Kidnapping: Why Al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms

Yesterday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute provided me another opportunity to post on their blog Geopoliticus.  For this post, I did an extended discussion and update to a series of posts I did with Alex Thurston several years back regarding AQIM’s use of kidnapping in the Sahel.  For the old discussions of AQIM & others’ kidnapping operations see these posts and Alex’s excellent insights at these posts –  #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

In this new post, entitled “Why al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms,” I discuss the trade offs and disadvantages for al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM that are dependent on illicit funding schemes, namely kidnapping, to sustain their operations.  I conclude with the opinion that al Qaeda needs donations more than ransoms if they intend to orchestrate a comeback.  Here’s an excerpt of the post below and for the entire post, visit this link at FPRI.

“On the surface, kidnapping and smuggling appears an ideal financial engine for terror groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates. This assertion, however, ignores the inherent challenges encountered when any organization, whether terrorist group to criminal enterprise, undertakes illicit funding schemes.  Kidnapping and ransom operations introduce significant transaction costs which significantly devalue the gross sum of revenues.  Kidnapping operations create a series of internal costs for terror groups:

  • Networks Of Intermediaries -  Negotiations and payments for kidnapping operations require layers of middlemen with each network extracting a percentage of the overall take.

  • Transaction Time - The time between hostage taking and ransom payments can be significant requiring the terror group to maintain a solid reserve of capital to sustain its operations between transactions.  Essentially, time is money, and in the case of kidnapping operations, a cost to the terror group.

  • Hostage Deaths - The trauma of kidnapping and the harsh environments in which terrorist groups operate often result in the death of hostages.  The death of a hostage hurts the terror group directly in terms of loss revenues. But, even more damage occurs indirectly as the hostage death erodes trust for future ransom negotiations.

  • Infighting - In any business, transactions often lead to conflict.  This is particularly true in illicit industries where trust is constantly being questioned.  Kidnapping negotiations naturally generate friction between intermediaries and when negotiations become protracted parties may turn to open conflict.

  • Declines in Hostage Availability - As groups like AQIM continue to kidnap hostages, the availability of hostages naturally declines requiring the terror group to operate at longer distances to acquire captives.  This distance imposes significant logistical costs.

  • Undermines Terror Group’s Ideology - Inevitably, in illicit schemes and even licit enterprises, business gets messy and the terror group must make choices with regards to sustaining its resource flow.  Often times, these choices result in alienation of a terror group’s local base of popular support or hypocritical conflicts of interest between the terror group’s deeds and its words.  The recent accusations of Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who has fallen out of favor with al Shabaab, demonstrate how al Shabaab’s turning a blind eye to Qat distribution in Somalia for the purpose of taxation has called into question the group’s committment to al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia law.

  • Opportunity Costs - When al Qaeda is dedicating more time, manpower and resources to illicit fund generation, they are spending less time recruiting and training new operatives, planning operations and executing attacks.”

Also, @el_Grillo1 made a point which I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Another detractor of illicit revenue generation for al Qaeda groups is the scrutiny brought on terrorists by law enforcement and the military when they conduct illegal activities like kidnapping and drug smuggling. An important point that I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Here is a quick chart I put together showing the relative value of illicit funds to donor provided dollars.

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AQIM Fractures: New Leaders & New Money in the Sahel

For several weeks there has been rumbling of  al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fragmenting in the Sahel.  This morning, All Africa reports:

Former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka “Laaouar”) quit the group to assemble his own band of suicide bombers in northern Mali. …The Algerian terrorist (real name Khaled Abou El Abass) reportedly left AQIM after his demotion as head of the El Moulethemine katibat (“Brigade of the Veiled Ones”)

It appears Belmokhtar wants to create his own terrorist group, which I imagine will compete with AQIM for recruits, turf, weapons and money.

The new terrorist group “is headquartered in the Malian city of Gao, which is under the control of Islamists from the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of AQIM”….Through the creation of the new group, Belmokhtar wants “to help to consolidate Sharia rule in northern Mali, where armed Islamists are enforcing Islamic law very strictly after having driven the Malian army out in the spring,” the French daily added… Belmokhtar will finance his activities “including the purchase of weapons” by “specialising in the kidnapping of Westerners, whom he usually frees in return for large ransoms”.

So why would Mokhtar, a long-time leader of AQIM, break from the group that according to ‘Western analysts’ is becoming so strong?  Much of the recent counterterrorism analysis I have read suggests that ransoms from kidnappings, foreign fighters moving to the Sahel, weapons from Libya’s collapse has all led to unity and strength in AQIM.  But is that the case, the All Africa article suggests something different.

