarhouni says. "Take my word for that."

For more:

See the profile of Tarhouni that aired recently on All Things Considered.

Listen to the interview with Tarhouni on the Planet Money podcast. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.