The New York Times last week ran an interesting story about just how much money al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Africa, Somalia, and Yemen have made from kidnapping: at least $125 million, the paper estimated, since 2008. Those ransoms, the paper claimed, now pay for most of al-Qaeda’s activities: “In its early years, Al Qaeda received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans.”
That may be something of an oversimplification. According to Marc Sageman, a former CIA agent and author of the book Understanding Terror Networks, what’s happening isn’t so much that Al Qaeda is changing strategies. It’s that groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly known as the Groupe salafiste pour la predication et le combat, which have long been more like criminal gangs than terrorist groups, are essentially becoming al-Qaeda franchises, aligning themselves for a variety of reasons with “core al-Qaeda.” “The story confuses entities,” Sageman writes in an e-mail.
And even while some of al-Qaeda’s affiliates are making more money from ransoms, the organization is also raising more money, according to Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser and assistant Treasury secretary, as well as author of Treasury’s War. Partly this is because of the civil war in Syria. Aggressive post-9/11 efforts to shut down the charitable organizations that fed terrorist groups were largely successful, but the brutality of the Assad regime has legitimized giving money to the jihadists who oppose it—like Hamas and Hezbollah, those organizations have humanitarian as well as military arms—and that conduit of money has begun to flow again. “Syria has resurrected a lot of the old coharitable networks and deep-pocket donors, largely in the Gulf States,” Zarate says.
This combination of revenue streams has given al-Qaeda a certain financial flexibility, with certain affiliates subsidizing others—AQIM, Zarate says, has provided financial support to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. It’s possible that the lucrative nature of the smuggling and kidnapping businesses will create tensions between, or even within, global al-Qaeda’s several arms, as the demands of jihadi duty conflict with those of maximizing revenue. At the same time, there’s a long history of insurgencies such as Colombia’s FARC morphing into for-profit enterprises with little damage to their sense of purpose.