“On the eve of the attacks on America al Qaeda was running a $30 million annual budget, according to the CIA. The terrorists were tapping into deep-pocketed Saudi and other Arab donors. Now they are hard up. Witness the pathetically ill-equipped and mistrained underwear bomber.
…Al Qaeda is much less of a top-down organization than it once was, when it called the shots and funded terrorist operations from Afghanistan. Then, it told operatives to focus on assignments and not to worry about how to subsidize them. Today it’s a much looser organization of affiliates—more of a McDonald’s ( MCD – news – people ), if you will, than a General Motors. Its decentralized partners and cells around the world pick their own targets, concoct their own strategies and raise their own funds. They may draw inspiration from al Qaeda headquarters somewhere in the Chitral region of northwest Pakistan, even kick back money to the leadership. But, like franchisees, they are largely on their own.
…Richard Barrett, who keeps an eye on al Qaeda for the U.N., says kidnapping has been the biggest moneymaker for Islamic Maghreb. “Hostage taking has proved lucrative for them,” he says, adding the group is currently holding seven foreigners and ransomed others for $3 million each. “You can keep going for a long time down there with that kind of money.”
While kidnapping is probably as old as warfare, its latest incarnation owes much to al Qaeda in Iraq, a now largely defanged affiliate. It made piles of cash grabbing foreigners a few years ago and supplemented that income with extortion rackets and black market oil sales. The group became so rich that its leader at one point got a letter from al Qaeda’s number two, Zawahiri, requesting a substantial sum.
Within the al Qaeda network there is a sharp debate on just how far to push criminal ventures. Some members have advocated for more illicit sources of funds, including branching out into piracy. Others within the core of the group argue that criminal activity creates bad p.r. and erodes the brand within Muslim communities.
Officials across the U.S. government insist they have no proof that al Qaeda’s leadership is involved in the drug trade. But Michael Braun, chief of operations at the DEA until 2008, says they are in denial. “There is more clear evidence showing al Qaeda’s growing involvement in the Afghan heroin trade on the Pakistan side of the border—al Qaeda proper,” says Braun, now a managing partner at Spectre Group International, a security firm in Alexandria, Va. “There are growing numbers of investigative leads headed in that direction.”
…The $3.4 billion Afghan heroin trade is a critical source for the well-financed Taliban, which has also developed a rich donor network. The Taliban encourages and taxes poppy farmers and collects transit and protection fees related to the drug trade. How does al Qaeda benefit? At the very least the drug trade helps the Taliban create safe havens for al Qaeda fighters.
Some counterterror officials see an opportunity in the convergence of crime and terrorism. They point out that police in most countries are mobilized to tackle the drug trade, making it more likely that a terrorist who also runs narcotics will get caught by the cops. But the flip side is that crime, particularly the rich drug trade, could help sustain terror groups for years. Farc, a Marxist terror group in Colombia, has kept itself going for 46 years with the help of profits from cocaine and kidnapping. A report by James Fearon, a political science professor at Stanford University, studied 128 civil wars since 1945 and concluded that, on average, civil wars lasted 39 years longer when insurgent groups were financed by contraband like heroin or cocaine…"
2010-02-26 21:17:04 UTC