DESPITE the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May, Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups remain a global money laundering and terrorist financing concern. Yet a decade on from the September 11 attacks, counterterrorism specialists say there has been too much focus on Al Qaeda itself (it means The Base in Arabic) but not enough on associated and other militant groups that pose significant threats, reports Paul Cochrane in Beirut.
The sustained and multi-pronged US-led campaign against Al Qaeda has resulted in a major weakening of the group, from finances to a dwindling membership of around 300 cadres. “Al Qaeda has suffered massive degradation,” said Rohan Kumar Gunaratna, director of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
The killing of bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan last May put a further nail in Al Qaeda's coffin, with no leader surfacing with the same charisma or support that the notorious Saudi had internationally. Al Qaeda core, as it is known, has, as a result, shifted its modus operandi from being an operational organisation to providing training and ideology for associated groups, said Gunaratna. It is these groups, operating in the Indian subcontinent, south east Asia, Africa and the Middle East, that should garner greater attention from governments, the intelligence communities and compliance officers, he advised.
“If you ask the Brits or Americans what group poses a greater threat they will share with you Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) rather than Al Qaeda core,” said Gunaratna. “Government efforts and partners in finance should shift from an over emphasis on Al Qaeda core to associated groups.”
His perspective is shared by Paul Pillar, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, in Washington DC, and former deputy chief of the CIA's counterterrorist centre. “Whenever there is an incident the first thing you hear is, were there links to Al Qaeda? And the implication is if there are links you should worry more and if not, don't worry, but that is not sensible at all. This whole concept of links is something that is used incredibly loosely as a link can mean anything, from command and control to a casual crossing of paths,” said Pillar. “And there is a failure to clarify what Al Qaeda is. The term here in the US is used loosely to apply to the specific group that Ayman Al Zawahiri leads, but is also used to refer to other groups of radical Sunni Islamists. So, I think part of the problem is a reification of a group with this name and throughout the last 10 years that has been a major drawback on how terrorism is viewed.”
Jay Jhaveri, head of Asia at risk intelligence specialists World-Check in Singapore, also agrees with this analysis. “Al Qaeda has not been wiped out but has been seriously weakened as the focus over the last 10 years has been Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, but not on [the Pakistani] Lashkar e-Taiba (LET) or other resurgent terrorist groups.”
Indeed, within Pakistan alone there are 12 domestic groups and over 30 transnational organisations operating, according to the South Asia Intelligence Review, including Jaish e-Mohammad Mujaihideen e-Tanzeem (JeM), the Haqqani network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement. Such groups are particularly active within Pakistan, Afghanistan, India (notably in Kashmir), and Bangladesh.
When it comes to international ‘franchises’ inspired by or linked to Al Qaeda, there is AQAP in Yemen and the Gulf, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an amalgamation of groups that have operated across North Africa and most notably in Libya last year during the war to depose Muammar Gaddafi.
And indeed, the political instability and regime change in the Middle East and North Africa wrought by the Arab Spring over the past year present new challenges in curbing terrorist financing. While there is the assumption that the populist uprisings signal a rejection of the ideas of Al Qaeda and radical Islam, there is also greater room for militant groups to operate given the power vacuum as well as the possibility that if democratic reforms do not happen there could be a resultant uptick in support for militant Islam.
Instability in Yemen, the Middle East's poorest country, is an area of particular concern. “In the whole larger network or universe of radical Sunnis there is general consensus that AQAP is worth worrying about right now, as with the chaos in Yemen there is not much chance of help from local government,” said Pillar.
In Libya, there are reports of AQIM getting hold of stockpiles of weapons as well as some of the 20,000 surface to air missiles that went missing during the conflict. This has caused concern in North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, with Idriss Déby, the President of Chad, warning last year that “AQIM is poised to become the best equipped army in the region.”
There are also concerns that in post-revolutionary countries, anti-money laundering and combatting the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) initiatives will need to be bolstered by new governments to address regional threats. “On the CFT side, our own view is that the new governments that have emerged will have to rebuild their capabilities,” said Gunaratna. “Also, a totally new group of actors has emerged, for instance links between (Somalia's) Al Shabaab and AQIM, and AQIM links with Boko Haram (Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da`wa wa-l-qital) in Nigeria. There are a lot of new weapons and sources of money, so threat finance, AML and CFT operators will need to do a lot of work to identify groups emerging in that area.”
The success of multilateral AML and CFT initiatives against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have forced militant groups to avoid official banking channels. Further weakening financing has been NATO and Pakistani army operations that have killed or sidelined middle and top level commanders that had links to the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, which were flagged by the US government in 2009 as prominent financiers for Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.
As a result of such pressure, “the militants have issued an internal order telling followers to look for funds from internal sources,” said a counterterrorism official to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper last year. This has led to the Taliban resorting to bank robberies, extortion and kidnappings. In October, 2011, four Taliban militants stole USD138,000 from a Pakistani bank although were intercepted by the police, and in Karachi, the Taliban were suspected in three out of four bank robberies last year that netted USD2.3 million.
Extortion is another common method. “Goods transported around Afghanistan are taxed and tolled by the Taliban, from trucks to even those on mules paying a little tax,” said Jhaveri.
Narcotics are a further source of funds for the Taliban and other groups, with the United Nations estimating that about 10% of opium profits within Afghanistan's USD4 billion-a-year poppy industry go to the insurgents. What is troubling is that opium cultivation rose by 7% last year on 2010, and yields were up 61% to 5,800 tonnes compared to 3,600 tonnes in 2010, according to the 2011 Afghan Opium Survey, by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). As the US State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) 2011 on Afghanistan notes, “the illicit narcotics trade, corruption and contract fraud are major sources of laundered funds.”
With less than 5% of Afghanis using the formal banking system, cash is the most common means of funding the Taliban and other groups.
“I believe funds are working their way through the cash system rather than any official remittance system or banking system. When crossing borders it gets trickier as involves wire transfers and so on, and it is difficult to transport cash on airlines now, especially large amounts. But if it is done physically across borders, over the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, no one can intercept that,” said Jhaveri.
The outlook for curbing money laundering and terror finance in Afghanistan is not promising given weak governance and low confidence in the security forces. A report by Human Rights Watch found that “one in seven Afghan soldiers, a total of 24,000, deserted in the first six months of 2011, twice as many as in 2010,” while a UN Development Programme (UNDP) survey released in January found that only “two in 10 Afghans think the Afghan National Police is ready to take over all policing responsibilities from international forces.”Of further concern in the immediate future were the findings of a leaked NATO report that surfaced in February, ‘The State of the Taliban’, which was based on 27,000 interrogations of more than 4,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees. The report implies that the Taliban are a lot stronger than NATO had previously made out. “Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact,” the report said. “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”