“One of the reasons for this dissent is the disagreement between these leaders over how to share the ransoms paid for the release of Western hostages,” said Abdalahi Ould Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Chouhoud….”As the organisation has grown and incorporated fighters of different origins, conflicts of interests have become increasingly frequent,” he added….Journalist Hamid Fekhart argued that “Droukdel’s decision was motivated by the unruliness of his junior, who is thought to have been gunning for him over the past few months. Security sources say that the supreme leader, who tried in vain to bring Mokhtar Belmokhtar to heel, simply decided to relieve him of his duties as part of a bid to reorganise AQIM.”…Fekhart noted that his successor, thirty-six year old Abou El Hammam, was reportedly “behind the kidnapping of an Italian-Burkina Faso couple in the Sahel in December 2010″.

Well, it looks like more money and fighters has led to more conflict than unity in AQIM.  Analysis suggesting more of any one terror group input (Weapons, money, fighters, etc) will lead directly to a stronger collective whole (AQIM) naively ignores the one thing that is most difficult to quantify and analyze: Human nature.

Concurrent to recent discussions of the rise of Shabaab (February-ish 2012), AQAP in Yemen (May-ish 2012) and then AQIM (Summer-ish 2012) has been the notion that al Qaeda’s ideology continues unabated, stronger than ever, and remains a binding tie that overides petty disputes within the terror group over leadership and resources.  GARBAGE! Ideology and money go hand-in-hand for al Qaeda.  Money without ideology turns AQ affiliates into little more than organized criminal groups.  Ideology without money, over time, renders al Qaeda nothing more than a poorly resourced cult drowned out by better financed Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organizations.  As Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, what separated Bin Laden and al Qaeda from other militant groups was that:

“Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”

In June, I argued that the al Qaeda of 9/11/2001 really does not exist today.  One of the reasons I pushed this theory arises from the new state of acquisition and allocation of resources amongst al Qaeda affiliates.  Across al Qaeda’s global footprint, decentralization has led to there being more incentive for affiliates to compete than cooperate.  With Bin Laden’s death, donors spread their funds more diffusely and local affiliate illicit revenue schemes must increase. Ultimately, this change leads to al Qaeda affiliates with waning allegiance to al Qaeda Central.  As I noted in July,

As money transfers shift, influence, authority and strategic direction will drift.

For counterterrorists, Belmokhtar’s defection will hopefully prove to be instructive.  How do we replicate the conditions that led to Belmokhtar’s creation of a competing terror group?  In some cases, infrequent but well calculated drone strikes on key AQ leaders, I believe, can be very effective.  However, I think in the end it might be subtle, indirect actions that help exploit these factors.  What if the French or Germans were to only pay kidnapping ransoms to one leader of AQIM as opposed to another?  Could we use the unfortunate action of having to pay ransoms as a method/opportunity for creating dissension in the ranks of a loosely formed al Qaeda coalition?  Maybe.

Briton Kidnapping Update: Kenya, Shabab & Pirates

Earlier this month, one Briton was kidnapped and another murdered by what appears to be either Somali pirates or Shabaab members.  The debate still seems to be up in there.

Kenyan authorities are seeking the arrest of Famau Kahale- a Kenyan fugitive that’s been on the run for more than seven years.  The Daily Nation article noted that Kahale:

“defected to the other side of Somalia in 2006 and joined the former Somalia Islamic Courts and later al Shabaab. He is now a ring leader of a small group of pirates,”

It appears local Kenyan resort staff helped kidnappers abduct Judith Tebbutt.  These kidnappers are believed to have sold her to pirates based in Kismayo, Somalia.  It remains unclear whether these pirates are connected to al Shabab. British authorities appear to be negotiating for her ransom.

This chain of events continues to be troubling.  Somali pirates up until this event had largely targeted ships in the open sea.  I wonder if the increased protection of merchant ships and changes in their routes have led the pirates to seek other forms of revenue further from home- resulting in this recent kidnapping across the border in Kenya.  The kidnapping will have a serious effect on Kenyan tourism; one of the few economic engines for Kenya’s coast.  Additionally, if the pirates ultimately have connections with Shabab, this would suggest that Shabab likely controls the most resources in the region and can sufficiently pay for hostages and then negotiate a higher ransom.  The kidnapping supply chain issue is one Alex Thurston and I discussed many months ago with regard to the Sahel.

Please let me know if you find any credible updates on this issue.

British Tourist Kidnapping in Kenya: Shabab or Criminals?

