Financial Impact on AQ post Bin Laden

During January’s first run of the AQ after Bin Laden poll, I selected “AQ loses its chief sponsor, the Haqqani network” as the chief consequence of UBL’s death.  I calculated and still believe that the loss of Haqqani network support will result in AQ losing its Pakistani safe haven.  I predicated my assumption on the belief that the Haqqani’s will not support a Zawahiri-led AQ. (Another follow up poll I ran) But, many disagreed with my interpretation and it appears unclear who will ultimately become AQ’s leader.  (In my January 15, 2011 analysis, I used causal flow diagramming to pick the Haqqani support decision as my chief consequence and to initiate the Zawahiri discussion, see here for my initial calculation.)

Since January, I’ve changed my choice on the “Chief consequence of UBL’s death” question to account for recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.  My selection in the May iteration of the Post UBL Poll is “AQ fundraising decreases”.  Surprisingly, I agree with the ‘Private Sector’ respondents to this question.  The media’s portrayal of AQ terrorism as an inexpensive undertaking are greatly exaggerated.  “Jihad doesn’t run on free”. While individual attacks, like AQAP’s “Printer Cartridge” plot, may only cost a few thousand dollars in supplies, annual AQ operational costs require millions of dollars.  For AQ Central hiding in Pakistan, there are significant expenses in paying group members and supporting their families (see AQ’s employment contract), arming and outfitting terrorists, securing communications and safe havens and then conducting operations.

Here’s my logic for why I think a ‘decrease in AQ fundraising’ will be the chief consequence:

  • AQ’s financial support arrives in three forms: donor support from the Gulf, illicit revenue from criminal enterprises, and sometimes earnings from legal businesses.
  • UBL’s ability to secure donor revenue, more than any other reason, allowed him to initiate, propel and sustain AQ.  Many other terrorist leaders have professed an extremist ideology and planned attacks on the U.S.  However, no other terrorist brought in resources like UBL.
  • AQ Central led by UBL relied heavily on donor support from the Gulf to sustain a Pakistani safe haven.  While a common ideology helped bind AQ and certain tribes, money was critical to cementing a comprehensive alliance with the Taliban.  Without Gulf donations being passed on to Taliban protectors, I believe the ideological bounds between AQ and the Taliban will erode.
  • Donor support is infinitely better for terrorist groups than illicit financing.  Illicit financing is time consuming; requiring terrorist groups to divide their efforts between securing resources and terror plot planning/recruiting/training.  Additionally, the bartering and bickering involved with illicit financing usually results in ideological compromises that undermine AQ’s foundation.  (AQIM is a good example.)  Lastly, pursuit of illicit funding streams weakens AQ’s operational security creating vulnerabilities more easily exploited by Western CT efforts.
  • Securing future donor support for AQ Central will require a capable AQ leader with roots in the Arabian peninsula.  I’m uncertain Zawahiri and the North African AQ members will receive equal donor commitment.  Thus, AQ Central in Pakistan will either 1) move to a more junior Saudi/Yemeni leader that can secure Gulf donor support, 2) fracture into an AQ affiliate led by a Pakistani/Afghan leader more able to secure resources via Taliban groups & illicit financing (this will likely lead to AQ Central shifting focus to guerrilla warfare in South & Central Asia) or 3) remain in the hands of AQ’s old guard (Zawahiri) and eventually be starved into irrelevance.
  • In the future, Gulf donors supporting Islamist/Salafist causes will have to decide where best to invest their money.
  1. Continue supporting AQ Central in Pakistan-  Donors must wonder if AQ Central is worth the investment. With UBL dead, the Pakistani government under pressure to produce, and AQ on the run, what can a donation ultimately achieve?
  2. Shift their donation to AQAP in Yemen- AQAP has steadily increased its recruitment, capability and attacks on the West.  Led by Saudis and Yemenis, embedded in a Yemeni safe haven and close to the Gulf, why would a donor continue supporting an AQ Central on the decline rather than an AQAP on the rise?
  3. Move their donations to Islamist groups competing for political power amongst current uprisings- One of AQ’s long time ideological goals was the overthrow of apostate regimes (near enemy).  AQ never achieved this, but many other Islamist groups currently compete for national power in the wake of Middle Eastern and North African uprisings.  Why donate to an AQ affiliate on the run, when a dollar donated to an Islamist group might result in an Arab regime more in line with Islamist principles?

I’ll post the results of the Post UBL Poll question on donor support in a couple of days.  In the meantime, what are some other dynamics to AQ donor support that I have overlooked?

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