It seemed like a good idea at the time: The Bank of Credit and Commerce International “was conceived as a heady mixture of banking and philosophy with an underpinning of nationalism,” write James Ring Adams and Douglas Frantz. Intended (at least ostensibly) as an international bank for the Third World and for small businesses and depositors among immigrants to the West, BCCI’s expansion obeyed the vaulting ambition of its Pakistani founder, Agha Hasan Abedi, and finally collapsed in “the world’s greatest banking scandal,” implicating figures of the stature of ubiquitous presidential advisor Clark Clifford and Carter administration budget director Bert Lance.
Abedi cultivated the rich and powerful, beginning with assorted Arab rulers before and during the 1974 oil embargo that brought so much wealth to the Middle East and propelled BCCI’s growth. The bank’s client list sported super-terrorist Abu Nidal, General Noriega, and the CIA. Truly “an unrivaled story of intrigue, deception, and manipulation,” as the authors assert.
But is the book “riveting” and “breathtaking,” as its dust jacket claims? Well, no. Adams (of the WALL STREET JOURNAL and BARRON’S) and Frantz (of the LOS ANGELES TIMES) are good journalists, and document their narrative thoroughly, but their prose is uninspired, and their choice of form is off-putting. Perhaps in search of a larger audience, Adams and Frantz forgo much analysis, in favor of the oft-numbing straightforward chronology of popular novels. The reader in search of understanding plods through wooden prose, picking his way past dimestore speculations about momentary states of mind: “Amjad Awan was shocked when he saw the armed men. ... Slightly tipsy from the Scotch and the shock, Awan was taken to an office.”
Adams and Frantz are to be commended, though, for recounting a uniquely spectacular instance of ’80s-style greed. “Could it happen again?” they ask. “Even now, is another financial institution... robbing the poor and giving to the rich?” Alas: “The answer must be yes, for history is replete with swindlers large and small.” Perhaps that is why this book fails to shock or titillate: The story, despite its breathtaking scope, is after all really very banal.