One British tourist was reportedly killed and another British tourist kidnapped on Kiwayu Island, Lamu District, Kenya this past Sunday.  The details still appear unclear and hostage and kidnapping teams are trying to make contact with whomever is holding the hostage.  Some accounts suggest it was al Shabab that kidnapped the woman while others say it was merely a criminal gang.  In either case, the assumption appears to be the hostage was taken into Somalia.

So many questions immediately come to mind:

  • Was this Shabab?  If so, I think this would indicate they are hurting for resources or believe they need to aggressively demonstrate their capability with an attack on Westerners.
  • Was this a criminal gang?  If so, is this reflective of increased counter-piracy efforts limiting other illicit options for criminal gangs?  Or is this a side effect of the famine increasing insecurity and lawlessness south of Somalia’s border into coastal Kenya?
  • Was this a criminal gang that captured a Western tourist knowing that Shabab would pay for one?  I have no idea if this is the case, but this is also not good as it would indicate that Shabab has more resources than everyone in the area- thus significant influence financially to spread their militant ideology.  This also reminds me of a debate months ago I had with Alex Thurston of Sahelblog.

Either way I’m very interested in this case study and will look to @ibnsiqili, @sahelblog and Dr. Menkhaus to fill me in on the details.

In the meantime, here is a quick map I put together which shows

  1. Lamu- The last sizable Kenyan town on the Kenyan coast before arriving in Somalia.  It was a key location for AQ movement during the ’90′s and Harun Fazul for two decades.
  2. Siyu- Island home of recently killed AQ operative Harun Fazul around 2002 and staging ground for attacks on the Paradise Hotel and the Mombasa airport.
  3. Ras Khamboni- A Shabab stronghold and base of militant activity going back more than a decade.
  4. Kiwayu Island- The location of this past weekend’s abduction.

New Twist in Somali Piracy

Somali pirates killed four captured Americans caught several hundred miles off the coast of Oman. Reasons for the Somali pirates killing the Americans appear uncertain at this point.  This will be an interesting case study in the coming weeks as more evidence surrounding the murders surfaces.  Reports note that more than 15 pirates occupied the boat with the four captives; well over capacity for the craft.  Initial reports suggest the pirates were possibly inexperienced, stressed from tight quarters, hungry, or all of the above.  U.S. Navy Seals arrived quickly after the shootings but couldn’t save any of the four Americans.  Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog and I have debated different approaches for dealing with kidnapping. I’ve got several initial thoughts reference this case and will be looking for more news reports on this topic in the coming days.

  • Why did the Somali pirates bungle this operation? In general, these pirates understand these operations and conduct them regularly.  So why did they resort to violence and squander negotiations for ransoms?
  • Were they killed because they were Americans? The Navy Seals had previously killed three of four captors of an American.  Did these pirates realize they made a mistake capturing Americans and tried to cut their losses?  Or was this retaliation?  I don’t believe it was either, but I’m curious.
  • Why didn’t the pirates take the prisoners to a mother ship? Usually, those detained are quickly moved up the kidnapping supply chain.  Did the U.S. Navy get there too quickly for the kidnappers?
  • How will this affect Somali piracy overall? I wonder if these killings will change international responses to Somali piracy and kidnapping.  Will countries be more or less aggressive?  I also wonder if Somali pirates will change their calculations in targeting foreign boats.  Or, will they police their own and use this as an example of what not to do?

Looking forward to more coverage of this story if Somali piracy stories can make it into the news cycle amidst all the uprisings.

More AQIM Kidnapping in the Sahel

A 56-year old Italian woman was kidnapped in Southern Algeria.  Andrew Lebovich provides a good overview of this most recent Sahel kidnapping.  Andrew notes that the initial kidnappers may have been cigarette or drug smugglers that then turned the hostage over to AQIM.  I noted in an earlier post that the kidnapping supply chain is one of opportunity more than strategy.  If you are European and float into the Sahel, then someone will likely try to kidnap you.  After that, the kidnap victim floats to the highest bidder, which appears to be the most capitalized organization; AQIM.  Whether the kidnappers are initially AQIM or smugglers, I don’t know and am not sure that it matters.

Alex Thurston posted a really excellent analysis on the options for dealing with kidnapping. He describes the pros and cons of five different options and ultimately settles on a hybrid of all of them.  Alex’s discussion is really good and I encourage all interested in the kidnapping debate to check it out.  Ultimately, I am still of the opinion that Westerners should be advised not to travel to the region under any circumstances and that no ransom should ever be paid.

