Accused of corruption in multiple countries, Libyan oil tycoon Tatanaki went from funding lobbying efforts that promoted the Gaddafi regime to backing a rebel general’s campaign to vying for the country’s presidency himself. Along the way, he held at least eight accounts at Credit Suisse, including one worth over half a billion Swiss francs.
- As he rubbed shoulders with dictators and backed a rebel general’s campaign, Hassan Tatanaki held at least eight accounts at Credit Suisse.
- The highest maximum account balance reached 530 million Swiss francs — half a billion dollars — in 2010, just a year before the Libyan uprising.
- The banking of Tatanaki, despite accusations that he was involved in multiple scandals and linked to human rights abusers, matches a broader pattern of customers with high-risk associations in the Suisse Secrets data.
In the tumultuous world of Libyan politics, Hassan Tatanaki is a survivor.
The country’s longtime dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, nationalized his family’s businesses in the 1970s and Tatanaki spent years abroad, but by the early 1990s he had managed to return and establish himself in the oil sector. From then on, he funded lobbying efforts that helped promote Gaddafi’s government in the United States, including when Libya was under international sanctions.
After an armed rebellion broke out against Gaddafi in 2011, Tatanaki switched gears and supported the uprising. During the civil war that followed, he backed a renegade general who fought against the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli and founded a stridently anti-Islamist television channel. Now he has switched gears once again, running for president himself on a secularist platform of bolstering Libya’s battered state institutions.
Hassan Tatanaki discussing Libyan election plans in November 2021.
His winding career has also been marked by controversy and corruption accusations. In the early 2000s, a company he was involved with was accused of cutting sweetheart deals that would have allegedly shortchanged public treasuries in Jordan and Venezuela. In Libya, post-Gaddafi authorities briefly placed him on the Interpol wanted list.
Along the way, Tatanaki also held at least eight accounts at Credit Suisse, stretching back as far as 1988. The largest of these accounts was worth 530 million Swiss francs — half a billion U.S. dollars — at its peak in 2010, just a year before the Libyan uprising, leaked banking data from the Suisse Secrets investigation shows. At least two accounts remained open well into the last decade.
Speaking to OCCRP, Tatanaki denied any suggestion of wrongdoing and said he was an ordinary businessman who had sometimes been misrepresented or attacked in bad faith. He said he had not personally supported Gaddafi or the rebel general, Khalifa Heftar, and that his lobbying and post-uprising activities only aimed to alleviate the suffering of the Libyan people. OCCRP has no evidence he has broken any laws.
Tatanaki acknowledged he had banked at Credit Suisse, but said he had no knowledge of the 530-million-franc account.
“I never had any account of that nature,” he said.
But Tatanaki’s inclusion as a major Credit Suisse customer during the years he was linked in media reports to a sanctioned regime and multiple controversies fits a broader pattern in the Suisse Secrets data, which included numerous clients with high-risk associations. Over decades, dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors with outsized wealth were able to stash their wealth at the bank.
🔗The Suisse Secrets Investigation
The data was provided by an anonymous source to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared it with OCCRP and 46 other media partners around the world. Reporters on five continents combed through thousands of bank records, interviewed insiders, regulators, and criminal prosecutors, and dug into court records and financial disclosures to corroborate their findings. The data covers over 18,000 accounts that were open from the 1940s until well into the last decade. Together, they held funds worth more than $100 billion.
“I believe that Swiss banking secrecy laws are immoral,” the source of the data said in a statement. “The pretext of protecting financial privacy is merely a fig leaf covering the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators of tax evaders. This situation enables corruption and starves developing countries of much-needed tax revenue.”
Because the Credit Suisse data obtained by journalists is incomplete, there are a number of important caveats to be kept in mind when interpreting it. Read more about the project, where the data came from, and what it means.
Credit Suisse did not comment on specific questions about Tatanaki, but in a statement it said it “strongly rejects the allegations and inferences about the bank’s purported business practices” in the Suisse Secrets project.
“The matters presented are predominantly historical, in some cases dating back as far as the 1970s, and the accounts of these matters are based on partial, selective information taken out of context, resulting in tendentious interpretations of the bank’s business conduct,” it said.
