If you’re any bit familiar with African nationals and financial escapades with foreign banks, the figure — 242 million dollars may ring a special note for you.
While Emmanuel Nwude was selling a fake airport to a Brazilian bank for the same amount, Foutanga Babani Sissoko, a Malian playboy with a distinct swagger, scammed the Dubai Islamic Bank of 242 million dollars with nothing more than empty promises and the illusion of black magic.
Born in the village of Dabia, not far from Mali’s capital, Bamako, little is known of Sissoko’s early life.
The part that matters and has made him a reference in lectures of international banking fraud begins in August 1995.
One day, Sissoko walks into the office of the Dubai Islamic Bank to request for a car loan.
The bank manager, Mohammed Ayoub, agreed and Sissoko invited him for dinner. Over a meal, the Malian told his Emirati friend that he had powers of black magic. If Ayoub would come back again with some cash, he would show him his powers.
Most Westerners see black magic or voodoo as an African thing. But in the middle east, such practices are a lot more familiar.
Islam is as much a religion as a way of life in these parts and it frowns on the belief in and practice of black magic as paganism. Yet, for Ayoub, the allure was too strong.
“Djinns, Black Magic and Money Doubling”
On his return, after an encounter with a stranger who warned him of the presence of a spirit – a djinn, Ayoub stepped into the magic room and put his money forward.
He said he saw lights and heard strange sounds-phenomena easily associated with the supernatural. By the time the hoopla died down, his money was doubled.
Ayoub was ecstatic. He had found a way to double the money. As manager of a bank with millions of dollars at his behest, he could make millions in profits.
At the centre of the events that would define this incident, greed would sit comfortably in a green robe.
“He believed it was Black Magic — that Mr Sissoko could double the money,” says Alan Fine, a Miami attorney the bank later asked to investigate the crime.
“So he would send money to Mr Sissoko — the bank’s money — and he expected it to come back in double the amount.”
Over the next 3 years, Ayoub sent money to over 180 of Sissoko’s accounts in different locations around the world.
In 1998, news began to filter that the bank was in a cashflow crisis. The bank denied it.
They called it “a little difficulty that did not lead to any financial losses either in the bank’s investments or depositors’ accounts”.
But this was not the case.
Dubai Islamic Bank would have gone into bankruptcy, but for the government who stepped in to save the bank.
By this time, Sissoko was far away.
From Dubai to New York
Ever the smooth talker, in 1995, he had set the other part of his elaborate scheme in motion.
“He walked into Citibank one day, no appointment, met a teller and he ended up marrying her,” says Alan Fine. “And there’s reason to believe she made his relationship with Citibank more comfortable, and he ended up opening an account there through which, from memory, I’m just going to say more than $100m was wire transferred into the United States.”
Dubai Islamic Bank would later bring a case against CitiBank, claiming that more than $151m “was debited by Citibank from DIB’s correspondent account without proper authorisation”. The case was later dropped.
His money and his social skills endeared Sissoko to many women for a variety of reasons. But while his harem grew, Sissoko’s eyes were set not on female bodies, but on the skies.
With the bank’s money rolling in, Sissoko could fulfil his dream of opening an airline in his home country.
He bought a used Hawker-Siddeley 125 and a pair of old Boeing 727s.
This was the birth of Air Dabia, named after his village in Mali.
His biggest mistake came when he tried to buy two Huey helicopters dating from the Vietnam War, for reasons that did not quick match up.
Huey Helicopters can be fitted with gunships and they needed an export license to be taken out of the country. But instead of paying the fees, Sissoko’s associates attempted to bribe the customs agencies.
One thing led to another and he was caught in Geneva where he was opening another account.
After he was extradited to the US, things took a different and amusing turn.
Painting a positive image
First, it was at his bail hearing where the judge and members of the prosecution were shocked by the number of American diplomats willing to vouch for him.
Against the wishes of the US government, Sissoko was bailed for 20 million dollars.
Then, now in Miami, waiting for the outcome of his trial for bribery, Sissoko began to throw money at the people of Miami.
He bought Mercedes Benz and Jaguar cars for the members of the defence team.
On one visit to a jewellery store, Sissoko is said to have spent over half a million dollars.
“He would come in and buy two three four cars at the same time, come back another week and buy two three four cars at the same time. It was just, the money was like wind,” says car dealer Ronil Dufrene.
Sissoko already had a bevvy of wives and concubines but he set to adding more of Miami’s finest to his harem.
When one high-school band needed money to travel to New York for a Thanksgiving Day parade, he gave £300,000 ($413,000).
All of this was to serve one purpose. Sissoko was desperate for good publicity and a positive image.
Soon enough, the Miami media noticed; in a story by the Miami Herald, he is estimated to have given away over 14 million dollars.
After pleading guilty to the charge, he was sentenced to 43 days in prison and a $250,000 fine — paid, of course, by the Dubai Islamic Bank, though without its knowledge.
After serving only half this sentence, he was given early release in return for a $1m payment to a homeless shelter. The rest he was meant to serve under house arrest in Mali.
Sissoko was welcomed like a celebrity when he returned home.
By this time, the Dubai Islamic Bank was certain that it had lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
After Sissoko stopped answering his calls, Ayoub confessed to a colleague, who asked how much was missing. Too ashamed to say, Ayoub wrote it on a scrap of paper — 890 million dirhams, the equivalent of $242m (£175m).
He was convicted of fraud and given three years in jail.
Sissoko, on the other hand, has lived in Mali since, as a free man. In his absence, a Dubai Court sentenced him to three years for money laundering but he will never serve a day of that time.
For 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, Sissoko was a member of parliament in Mali, which gave him immunity from prosecution.
Since then, the fact that Mali has no extradition treaty with the US, the UAE or any other country has been his saving grace.
The Dubai Islamic Bank, nonetheless, is still pursuing him through the courts.
There seems little hope in that course.
After a long intense search, Sissoko was found, now aged 70, in the town of Dabia where he was born.
He is no longer wealthy, as he himself admits, but the tall tales with which he swindled Ayoub are not in short supply.