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When Truth is Stranger Than…

This week, we celebrate the release of Michael Robotham’s THE WRECKAGE, a book that Nelson DeMille called “One of the best novels to come out of the chaos of Iraq; a penetrating peek through the fog of war” and David Baldacci  said, “I have seldom read a more chilling and suspenseful tale.” Here, Michael tells the story behind the novel.

The writing of a novel begins with an idea, which is like an itch that you can’t scratch and nobody can do it for you because it’s in one of those moist private places that other people don’t want to touch. (No, it’s not something that requires a trip to the doctor and a course of antibiotics.)

My itch began in October 2007 when I read a brilliant piece of investigative journalism in Vanity Fair, written by James Steele and Donald Barlett two Pulitzer prize-winning reporters. Steele and Barlett exposed details of the largest airlift of US currency in the history of the Federal Reserve – twenty-one shipments over fourteen months – flown into Iraq in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Stacks of $100 bills were packed into bricks, assembled into large pallets and loaded onto cargo planes bound for Baghdad. It amounted to 281 million individual banknotes or 363 tons of money. Twelve billion US dollars in total – of which nine billion has never been accounted for.  Missing. Gone.

Having been an investigative journalist for nearly fifteen years, I was fascinated by the account and by the fate of the money. This was the itch I couldn’t quite reach. Because I was no longer, a journalist, I tried to ignore the idea, but it became a futile exercise in thought suppression.

In December 2009 I read a second story – this one in the UK Observer, quoting the Executive Director of the United Nation´s Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, saying that drug money was the only thing that had kept many major western banks afloat during the height of the Global Financial Crisis.

He estimated that US$352 billion had been laundered by banks on the brink of collapse and said that some institutions were actually rescued by money from drug cartels and the mafia.

These two stories were the triggers for THE WRECKAGE – a global conspiracy thriller set amid the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and the war in Iraq. The story crosses three continents and delves into the world of banking and organized crime – struggling at times to find the space in between.

As much as possible I have used real life events and documents, trying to create fiction that reads like fact. As part of my research I studied reports on money laundering and the fate of reconstruction funds in Iraq. I read the books and the blogs, the congressional reports and diaries from journalists and soldiers, trying to piece together a credible history and cast of characters in the novel.

Some amazing stories emerged. As so often happens, the truth proved so bizarre that I couldn’t possibly include some details. These stories aren’t new, but most were obscured completely by the saturation coverage of the conflicts.

One of my favourites involves the biggest bank robbery in history.

At 4am on March 18, 2003, only hours before the US air assault began on Baghdad – the Shock and Awe bombing blitz – Saddam’s son Qusay Hussein and the dictator’s personal assistant, Abid al-Hamid Mahmood, arrived at the Rafidian Bank in central Baghdad in a fleet of black Mercedes. They carried a handwritten note from the President, written in Arabic, authorizing the withdrawal of US$920 million.

Some people may argue that this is the biggest withdrawal in history rather than the biggest bank robbery, but the money didn’t officially belong to Saddam. A senior official at the bank said later: ‘When you get an order from Saddam Hussein you do not discuss it.’

The volume of the cash was so great that three tractor-trailers and a team of men working for two hours were needed to haul it off. The money was packed into aluminum cases, sealed with plastic strips. Each case contained US$4 million dollars.

Later it emerged that Qusay went back to the bank less than two days before Baghdad fell. The five-car convoy pulled into the courtyard and down a ramp into an underground car park. Five hours later a pick-up emerged covered in tarpaulin.

By the time US troops arrived, the bank had been looted completely by armed gangs with rock-propelled grenades.

A week later, Baghdad and fallen and Saddam Hussein and his sons were in hiding. The second brigade of the Third Infantry Division had taken up residence in Saddam’s new presidential palace on the west side of the Tigris.

David Zucchino, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported what happened next.

Two enlisted men went looking for a chain saw to remove a fallen tree when they stumbled upon a bricked up gardener’s cottage. Breaking through the walls they discovered twenty galvanised aluminium boxes, riveted shut, with lead seals and plastic strapping. Another forty cases were found next door. Six of them were selected at random and opened. Each contained $4 million US dollars in neatly stacked $100 bills.

A wider search was organised. By nightfall 164 boxes had been found. Unfortunately, the temptation proved too great for some of the soldiers who were searching. One of them told Zucchino. ‘Up to this point it was all fun and games. Now it suddenly got serious.

‘Many things went through my mind – my three children, my wife, my future not in the Army. When that first box was opened, I felt like everything was out of control.’

Another said later in his statement: ‘I saw that money and thought maybe I could pay for school, help my family out and pay some bills.’

Five soldiers were implicated. They grabbed stacks of cash, stuffing it into their uniforms. After a second box was opened. Two others were dropped in a nearby canal. Loose cash was scooped up of the floor and hidden in a tree and in shrubbery along a narrow roadway.

Commanders summoned to the cottage realized that money was missing. They order a search of the area and found $600,000 in the tree and another $300,000 in a cooler inside a truck. One of the soldiers confessed and led investigators to the canal containing the two boxes. They also recovered $178,000 in bundles and loose cash along the roadway.

More money was discovered in envelopes mailed to the US, while an executive officer was found with $275,000 hidden in a ‘ready-to-eat’ bag of spaghetti.

Of the original robbery of $920 million, $656 million was recovered. Authorities believe the rest was spirited away by senior Iraqi officials who fled to Syria and helped fund the insurgency.

The bizarre story had one more chapter to run. An Internet fraud letter soon began hitting inboxes around the globe. Purporting to be from one of the soldiers, the letter claimed he had hidden the missing but needed help to get the funds out of Iraq. Money was needed, of course, an old sting with a new twist.

Nobody knows exactly what happened to the missing billion of reconstruction funds in Iraq or the billions laundered by western banks during the Global Financial Crisis. In THE WRECKAGE I have come up with possible scenarios, but the true answers may never be unearthed.

My itch has been scratched, but I warn you it’s contagious. You might just have to read THE WRECKAGE to scratch yours.

Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and 3 daughters. Learn more at http://www.michaelrobotham.com. THE WRECKAGE is available at a bookseller near you and as an eBook.