Terrorist groups in Mali and Yemen that are affiliated with al-Qaeda are “gaining strength,” in large part by taking hostages for ransom, a senior U.S. Treasury official said today.
“The U.S. government estimates that terrorist organizations have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments over the past eight years,” said David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London.
U.S. intelligence officials are investigating whether the two main groups Cohen cited, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, may have played a role in the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans.
“Al-Qaeda’s core is not in the position to provide generous funding to its affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, ‘AQIM,’ operating in the Sahel, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ‘AQAP,’ operating primarily in Yemen,” Cohen said. “Instead, these al-Qaeda offshoots are self-sufficient, raising their own funds and themselves providing support to the next generation of violent groups.”
“AQIM, the al-Qaeda affiliate that has likely profited most from kidnapping for ransom, has collected tens of millions of dollars through KFR operations since 2008,” he said. “It raised significant funds from kidnapping for ransom operations in early 2012, and was holding nine hostages as of the middle of last month.”
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he said, is using ransom money to expand its reach and influence, and as of earlier this year was expected to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to other extremist groups in Africa.
Cohen said the two, as well as other terrorist groups in the Philippines, Pakistan and elsewhere use ransom money to help finance all their activities, “including recruiting and indoctrinating new members, paying salaries, establishing training camps, acquiring weapons and communications gear, staging deadly attacks,” and “helping to support the next generation of violent extremist groups.”
“What’s worse,” he added, “the size of the average ransom payment is increasing. In 2010, the average ransom payment per hostage to AQIM was $4.5 million; in 2011, that figure was $5.4 million.
“It is therefore not surprising that the size of ransom demands appears to be increasing, too, with AQIM reportedly demanding £70 million ($113.3 million) for the release of four French citizens taken hostage in Niger in September 2010,” he said.
Terrorist groups distinguish between nations that pay ransom and those such as the U.K. and the U.S. that don’t, Cohen said. “Recent kidnapping for ransom trends appear to indicate that hostage takers prefer not to take U.S. or U.K. hostages -- almost certainly because they understand that they will not receive ransoms,” and because they fear a military response if they do, he said.
“Indeed, our information reveals that in 2011, AQIM was planning to target mainly Europeans, not Americans, for kidnapping operations because AQIM believed that some European governments would pay ransoms while the U.S. government would not,” Cohen said.
A second U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said French and German citizens and companies are two of the prime targets for kidnappers.
The groups’ tactics, Cohen said, are expanding to include demands that companies pay protection money, which the second official said is already a routine practice in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mexico.
“One al-Qaeda affiliate was planning to extort substantial annual payments, amounting to millions of euros a year, from a European-based company, in exchange for a promise not to target that company’s interests in Africa,” Cohen said.
He said the U.S. and other governments are cooperating in efforts to combat terrorist financing, and more than 160 countries, including all members of the European Union, are obligated to cooperate against hostage-taking under the 1979 International Convention against the Taking of Hostages.
U.S. intelligence officials have said that, while the U.S. and its allies have curbed the flow of money from the Persian Gulf states to al-Qaeda’s remaining leaders in Pakistan, groups such as those in Mali and Yemen have become self-sufficient and independent. The way the terrorist threat has metastasized has made it harder to combat, the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues, said.
Best Management Practices
Companies that do business in risky areas can assist in efforts to combat hostage-taking, he said.
Shipping industry organizations and navies from around the world, he said, have collaborated to produce a set of “Best Management Practices” to help prevent hijackings off Somalia. He cited a 2009 Chatham House paper which found that ships that have implemented practices such as tracking and avoiding pirate skiffs, increasing speed near suspicious vessels, and equipping themselves with razor wire or high-pressure sprays to prevent unauthorized boarding may be four times less likely to be hijacked than those that haven’t.
“More generally, Cohen said, “international organizations, corporations, and non-profits should train their employees to spot and evade danger, and insurance companies should continue to work with their clients to identify new avenues for mitigating risk.”