Not so long ago Al Qaeda received its funding from rich donors.

Nowadays it operates comfortably thanks to a handful of European governments and companies eager to pay ransom money for the release of their citizens or employees who have been kidnapped.

In July 2014, The New York Times carried an excellent article, ‘Paying Ransom, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror’.

Who pays?

The US and the UK still refuse to pay kidnapping ransoms. Some might find this cruel, but it is in order not to aid and abet criminal or terrorist organisations.

However, not every country sees it that way, particularly in continental Europe. The NYT tells us (emphases mine):

While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.

The US Treasury came up with an even higher amount — $165 million — over the same time period.

Ransom money is funneled to terrorists via proxies or is allocated as part of a foreign aid budget. Corporations can also buy kidnapping and ransom insurance for employees at risk. The insurance company pays out in such an event.

The reporter who wrote the article — Rukmini Callimachi — was on assignment for the Associated Press in Mali in 2013. Callimachi was given access to thousands of pages of Al Qaeda documents which detailed their kidnapping processes.

The article carries two charts of countries affected by kidnapping. We discover that between 2008 and 2013:

– A French company paid the highest amount of ransom over a four-year period: $40.4 million.

– Another French company paid $17.7 million between 2010 and 2011.

– Qatar and Oman paid $20.4 million between 2012 and 2013 for the release of two Finns, one Austrian and one Swiss national.

– Switzerland paid $12.4 million in 2009 to secure the release of two of their citizens and one German.

– Spain paid $11 million between 2009 and 2013.

– Austria paid $3.2 million in 2008.

There were also undisclosed sources of ransom money, which totalled $21.4 million.

Callimachi reported that certain governments have denied payment:

The foreign ministries of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland denied in emails or telephone interviews that they had paid the terrorists. “The French authorities have repeatedly stated that France does not pay ransoms,” said Vincent Floreani, deputy director of communication for France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On the other hand:

Several senior diplomats involved in past negotiations have described the decision to pay ransom for their countries’ citizens as an agonizing calculation: Accede to the terrorists’ demand, or allow innocent people to be killed, often in a gruesome, public way?

Money brings results

Another chart reveals the numbers of hostages released once ransom money has been delivered. That said, four French people and one German died. At the time the NYT article appeared, the American and British victims were still being held captive, with one death and one escape.

Experts believe that Al Qaeda could be developing a strategy to kidnap citizens only from countries who will pay for their release. Therefore, it is possible that fewer British and American citizens will be held hostage in future.

In any event, the loosely-organised terrorist organisation is raking it in:

– $91.5 million in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa).

– $5.1 million in the Shabab.

– $29.9 million in the Arabian Peninsula.

The leader in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, wrote:

Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.

Thus it has been throughout history, particularly in that part of the world.

He added:

Thanks to Allah, most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid from through the spoils. Almost half the spoils came from hostages.


How payment proceeds

Amazingly, the article tells us, in the early days of Al Qaeda kidnaps, ransom money was bundled into a suitcase and dropped off in the relevant capital city.

Nowadays, it is much more complicated. A anonymous government official told Callimachi how things are done.

European governments send an escort/negotiator and a driver with the money across several hundred miles of desert to one of two capitals: Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso or Niamey in Niger.

Nearly another full day of driving lies ahead afterward until the team reaches the first contact point. There, they receive a set of GPS co-ordinates which they follow to an intermediate destination several hours away. A second set of co-ordinates is then sent, followed by more hours of driving. At least three sets of co-ordinates are given altogether.

At the final destination, armed Al Qaeda operatives sit on a blanket and count the money. They then divide it into parcels to be buried. They record the GPS co-ordinates of these sites for easy access later.

However, in Yemen — where a Frenchwoman working there since 2013 was kidnapped the other day — Oman and Qatar act as intermediaries to deliver any ransom money.

Tourist guides are not enough

Many of us are amazed at the naïveté of tourists, particularly my fellow Europeans, who insist on travelling to dangerous countries for notional relaxation.

They think that having a trusted native guide is enough. Then they find that they’re in big trouble. The guide cannot protect them. His life is also in danger.

The article has interviews with a few well-meaning Europeans who were kidnapped.

Perhaps governments need to make it clear on their travel alerts that the risk of kidnapping and death is very high. Furthermore, stating that ransoms will not be paid might go a long way off to stem the tide.

Travel agents and tour companies should also call a halt to such hiking and climbing holidays.