With France in the lead at $58 million, European governments including Switzerland, Spain, and Austria have financed al-Qaida and its affiliates by paying ransom in exchange for hostages, The New York Times
The terrorists have generated at least $125 million from kidnappings since 2008 – $66 million in 2013 alone, the newspaper said.
The payments are sometimes laundered as humanitarian aid to Africa, as Germany has done through the offices of the president of Mali. Sometimes Qatar or Oman serve as intermediaries, the Times reported.
Al-Qaida's terror network is no longer financed primarily by wealthy Gulf Arabs, as The Guardian
reported in 2010. Instead, the Islamist terror group self-finances from payoffs for captured Europeans. "Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of al-Qaida," the Times reported.
In early years, Sunni Islamists would take hostages, such Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, to behead them. More recently, the groups have refined their hostage-taking, and few hostages are executed. They are worth much more alive.
The U.S. Treasury Department confirmed to the Times that the chief source of al-Qaida financing is ransom payments.
The United States and Britain do not generally ransom their hostages, according to the newspaper. Of 53 hostages taken by al-Qaida, only three were American.
"It's obvious that al-Qaida is targeting them by nationality," Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, told the Times. "Hostages are an investment, and you are not going to invest unless you are pretty sure of a payout."
Most Europeans who have fallen into al-Qaida's hands were trekking through Muslim Africa and the Middle East attending music festivals or camping in places such as Algeria, Mali, Niger, Syria, and Yemen.
With negotiations sometimes handled out of al-Qaida's central command in Pakistan, the ransom beneficiaries include al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa, Yemen, and Somalia. Osama bin Laden was known to have personally monitored negotiations over individual kidnappings, the Times said.
Actual hostage taking is often outsourced to local criminal gangs, the Times reported. Al-Qaida has a protocol for managing kidnappings. It calls for psychological warfare, alternating long periods of silence about the fate of the hostages with showing them on video begging their governments to ransom them.
"Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil," wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, an al-Qaida chief in Yemen, "which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure," the Times reported.
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