Gum Arabic Link to bin Laden Probed
WASHINGTON (AP) _ For more than a year, legislators and lobbyists have fought to protect a tree product widely used by U.S. candy, cosmetics and medical industries from the effects of economic sanctions imposed on Sudan.
Now, as information emerges about accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, supporters and users of the tree product called gum arabic confront a painful question: In advocating for an obscure but extremely useful import, do they inadvertently help the Saudi Arabian businessman now portrayed as America’s No. 1 enemy?
Industry officials and legislators scrambled Monday to respond to press reports that bin Laden, whose fortune is estimated at more than $200 million, has a big interest in Sudan’s gum arabic industry. Bin Laden’s alleged terrorist base in Afghanistan and chemical plant in Sudan were hit by U.S. missiles last week after officials accused him of masterminding U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who has pursued exemptions from import prohibitions for two companies in his district that import gum arabic, said Monday he would withdraw his support if he sees proof that bin Laden is associated with the industry.
Sudan produces 70 to 90 percent of the world’s gum arabic, a sap from the acacia tree that is used in a wide variety of products including candy, medicines and cosmetics. Working as an emulsifier, gum arabic helps prevent fruit particles in soft drinks from falling to the bottom, seals the inner portion of candies and maintains consistency in shampoo.
A two-year-old State Department ``fact sheet″ says bin Laden held a ``near monopoly″ over gum, corn, sunflower and sesame products in Sudan through companies he controlled, according to Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst and terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
But industry representatives strongly dispute any bin Laden link. And a State Department official said Monday there is ``no indication″ of a connection between bin Laden and Gum Arabic Co., the Sudanese company that controls exports of gum arabic.
Still, suspicions remain.
``Bin Laden has a foot in virtually everything that is profitable and not so profitable in Sudan,″ said Yossef Bodansky, director of the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. He said bin Laden works through such a thick web of companies, ``it’s really difficult to pinpoint″ precisely what interest he has in what business.
Chris Berliner, plant engineer for Importers Service Co. of Jersey City, N.J., said he spoke Monday morning to the chairman of the Gum Arabic Co. in Khartoum.
``He reiterated his flat denial of any association with any company owned by bin Laden, any land used by bin Laden, or bin Laden himself,″ Berliner said.
If bin Laden is indeed connected, Berliner said, ``we’ve really been misled.″
Berliner’s company is one of three major importers of gum arabic in this country. The others are TIC Gums of Belcamp, Md. and Frutaron Meer of North Bergen, N.J. They do business with Sudan’s Gum Arabic Co. through P.L. Thomas & Co. of Morristown, N.J.
Sudan’s gum arabic was a topic of dispute among American lawmakers even before bin Laden exploded onto the front pages.
When the possibility of economic sanctions against Sudan’s pro-Iran regime arose in 1997, many interest groups lobbied for unfettered access to Sudan’s gum arabic, which they consider unrivaled in quality.
When President Clinton imposed the sanctions, he created a loophole for the product, advising Congress that the U.S. government ``may consider″ granting licenses for the importation of ``certain products unavailable from other sources, such as gum arabic.″
That wording has allowed companies to continue importing gum arabic under existing contracts. But once those contracts expire, companies that import and use gum arabic may lose their access to Sudan’s market.