Graham Barrow, a U.K.-based anti-financial crime consultant, said that banks have a particular responsibility to vet clients who have links to governments accused of corruption, or who have been accused of corruption themselves.
“Everyone should have some access to the banking system. … What you should not be able to do is use the banking system to introduce corruptly acquired wealth and legitimize it,” he said. “Ultimately it is impossible to tell what is the legitimate bit and what is the dirty bit.”
(Read our investigation from earlier this year about Swiss bank accounts held by Libyans implicated in corruption.)
Lobbying for Libya
In March 1992, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya to pressure Gaddafi to cooperate with investigations into the bombing of a jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. The embargo took a severe economic toll on the country, while making it harder for the Libyan government to operate abroad.
After previously banning the private sector, the Gaddafi regime now began to cultivate numerous businessmen as financial “go-betweens” who could help move money abroad — sometimes including those whose property had previously been confiscated — according to Tim Eaton, a researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“With the sanctions hitting after Lockerbie, you could see that there was a real economic disaster in Libya, and the regime realized it had to pivot,” he said.
By this time, Tatanaki had returned to Libya after years abroad and gone into the oil business. The same month the U.N. sanctions were imposed, Tatanaki began what would be a long career funding lobbying efforts to promote Gaddafi’s government in the United States.
He first signed an agreement with a Jersey-based firm called GBM Consultancy Ltd, owned by two former U.S. congressmen, David Bowen and John Murphy. The one-year contract, signed in Morocco, stipulated that Tatanaki would act as a “liaison” for the company while paying $450,000 as a retainer fee and $225,000 a month after that to cover its costs. In return, the firm would work to “normalize the relations between the United States of America and Libya” and “portray the image of Libya and it’s [sic] administration in a most favorable view.”
In 1993, Bowen and Murphy were fined by the U.S. government for violating the Libya sanctions and ordered to pay $30,000.
Tatanaki’s association with the two men was widely reported, as was his lobbying work on behalf of the Gaddafi government. But this did not appear to impact his ability to bank at Credit Suisse: Three accounts, opened in 1988 and 1991, remained open. A fourth was opened in his name, along with three others including two family members, in 1999.
Tatanaki told OCCRP his lobbying had been legal and was not meant to promote Gaddafi or his regime, but rather to help the Libyan people, who were bearing the brunt of the sanctions.
JJCopland/Alamy Stock Photo
The ruins of the ancient city of Cyrene in Libya.
After the U.N. lifted sanctions on Libya in 2003, Tatanaki continued funding lobbying efforts as the country sought to rebrand itself. In 2007, it was announced that he would help finance a government effort, led by Gaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam, to turn the ancient city of Cyrene, into an “eco-tourism” center. (The project never got off the ground, and it is not clear how much, if any, money was actually provided.)
In 2008, Tatanaki financed another pro-Libya lobbying campaign. He signed a contract with the U.S. consultancy Brown Lloyd James in January that year, agreeing to pay $35,000 a month. In exchange, the company said it helped “Libyan nationals” contact U.S. politicians and academics, and helped Saif Al-Islam organize student exchange and research programs.
In another filing, the company said it advised on an op-ed by Gaddafi and helped arrange the dictator’s notorious 2009 visit to New York City to attend the U.N. General Assembly, where he tore up a copy of the U.N. charter. Brown Lloyd James later said it received over $1.25 million from the Libyan mission to the U.N.
A Jordanian Oil Scandal
Tatanaki’s high-level connections extended beyond Libya.
He struck up partnerships with prominent figures in Egypt after his family moved there in the 1970s. While studying in Britain, Tatanaki also mingled with members of the Emirati royal family. He even obtained an Emirati passport, along with ones from Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil.
In 2004, a scandal in Jordan showed how Tatanaki’s international connections could entangle him in allegations of cronyism.
The controversy began after it was announced that Kuwait had provided Jordan with a grant of 25,000 barrels of oil per day for a year. Kuwait’s Oil Minister at the time, Ahmed Al-Fahd, told media that the grant had been “offered to Jordan as a compensation for what it lost from Iraq’s oil during the war to liberate Iraq.”
