These economic times are tough — even for the world’s most sought after terrorist organization. News this week of Al-Qaeda’s financial woes surfaced as a trove of emails from the group’s former leader, Osama bin Laden, revealed a “very low budget,” perhaps just “thousands of dollars.”
For a group who took America to her knees once, and hoped to do it again, it seems that this absence of cash would hinder such grand objectives. An attack on America’s homeland would require a coordinated effort and cash flow that Al-Qaeda proper is no longer capable of producing. As the group’s ideology filters out to mercenaries across North Africa and the Middle East, managing funds from a centralized location becomes increasingly difficult. Compounded by frozen assets and a flagging global economy, it becomes nearly impossible.
But that won’t stop Al-Qaeda. And the world’s leaders should not interpret the terrorist organization’s financial hardship as an indicator of their demise. In fact, shortly before his death, bin Laden announced that the group would likely turn to kidnappings and ransoms as a way to pump cash into the deadly stream of global jihad. In North Africa, they have done just that, relying on Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to exploit regional insecurity and revive their bankroll.
As I wrote last week, AQIM is well positioned to take over Al-Qaeda’s narrative and wreak havoc on its European foes. But the strength of AQIM also stems from the fact that they are financially independent from Al-Qaeda proper, not relying on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of Al-Qaeda, or other leadership for weapons or operational gear. In fact, AQIM receives an eye-popping sum of money from the very tactics bin Laden lauded in 2010: kidnappings and ransoms.
Daniel Benjamin, the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, writes that, “By turning the kidnapping of Europeans, East Asians, and North Americans into big business, terrorist organizations have found a reliable funding stream that runs directly from the coffers of countries that are dedicated to defeating Al Qaeda.” Since 2004, terrorist groups in the Sahel region of Africa have taken in nearly $120 million in ransom fees — a steep increase from Al-Qaeda’s “thousands” of dollars today.
Since 2007, AQIM has engaged in more than 12 high-profile kidnappings and ransoms. Most recently, in January, two French aid workers were taken hostage by AQIM and later killed. Others are still being held under a $90 million ransom. Mauritania’s president, Ould Abdel Aziz, suggests that despite reports of Al-Qaeda’s financial failings, AQIM and other affiliate groups are hardly strapped for cash. “These ransoms enable them to equip themselves and recruit people, to step up their activity, especially if nothing is done afterwards [and] if they are not pursued,” he notes.
While Zawahiri may be pinching his pennies, his vision for Al-Qaeda is not broke. It lives on in groups like AQIM whose alternative form of terrorism — kidnappings for ransom — may very well be financing a larger, deadlier operation.
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