WASHINGTON — Pressured by increased scrutiny of terrorist money sources and strikes aimed at its financiers, al-Qaida’s core organization in Pakistan has turned to kidnapping for ransom to offset dwindling cash reserves, according to U.S. officials and information in files retrieved from Osama bin Laden’s compound.
Bin Laden’s interest in kidnapping as a cash-raiser bolsters accounts that the financial squeeze has staggered al-Qaida, forcing it to search for alternative funding sources. Officials would not detail al-Qaida’s role in specific crimes, but the group’s affiliates have targeted diplomats, tourists and merchants.
His awareness of al-Qaida’s growing use of kidnapping is evidence that even in isolation behind high walls in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden kept tabs on how his network moved its money. The al-Qaida founder was killed last month by U.S. Navy SEALs.
“There are clearly times for them when money is tight,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “We’ve seen that their donors have been less dependable and we’re seeing them turning more to kidnapping as a way of keeping the money coming in.”
Experts from the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center, the Treasury Department and the FBI and military are trying to learn more from the recovered files about al-Qaida’s money sources and the impact of bin Laden’s death on the group’s financial future. They hope to identify important al-Qaida donors, especially wealthy Persian Gulf figures who dealt with bin Laden dating to his work with Afghan fighters in the campaign against Soviet occupiers in the late 1980s.
The Treasury Department’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, said U.S. efforts are focused on disrupting al-Qaida’s cash flow from donors, fundraisers and facilitators. “Al-Qaida’s supporters ought to be wondering if their identities have been revealed,” Cohen said.
Analysts are examining lists of numbers found in bin Laden’s files, hoping to find bank accounts, credit cards or ledgers depicting the financial underpinnings of a network known to demand strict accounting from its operatives.
Al-Qaida’s leadership inside Pakistan rarely championed kidnappings publicly and was not known previously to widely support its use as a funding source. The group historically relied on donations through a pipeline of couriers and money-changing operations. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the network took in as much as $30 million annually, but that money flow has tightened, Ruppersberger said.
CIA drone attacks, combined with economic penalties by the U.S. and its allies, have cut into that stream. At the same time, al-Qaida affiliates have shown that abductions could rake in millions of dollars. As a result, attitudes about ransom operations inside the core group changed.
“That kind of money could go a long way to sustaining a terrorist organization,” said Scott Helfstein, director of research at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center.
A U.S. official familiar with the review of bin Laden’s files cautioned that the kidnapping-for-ransom material found in the seized files was outweighed by bin Laden’s more copious notes on terrorist plots and long-range planning.
The official would not elaborate on bin Laden’s interest in kidnapping or the precise role al-Qaida’s core played in any operations.
The official said the material is consistent with other evidence showing that al-Qaida had turned to abductions within the past two years as money from sympathetic donors dried up and that the group resorted to “basic criminal tactics” to compensate.
“People paid up, helping the terrorist group reline its coffers,” the official said.
$80 million since ’08
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the offshoot in North Africa, long has used kidnapping as a terrorist tool and a major funding source. Canadian diplomats, Italian tourists and Algerian merchants have been abducted; some ransoms have approached $2 million per hostage.
The ransoms have totaled more than $80 million for this branch since 2008, according to Matthieu Guidere, a former French military counterterrorism trainer.
The terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, and its affiliates in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have used kidnapping for ransom, too.
Figures from the National Counterterrorism Center show that 1,264 hostages were taken in Pakistan in 2008, compared with 3,366 in 2009. Pakistanis were the usual victims. Foreign hostages included a Chinese engineer, a Polish oil worker and an American, John Solecki, who worked for the U.N. refugee agency and was released after two months in captivity.
A similar wave plagued Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 as the number of hostages taken climbed from 584 to 2,088. Four Americans were targeted, including New York Times reporter David Rohde, later released by militant captors.
Officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan say criminal gangs account for many ransom plots, though they are known to work with militant nodes like the Pakistani Taliban.
Citing the recent kidnapping of a European journalist in Afghanistan, a security consultant in Kabul said hostages are sometimes sold or traded to militants. Insurgents also can levy “taxes” on groups transporting hostages through their turf, said the consultant.
Bin Laden justified the use of kidnapping in an audio message sent last October, but solely as an instrument of vengeance. He said the abduction of five French nationals by the North African affiliate was a reaction to that country’s ban on Muslim veils and support for the war in Afghanistan.