Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
Scams. The new face of terrorism can best be seen in western Europe. "Crime is now the main source of cash for Islamic radicals in Europe," says attorney Lorenzo Vidino, author of the new book Al Qaeda in Europe. "They do not need to get money wired from abroad like 10 years ago. They're generating their own as criminal gangs." European police and intelligence officials agree: The Continent's most worrisome cells, composed largely of immigrants from Morocco and Algeria, have in effect become racketeering syndicates. Their scams are as varied as the criminal world: Drugs, smuggling, and fraud are mainstays, but others include car theft, selling pirated CD s, and counterfeiting money. One enterprising pair of jihadists in Germany hoped to fund a suicide mission to Iraq by taking out nearly $1 million in life insurance and staging the death of one in a faked traffic accident. Some cells are loosely bound and based on petty crime; others, like the group behind the Madrid bombings, suggest a whole new level of sophistication.
The terrorists behind the Madrid attacks were major drug dealers, with a network stretching from Morocco through Spain to Belgium and the Netherlands. Their ringleader, Jamal "El Chino" Ahmidan, was the brother of one of Morocco's top hashish traffickers. Ahmidan and his followers paid for their explosives by trading hashish and cash with a former miner. When police raided the home of one plotter, they seized 125,800 ecstasy tablets--one of the largest hauls in Spanish history. In all, authorities recovered nearly $2 million in drugs and cash from the group. In contrast, the Madrid bombings, which killed 191 people, cost only about $50,000.
Similar reports of drug-dealing jihadists are coming out of France and Italy. In Milan, Islamists peddle heroin on the streets at $20 a hit and then hand off 80 percent of the take to their cell leader, according to Italy's L'Espresso magazine. The relationship, surprisingly, is not new. As early as 1993, says Vidino, French authorities warned that dope sales in suburban Muslim slums had fallen under the control of gangs led by Afghan war veterans with ties to Algerian terrorists. What is new is the scale of this toxic mix of jihad and dope. Moroccan terrorists used drug sales to fund not only the 2004 Madrid attack but the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, killing 45, and attempted bombings of U.S. and British ships in Gibraltar in 2002. So large looms the North African connection that investigators believe jihadists have penetrated as much as a third of the $12.5 billion Moroccan hashish trade--the world's largest--a development worrisome not only for its big money but for its extensive smuggling routes through Europe.
Along with drug trafficking, fraud of every sort is a growth industry for European jihadists. Popular scams include fake credit cards, cellphone cloning, and identity theft--low-level frauds that are lucrative but seldom attract the concerted attention of authorities. Some operatives are more ambitious, however. Officials point to the case of Hassan Baouchi, a 23-year-old ATM technician in France. Baouchi told police last year that he'd been held hostage by robbers who forced him to empty six ATMs of their cash--about $1.3 million. Investigators didn't quite buy Baouchi's story and soon put him under arrest; the money, they believe, has ended up with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group--the al Qaeda affiliate tied to the bombings in Casablanca and Madrid.