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Meet the playboy who made away with $242m using ‘black magic’

In August 1995, a man named Foutanga Babani Sissoko walked into the Dubai Islamic Bank’s head office and requested a loan to purchase a car.

Sissoko invited him home for dinner after the manager agreed. According to Brigitte Scheffer of the BBC, “it was the prelude to one of the most audacious confidence tricks of all time.”

Sissoko made a startling claim over dinner. He claimed to have magical abilities and told the bank manager, Mohammed Ayoub. He could take a sum of money and double it with these abilities. He invited his Emirati friend back and asked him to bring some money.

Islam considers black magic to be blasphemous. Despite this, it is still widely believed, and Ayoub was taken in by a colorful and mysterious businessman from a remote Mali village.

When he returned to Sissoko’s house with his money, a man burst out of a room, screaming that a spirit, a djinn, had just attacked him. He warned Ayoub not to enrage the djinn, lest his money be forfeited. So Ayoub waited, leaving his money in the magic room.

He claimed to have witnessed lights and smoke. He could hear the voices of the dead. Then there was nothing but silence.

The value of the money had increased by a factor of two.

Ayoub was overjoyed, and the robbery could begin.

“He believed it was Black Magic – that Mr Sissoko could double the money,” says Alan Fine, a Miami attorney who was later hired by the bank to look into the matter.

“So he’d send money – the bank’s money – to Mr Sissoko, expecting it to come back in double the amount.”

Ayoub made 183 transfers into Sissoko’s accounts around the world between 1995 and 1998. Sissoko was also amassing large credit card bills, according to Fine, in the millions, which Ayoub would settle on his behalf.

I was living in Dubai in 1998 when I heard that the bank was in trouble. When the bank’s cash flow problems were reported in the newspaper, crowds of people gathered outside, waiting to withdraw their money.

The crisis was downplayed by the Dubai authorities. They described it as “a minor snag that did not result in any financial losses in the bank’s investments or depositor accounts.”

This, however, was not the case.

“The bank’s owners took a massive, massive hit. Fine says, “It wasn’t covered by insurance.” “The bank was saved thanks to the government’s intervention.” But they had to give up a lot of their bank equity to do so.”

What happened to Foutanga Babani Sissoko? He was a long way away at this point.

One of the appealing aspects of his scheme was that he didn’t have to be in Dubai to continue receiving payments.

Sissoko visited another bank in New York in November 1995, just weeks after putting on the magic show for Mohammed Ayoub, and did much more than open an account.

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.”

In fact, according to a case brought by the Dubai Islamic Bank against Citibank, more than $151m “was debited by Citibank from DIB’s correspondent account without proper authorisation”. The case was later dropped.

Sissoko paid his new wife more than half a million dollars for her help.

“I’m not sure what legal framework he married her under, but he called her a wife, and she thought she was a wife,” Fine says.

“She realized there were a lot of other wives.” Some are from Africa, while others are from Miami and New York.”

Sissoko could realize his dream of starting a West African airline with the money from the bank. He purchased a used Hawker-Siddeley 125 and two vintage Boeing 727s. This was the beginning of Air Dabia, which was named after his Mali village.

However, in July 1996, Sissoko made a critical error when he attempted to purchase two Huey helicopters from the Vietnam War for unknown reasons.

“He explained that he needed them for an emergency air ambulance.” But the helicopters he was looking at were quite large; they weren’t the kind that fly back and forth between hospitals and trauma centers in the United States; they were much larger,” says Fine.

The helicopters required a special export license because they could be converted into gunships. Sissoko’s men attempted to speed things up by bribing a customs officer with a $30,000 bribe. Instead, they found themselves in trouble. Interpol has also issued an arrest warrant for Sissoko. He was apprehended in Geneva, where he was attempting to open a new bank account.

Tom Spencer, a Miami lawyer who was asked to represent Sissoko, recalls going to Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison to meet him.

“I spoke with the prison warden, who inquired about Sissoko’s plans to travel to the United States,” Spencer says.

“I said, ‘Well, you know, we’ll see.’ And he said, ‘Well, please delay it as long as possible.’ And I said, ‘Well why?’ And he said, ‘Because he’s flying in fantastic meals from Paris every night, for us.’ And that was my first bizarre encounter with Baba Sissoko.”

The Miami court where Sissoko stood trial
Image caption, The Miami court where Sissoko stood trial (now closed)

Sissoko was quickly extradited to the US, where he started to mobilise influential supporters.

The readiness of diplomats to vouch for Sissoko shocked the judge presiding over his bail hearing. And Tom Spencer was stunned when a former US senator, Birch Bayh, announced he was joining Sissoko’s defence team.

“Well, you have to ask yourself, why would anyone get involved for a foreign national who has no apparent value to the United States?” says Fine. “I don’t know the answer to the question. But it’s an interesting one to pose.”

The US government wanted Sissoko held in custody, but he was bailed for $20m (£14.5m) – a Florida record at the time.

Then he went on a spending spree.

His defence team was rewarded with Mercedes or Jaguar cars. But that was just the start.

Sissoko spent half a million dollars in one jewellery store alone, Fine recalls, and hundreds of thousands in others. In one men’s clothing store he spent more than $150,000.

“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.

He calculates that he sold Sissoko between 30 and 35 cars in total.

Sissoko became a Miami celebrity. He already had several wives, but that didn’t stop him marrying more – and housing them in some of the 23 apartments he rented in the city.