I respect Alex’s points on development and extending military capacity in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.  However, the West has tried economic development and government capacity improvement in the Sahel for fifty years without success.  Military capacity strengthening can also turn into militia arming or warlord development.  With the U.S. engaged and trying to solve problems in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now North Africa, I don’t see how the U.S. could execute a large-scale coordinated effort in the Sahel.  If there is any progress to be made, I think the Europeans must lead as they know the terrain and its their people that are being kidnapped.

AQIM: Rescues vs. Ransoms at Sahelblog

I just saw this post by Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog and I’m looking forward to reading more on AQIM’s kidnappings.  He’s started recording kidnappings and has some good charts.  I’ll follow up more later but wanted to get this out so others can take a look.  I had addressed this topic quickly in a previous post, but Alex is applying much needed rigor and expertise to the topic.

Overall, I’m against ransoms entirely and almost always against rescues.  My BLUF is: if you want to travel to Timbuktu and study ancient texts, you’re on your own!  Good luck and don’t lose your head out there!  (I’ll expand more on this later.)

AQIM, Kidnapping, and French Interdiction in the Sahel

AQIM/Bandits/Evildoers kidnapped two Frenchmen from a Niamey (Niger) restaurant last week.  The French government, exhausted by AQIM’s repeated kidnappings, launched military forces to prevent the kidnappers from vanishing into AQIM’s safe haven.  Unfortunately, French engagement resulted in the captors executing the two hostages.  AQIM’s taking of French hostages has been relatively lucrative, but I’m more convinced everyday this tactic is evidence of AQIM’s weakness rather than strength.

Sometimes, AQIM outsources the kidnapping to loosely aligned clans harboring disagreements with Sahel central governments and their Western backers.  Affiliated tribes, either acting on AQIM desires or with a couple AQIM members embedded in the clan, roam Niger and Mali looking for easy Western targets.  When Western prey appear (AKA “Frenchmen in the Open”), clans snatch up the targets sweeping them quickly into the deepest realms of the desert.  AQIM exchanges cash with the clans for the hostages and then initiates ransom negotiations with Western governments via third party governments and illicit networks.  These negotiations persist for months until both AQIM and the Western government/MNC establish a fair exchange price.

In the beginning, AQIM’s kidnapping program occurred rather easily.  Western tourists and workers floated into interior Mali and Niger as part of a Timbuktu history expedition or multi-national corporation (MNC) mineral extraction project.  However, each kidnapping resulted in increased security from Sahel central governments and the West as well as fewer prey floating into the desert.  To sustain the kidnappings and subsequent revenues, AQIM must then move further from the desert into more urban areas (Niamey) to secure more Western hostages.  AQIM’s long lines of logistics result in greater operational risk, more intermediaries between kidnapping and safe haven, and greater costs due to distance and graft.  Ultimately, French forces have more time to deploy and intercept the kidnappers.  Unfortunately, the French couldn’t stop this one but kudos to the French for trying.  For AQIM, kidnapping operations, in my opinion, weaken their capability and credibility as a terrorist organization for several reasons.

1. Kidnapping revenues are imprecise and unpredictable-
While the bounty for hostages remains high, AQIM kidnappers likely don’t know when or how much they will receive for their hostages.  The longer hostage negotiations persist; the lower the profit to AQIM.  Other illicit activities, like drug smuggling, likely provide more predictable, long-run revenue without bringing as much Western counteraction.

2. Kidnapping weakens AQIM’s ideological credentials-
AQIM states publicly the Western hostages will be killed in the name of global jihad.  However, everyone knows Westerners are chosen for their monetary more than symbolic value.  Each ransom paid lowers AQIM’s credibility as a terrorist group and raises its profile as a criminal syndicate.

3. Hostages are needy-
Unlike other illicit activities, hostages require lots of care; especially in the Sahel.  Sahara traveling with Western hostages is no picnic. I recommend Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King for an 1815 historical account of shipwrecked American sailors being drug through the Sahara by Moor caravans.  Western hostages are physically weak, eat up resources, and often times die in captivity.  Unlike Colombia where captors tuck hostages in fixed locations with supporting infrastructure (they do move them around a little but its not a desert), the Sahel requires AQIM to constantly be moving and resupplying over extended distances in austere conditions.  Hostages equal higher logistical costs, larger operational constraints, and constant distraction.

What really comes of these AQIM revenues?
Repeated AQIM kidnappings and ransoms have resulted in no apparent increase in AQIM capability.  I’ve heard many warnings of expanded AQIM action resulting from European ransom payments.  Instead, AQIM seems more motivated by money than ideology; more criminal than terrorist.  Maybe, millions of dollars still can’t buy AQIM much if they’re confined to the Sahara.