What went unmentioned, however, was that the oil would not be used directly by Jordan, but sold on international markets. Jordanian officials later claimed this was necessary because the crude was too heavy to be refined in Jordan.
Nor was it revealed that the proceeds from selling the oil would not be deposited into Jordan’s treasury, but rather transferred into the U.S. account of a Delaware-registered company called Free Market Petroleum — whose shareholders included Tatanaki.
When a member of Kuwaiti parliament made this information public, it sparked an outcry in Kuwait and Jordan.
Jordanian and Kuwaiti officials have never said how much oil was sold or at what price. But with the price of oil ranging from about $30 to $40 per barrel at the time, a conservative estimate would put the grant’s value at more than $270 million per year.
Criticism of the deal, and suspicions about the ultimate destination of the funds were widely reported in Jordanian and Kuwaiti media. Members of Jordan’s parliament demanded to know why the payments were not made to Jordan’s central bank. The controversy eventually faded from headlines without a clear resolution.
Tatanaki said the deal had only been planned as a way of helping sell the oil on the Jordanians’ behalf, and that it was never completed. He said the lawmakers’ accusations against him were unfounded and “totally uncalled for” and that he had never bothered to answer them. He confirmed he was a shareholder of Free Market Petroleum but did not give further details. The company, he said, was ultimately a “waste of money” because no actual deals came out of it.
Asked if any payments had been made to the Free Market Petroleum account, he said: “As far as I recall, none.”
Tatanaki’s dealings at Credit Suisse continued after his role in the affair had been reported: Two accounts bearing Tatanaki’s name were opened in 2006, including one with two relatives. Another, which also included two relatives, was opened in 2009.
From Amman to Caracas
Half a world away, Free Market Petroleum was involved in a controversy involving similar allegations, this time regarding the sale of oil on behalf of Venezuela’s state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).
Under a three-year deal signed in January 2003, Free Market Petroleum was to sell 50,000 barrels per day of PDVSA oil to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Terms of the deal were not made public, but details were later leaked to the media.
Humberto Matheus/Alamy Stock Photo
PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company.
The agreement, potentially worth more than $1 billion, provoked scrutiny in Venezuela and the U.S. for several reasons. PDVSA usually conducted sales directly with buyers, not through intermediaries, and Free Market Petroleum — which stood to make a significant profit — had no track record in Venezuela. A draft copy of the deal, viewed by OCCRP, also included a clause allowing Free Market Petroleum to sell the crude to buyers other than the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with PDVSA’s approval.
The Venezuelan representative for the deal was former energy minister and PDVSA president Rafael Ramírez, who a 2016 congressional probe found responsible for corruption and malfeasance that cost PDVSA $11 billion.
The deal also attracted attention because of the involvement of Jack Kemp, a former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the vice presidential candidate on Bob Dole’s 1996 ticket. The draft contract listed Kemp as Free Market Petroleum’s signatory, and said its shareholders included American energy industry attorney William Hickman and Arturo Sarmiento, a Venezuelan businessman who became wealthy trading oil and importing scotch whiskey. (Neither responded to phone calls seeking comment.)
the Paradise Papers
list the same men and Tatanaki as owners of a Bermuda company of the same name registered in 2003, this time alongside Jamal Ali Abdulla Sanad Al-Suwaidi, who later served as a political adviser to Mohamed bin Zayed when he was Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
Tatanaki denied any suggestion of wrongdoing in the deal, which he said was never implemented. He emphasized that there were no sanctions or other prohibitions on dealing with Venezuela at the time. Suwaidi told OCCRP the information about him in the Paradise Papers was “incorrect,” and that this was the “first time I’ve heard the company’s name.”
After the Uprising
In February 2011, the Arab Spring swept into Libya. Demonstrations quickly gave way to an armed uprising, backed by NATO air power.
As the rebels advanced, Tatanaki began to rebrand himself, first by establishing a charity called the Libya Al Hurra Foundation (“Free Libya” Foundation), registered in California with offices in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. In 2011, U.S. media outlet The Hill identified Tatanaki as the chief donor, and quoted Omar Khalifa, who described himself as an adviser to the foundation, as saying it had spent more than $20 million since the start of the revolution.