“‘Playboy’ is the right word to describe him. Because he is very elegant. And handsome. And he dresses with great style. He blew a lot of money in Miami,” says Sissoko’s cousin, Makan Mousa.

Sissoko was also giving away large sums to good causes. His trial was approaching, and he knew the value of good publicity. In one case witnessed by his cousin, he gave £300,000 ($413,000) to a high-school band that needed money to travel to New York for a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Sissoko with members of the high school band
Image caption, Sissoko donated a large sum of money to a high school band in Miami (Photo: Miami Herald)

Another of his defence lawyers, Prof H T Smith, remembers that on Thursdays he would drive around giving money to homeless people.

“I was thinking, is this some modern day Robin Hood? Why would you steal money and give it away? It doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

“The [Miami] Herald did a story just after he left, and I think – I don’t want to exaggerate but I think they said they could chronicle like $14m he gave away. He was only here 10 months. That’s over a million dollars a month.”

Alan Fine took a slightly more cynical view.

“So much of what he did was for image and to perpetuate a belief that he was a very powerful man and fabulously wealthy. He would give away money, but… to my knowledge it was never done in a way that he didn’t get publicity for it.”

Despite this PR drive, when Sissoko’s case came to court he disregarded his lawyers’ advice and pleaded guilty.

Maybe he calculated that this would provoke fewer questions about his finances.

The sentence was 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.

Instead he returned home to a hero’s welcome.

Foutanga Babani Sissoko
Image caption, Photo: Miami Herald

It was around this time that the Dubai Islamic Bank’s auditors began to notice that something was wrong. Ayoub was getting nervous, and Sissoko had stopped answering his calls.

Finally he 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 found guilty of fraud and given three years in jail. It’s rumoured he was also forced to undergo an exorcism, to cure him of his belief in black magic.

Sissoko has never faced justice. In his absence, a Dubai court sentenced him to three years for fraud and practising magic. Interpol issued an arrest warrant and he remains a wanted man.

I found transcripts from other trials at which Sissoko failed to appear, including one in Paris. His lawyer claimed he was a scapegoat for Ayoub’s actions and the bank’s money had gone elsewhere, but the court didn’t swallow it and convicted him of money-laundering.

2013 election poster
Image caption, Sissoko was a member of Parliament for 12 years

For 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, Sissoko was a member of parliament in Mali, which gave him immunity from prosecution. For the last four years, no longer an MP, he has been protected by the fact that Mali has no extradition treaty with any other country.

The Dubai Islamic Bank, nonetheless, is still pursuing him through the courts.

I flew to Mali’s capital, Bamako, to find people who might tell me about Sissoko.

I tracked down his seamstress, who remembered him fondly.

“The last time I saw him, two or three years ago, I made him a suitcase of clothes. If he didn’t give out presents, he wasn’t happy. It’s his style. He loves to give things to people,” she said.

I also found his driver, Lukali Ibrahim.

“The good thing about him is that when things are going well you can expect a lot of presents from him. He likes to help people with their problems,” he said. “The bad thing, I can tell you a few. This is someone who always gives people hope but instead of telling you the truth, he’s just leading you on.”

In the market I found a goldsmith who had only praise for a client who would call and ask him to make presents for his friends.

I also heard that he could be found living near his native village, Dabia, which had given its name to Sissoko’s short-lived airline, near Mali’s border with Guinea and Senegal.

After a long drive I found a house that fitted the description I’d been given.

Sissoko's home
Image caption, Sissoko’s home in Mali

Suddenly, surrounded by armed guards, there he was. Babani Sissoko, in person, now perhaps 70 years old.

He agreed to an interview. The atmosphere was edgy and slightly surreal. He began by telling me about his entry into the world.

“My name is Sissoko Foutanga Dit Babani. You know, the day I was born all the villages round here burned down. The villagers went round shouting, ‘Marietto has had a boy.’ The fire leapt and leapt. There used to be a lot of bush around.”

He then talked about his efforts to rebuild the village, which began in 1985, and about the money he made. At one point he had been worth $400m, he said.

A smiling Sissoko
Image caption, Sissoko says he was once worth $400m – but that he is poor now

Eventually, I asked about the $242m he had received from the Dubai Islamic Bank.

“Madame, this $242m, this is a slightly crazy story. The gentlemen from the bank should explain how they lost all that money. I mean the $242m. Listen, how could that money have left the bank the way it did? That’s the problem. It’s not this man alone [Ayoub] who authorises the transfers. When the bank transfers money it’s not just one person who does it. Several people have to do it.”

I pointed out to him that Mohammed Ayoub had claimed at his trial that Sissoko had put him under a spell.

“The gentleman you’re talking about, I’ve seen him and met him,” he said.

But the heist, he denied.

“The only contact I had with him was when I went to buy a car. The bank bought it for me and I repaid the loan. It was a Japanese car.”

Had he controlled people by means of black magic?

“Madame, if a person had that kind of power, why would he work? If you have that kind of power you can stay where you are and rob all the banks of the world. In the United States, France, Germany, everywhere. Even here in Africa. You could rob all the banks you want.”

I asked him if he was still rich.

His answer was blunt.

“No I’m not rich any longer. I’m poor.”

Defying Interpol, Sissoko has spent a remarkable 20 years on the run, even if he has squandered all his money and can never leave Mali.

He has never spent a day in jail for the black magic bank heist.

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