The financial state of Al Qaeda and the Taliban

By Michael Jacobson

Counterterrorism Blog

As my colleague Matt Levitt wrote, the Washington Institute recently hosted David Cohen, the Treasury assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, as part of itsĀ lecture series with senior counterterrorism officials.

Over the past year, al-Qaeda’s chief in Afghanistan has been regularly and publicly pleading for monetary support. Although the organization’s apparent dire financial straits are an encouraging development, U.S. efforts to combat terrorism financing remain limited by factors such as technology that permits money to flow instantaneously around the globe, and terrorist groups that continually adapt how they raise and move funds. What more can the United States, its allies, and the international community do to further crack down on the funding of terrorism? Is international cooperation in this area improving or on the decline? These are some of the important questions that Assistant Secretary Cohen addressed during his recent talk.

Here is an excerpt from the rapporteur’s summary.

Al-Qaeda is in its worst financial state in years. This can be traced, at least in part, to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1267, which established the Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee. Now more than a decade old, the 1267 designation process has been quite effective in disrupting terrorist activity. Traditional sources of funding for al-Qaeda, such as donors and charities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, have been increasingly obstructed. The Saudis have proven especially effective in this regard; the United States also has a cooperative relationship with the United Arab Emirates on the issue. Kuwait and Qatar are substantially less committed, however, and Washington is working hard to alter this worrisome situation.

Recently, both Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, and Sheikh Said al-Masri, its commander in Afghanistan, have made public pleas for monetary support — a clear sign of the group’s financial woes. In response, various al-Qaeda affiliates have resorted to other means of fundraising, such as extortion, kidnapping, and the drug trade. Accordingly, efforts are being made to combat both traditional and nontraditional sources of funding, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Treasury Department helped establish and now serves as the co-lead for the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, where authorities from the Defense Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies collaborate against Taliban financing. Nevertheless, the Taliban remains well funded by the massive Afghan drug trade and generous Gulf donors.

Despite positive developments, then, the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban financiers is far from over. Al-Qaeda is looking for money and can still count on a large pool of willing donors. The group also remains capable of planning attacks, as seen in the thwarted 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway system, which was tied directly to the al-Qaeda core. U.S. and international efforts have limited al-Qaeda’s ability to plan, communicate, and recruit, but the group is certainly not out of business.

Click here for the entire rapporteur’s summary.

Click here for Mr. Cohen’s prepared remarks and the audio from the event.