Al Qaeda's In the Money

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Al Qaeda may have lost its rear bases in Afghanistan and its leaders may be on the run, but it has plenty of cash. That's the bad news from a draft United Nations report on terrorist funding due to be released Thursday. The draft report notes that despite 144 U.N. member states having frozen some $112 million in suspected al-Qaeda assets since September 11, the terror network continues to enjoy access to tens of millions of dollars in secretly managed investments — estimated to be worth somewhere between $30 million and $300 million. Al Qaeda's coffers have always been filled by a lot more than Osama bin Laden's personal fortune, and the report estimates that even after the clampdown following September 11, the network's annual income from private donations continues to run to at least $16 million a year. That's why the U.N. panel investigating terror funding is urging closer scrutiny of charities suspected of diverting funds to Bin Laden's organization, and stricter financial and border controls by European nations. The U.S. Treasury Department, stung by the implication that the crackdown on al-Qaeda funding had stalled, rushed to reaffirm some of the important successes in interdicting millions of dollars of terrorist cash. But they also acknowledged the scale of the challenge described in the U.N. report.

The U.N. panel notes that in response to the international body's clampdown, bin Laden's pursers have converted considerable amounts of cash held in banks into gold and diamonds, as well as moving it through the underworld 'hawala' networks that make it almost impossible to trace.

The underworld also provides an ongoing source of finance. European anti-terror officials, particularly in France, have noted that radical Islamist groups, including those linked with al-Qaeda, have over the years built an elaborate criminal infrastructure — relying on low-key logistical operatives rather than their best-trained combatants — that can generate a continuous flow of funds through seemingly apolitical petty crime, such as credit card fraud, car theft and so on. Even if these operatives are caught, they have in many instances been tried, convicted and sentenced to short spells in prison without their terror connection becoming apparent. Of course such actions can only generate jihad in increments of $5,000 to $10,000 per crime, but the money adds up. And despite the huge amounts discussed in the U.N. report, al-Qaeda's budget for mass murder doesn't necessarily need millions. Investigators believe the September 11 hijackers were financed mostly from abroad, by at least $325,000 funneled into the U.S. over a one-year period from operatives in the Persian Gulf — usually in apparently innocuous tranches of less than $10,000 that went into more than 35 different accounts. The whole operation is believed to have been undertaken for no more than $500,000 — a little over $26,000 per hijacker over a year. And the terrorists fiscal discipline appears to have extended to them wiring some $15,000 in unused funding back to an al-Qaeda financier in the United Arab Emirates three days before September 11.

"Most recent terrorist plots required far more audacity, creativity and stealth than they did money," a French counter-terrorism official tells Time. "Even Atta's group (the September 11 hijackers) needed what most modern societies regard as relatively little quantities of cash? These maniacs don't need millions. They can finance and roll out attacks with money they raise themselves." So even if U.N. member states follow the terror-funding panel's recommendations to tighten up controls, the ability of the U.S. and its allies to thwart al-Qaeda attacks remains primarily dependent on intelligence and police work.