In October 2011, the Libya Al Hurra Foundation agreed to pay The Franklin Partnership, a Washington, D.C.,-based lobbying firm, $15,000 a month to inform U.S policymakers about the foundation’s work in Libya, including civil works, infrastructure development, and treating wounded Libyans in Egypt and Tunisia.
Tatanaki’s shift toward a more pro-revolution stance did not stop Libyan authorities, after Gaddafi’s fall, from getting him briefly listed on Interpol’s red list on fraud charges. Interpol documents do not make it clear when or why Tatanaki was removed. Tatanaki said the charges resulted from a personal attack by a single official and had been cleared up “within a week” after he presented the relevant documents to authorities.
After Gaddafi’s fall, Libya was torn by fighting between rival militias. In May 2014, a rebel general, Khalifa Heftar, launched a campaign to assault pro-Islamist militias in Benghazi in eastern Libya. The campaign eventually grew into a full-fledged rebellion against the UN-recognized government in Tripoli in western Libya, splitting the country in two.
Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo
In media reports, Tatanaki was often described as a supporter of Heftar. In one interview, he was quoted as calling Heftar’s campaign the “future of Libya.” In August 2014, in an interview with Foreign Policy from his office in Dubai, he described himself as “partners” with the rebel general.
Tatanaki told OCCRP that he had not supported Heftar himself, but that he had backed the campaign in its early days because he saw it as a possible way to deal with the threat of Islamist militias and to rebuild Libyan institutions.
In 2017, Tatanaki’s name also surfaced in connection with the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo. According to documents obtained by the French media organization Mediapart, analyzed by European Investigative Collaborations and shared with OCCRP, Tatanaki signed a deal in 2015 to pay Ocampo $3 million over three years for consulting services. (The contract was concluded before the term was over and only the first installment of $750,000 was paid.)
Ocampo said he took the job in an effort to help Libyans. But the documents show he was informed about potentially problematic associations.
Several emails, for instance, state the relationship to Heftar and his regional supporters clearly. In one, Tatanaki’s employee Omar Khalifa, also told Ocampo they had been meeting with Egyptian “security apparatuses” and that “Hassan is in communication with the head of Egyptian national intelligence.”
In another email, one of Ocampo’s employees points out audio on YouTube, ostensibly of a wiretapped phone call of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi during the revolt’s early days, in which the dictator’s son says Tatanaki was still “doing his job” to support the regime. (Tatanaki said he was misrepresented in the call and that he had no contact with Saif Al-Islam at the time.)
In May 2015, a local military leader loyal to Heftar appeared on Tatanaki’s Libya Awalan TV channel and said that those who did not join Heftar would be “slaughtered” and “their women raped before their eyes.” The video does not make it clear whether he was making a threat or referring to what Islamist militants would do if they were not stopped, but leaked emails show that Ocampo’s team viewed the incident as potentially problematic.
A few days afterward, Ocampo wrote Omar Khalifa to suggest developing a plan to protect Tatanaki from possible ICC prosecution, the documents show. The findings were reported widely, including in Der Spiegel, The Financial Times, and The Sunday Times.
Reached for comment, Ocampo said: “There are no wrongs to answer: Hassan Tatanaki a Libyan citizen asked for my advice on how international justice could help to end violence in his country.”
Ocampo said his data had been hacked amid a conflict between Gulf countries involving Libya and that “privileged information was used to conduct a baseless attack against Tatanaki’s reputation, my integrity, and the ICC.”
Three of Tatanaki’s Credit Suisse accounts were closed in the year after the uprising began. But at least two remained open well into the last decade, according to Suisse Secrets data.
Late last year, Tatanaki announced that he would enter Libya’s political fray and run for president in elections set for December.
His plane arrived at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport on November 22. For unclear reasons, he was briefly detained, but soon released. He submitted his application, and his name was included among a list of over 70 candidates.
Shortly after, another round of political deterioration and division in Libya led to the postponement of the elections again. Experts said Tatanaki’s chances of electoral success had always been slim at best. But that has not deterred him.
Asked if he was still planning to run for president he told OCCRP: “Absolutely.”
Data expertise was provided by OCCRP’s Data Team.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.