Terrorist Financing in the Post-9/11 Era: Trends and Challenges

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The nature of the terrorist threat is that it will continue to evolve and develop ways to finance and otherwise resource itself. Since 9/11, as a result of efforts to detect, disrupt, and dissuade donors from contributing to terrorist organizations, as well as improved oversight of charitable organizations that are often used as cover to move funds, terrorist organizations increasingly sought more diverse sources of funding. 

The proliferation of un- and under-governed spaces also made it easier for groups to raise funds locally through extortion and taxation, as well as kidnapping for ransom and other criminal activity. Al-Qaeda With the beginning of the conflict in Syria, there was a resurgence of traditional means of funding, especially from the Gulf. 

Fundraisers and facilitators in the Gulf have long supported AQ core as well as its affiliates in Iraq and, more recently, Syria, including by facilitating the movement of people and funds from Southeast Asia to the Levant. For example, U.S.- and UN-designated Qatari Ibrahim al-Bakr served as a link between Gulf-based AQ financiers and Afghanistan. Kuwaiti Muhsin al-Fadhli was sanctioned in 2005 for financing aspects of the Iraqi insurgency, including “the Zarqawi Network” and al-Qaeda. In 2012, as part of a Justice Department “Rewards for Justice” announcement, U.S. officials detailed Fadhli’s role as AQ’s senior facilitator in Iran, leading a network that the State Department described as “a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”

While most AQ affiliates have diversified their fundraising methods away from foreign sources, al-Qaeda in Syria has been the major exception. As of 2014, AQ in Syria may have received as much as a few million dollars a year from private donors in the Gulf. According to a 2016 UN Security Council report, the group has persisted in deriving its income “mainly from external donations,” along with criminal references of funding such as abduction for ransom, extortion, and war spoils. Some fundraising went on in plain sight on online platforms such as social media. Hajjaj al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti who was sanctioned by the UN in 2014, used Twitter to solicit donations for AQ in Syria.

Ajmi and others, such as Qatari resident Saad bin Saad al-Kaabi, who published solicitations on Facebook and WhatsApp accounts for “arming, providing, and treating” fighters in Syria, openly crowd-sourced donations for AQ and other jihadist groups in Syria. Fundraisers have also used social media to thank and confirm to donors the delivery of funds and material support to jihadist groups. 

In a video uploaded to YouTube in October 2016, U.S.-designated AQ in Syria financier and Saudi national Abd Allah alMuhaysini thanked Gulf donors for funding jihadists in Syria: “As for the businessmen, and I will mention some of them, the ones who prepared these hundred rockets, may Allah reward them. One hundred Elephant rockets…some from a group of brothers in Islam from al-Riyadh, some from our brother Abu Ahmed from Kuwait, some from our brother Abu al-Joud from Qatar, and some from some brothers I have not mentioned…I tell all the businessmen of the Muslims, this is your money now, fighting in the path of Allah.”

According to the U.S. Treasury, between 2013 and 2015, Muhaysini raised millions of dollars for AQ in Syria, claiming that he had secured $5 million in donations to arm fighters.71 As the conflict in Syria has continued, however, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front (ANF), has become increasingly entrenched in Syria’s Idlib Province, participating in governance, controlling territory, and taking or sharing resources with other extremist groups present there. 

According to the UN monitoring team’s most recent report, published in February 2018, ANF appears to be “largely self-sufficient.” That ANF no longer relies on foreign sources does not necessarily mean that the group no longer receives such support. However, it does likely mean that even if we can disrupt financing from foreign sources, such as those in the Gulf, that alone will not bankrupt the group. What is needed is a multi-faceted approach. Disrupting foreign donations to terrorist groups alone will not solve the problem.

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