July 17, 2011


Inside Al Qaeda’s hard drives: A stash of data yields up insights about the business of terrorism (Renny McPherson, July 17, 2011, Boston Globe)

From 2007 to 2010, our team scoured a set of captured financial and organizational documents covering the years 2005 and 2006, and centering on Anbar Province, where Al Qaeda in Iraq was most powerful at that time. What we found there put to rest conflicting theories about Al Qaeda in Iraq’s funding and membership, and revealed it to be a highly systemized, bureaucratic organization. In particular, we learned a remarkable amount about Al Qaeda in Iraq’s franchise status, its flow of money, and its organizational structure.

When we began our work, we already knew something about the group’s history. Al Qaeda in Iraq was formed in late 2004, after the start of the Iraq War, when the Jordanian terrorist abu Musab al-Zarqawi rebranded his organization under the Al Qaeda banner. His group, Jamaat al-Tawhid al Jihad, had existed since the 1990s, with the initial stated goal of toppling the Jordanian kingdom. But its agenda expanded over time to include discrediting the Iraqi interim government, driving US and coalition forces out of Iraq, and helping to build a broader extremist caliphate.

In other words, the group shared a number of Al Qaeda’s goals, but the name itself was a strategic addition by a lesser-known organization. Al Qaeda in Iraq was not established in a top-down manner by a mastermind flush with millions in capital, the way a company would open an office in a new city. It was more like a local restaurant taking the name of a multinational franchise operation, but with autonomy to adapt the menu to local tastes. The new affiliation coupled Zarqawi’s ruthless vision and ability to rally people to his cause with the Al Qaeda brand name and well-organized franchise structure. After 2004, the group soared in power and popularity.

Yet there was little top-down strategy from Al Qaeda central, and dialogue between the groups was minimal. The documents we examined made it clear that there was no start-up capital from the parent company, just permission to use its name.

And, contrary to speculation that Al Qaeda in Iraq was reliant on international donations, this wasn’t a source of funding either. The group was self-financing. In fact, the core organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar province was so profitable that it sent revenue to associates in other provinces of Iraq, and perhaps even further afield. The group raised millions of dollars annually through activities such as simple theft and resale of valuable items such as cars, generators, and electrical cable, and hijacking truckloads of goods, such as clothing. And their internal financial record-keeping was diligent, with all the requirements of expense accounts in regular businesses. A central unit of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s hierarchy required operatives to keep records of even the smallest outlay and to turn over their “take” to upper-level leaders, who made the spending decisions.

These carefully monitored expenses occurred in the context of what was literally a workforce. While people tend to think of Al Qaeda as simply a band of fighters, in reality there was a large organization needed to facilitate attacks and create support within the local community - all of which required money. As such, Al Qaeda in Iraq maintained an expanding payroll of members, imprisoned members, families of members, and dead members’ families, with ever fewer fighters and revenue producers. On the hook to provide for many local Iraqis, it had to resort to increasingly unpopular methods for generating revenue.

Beyond these daily expenditures, Al Qaeda in Iraq had big-ticket expenses. Launching attacks was one recurring overhead cost. An attack involved salaries for operatives, safe houses, transportation, weapons, and a crude form of life insurance for the wounded or for families of those killed. (By contrast, most civilian households in Anbar lacked any form of insurance.) Given these pressures, cash flowed fast in and out of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s central command in Anbar. About every two weeks, Al Qaeda doled out funds to pay not only for attacks, but also for housing, medical, and bureaucratic needs.

In terms of its membership, the group was a religious-political organization; its members were Sunnis, like Saddam Hussein.

Imagine how little would be left of the Mafia in Italy if it were a Jewish gang.

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Posted by at July 17, 2011 5:21 AM

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