Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
Another big racket for European jihadists is human smuggling. "North Africa and western Europe are somewhat like Mexico and the United States," says a U.S. counterterrorism agent. "But now imagine if Mexico were Muslim and jihadist cells were the ones moving aliens across the border." Jihadists do not dominate Europe's lucrative human smuggling trade, but they are surely profiting by it. Authorities in Italy suspect that one gang of suspected militants made over 30 landings on an island off Sicily, and that it moved thousands of people across the Mediterranean at some $4,000 a head. Particularly active is the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, an Algerian al Qaeda affiliate known by its French acronym, GSPC. Two years ago, German authorities dismantled another group moving Kurds into Europe, tied to al Qaeda ally Ansar al-Islam, a fixture of the Iraq insurgency. A recent Italian intelligence report notes that jihadists' work in human smuggling has brought them into contact with domestic and foreign criminal organizations. One partner in the trade, sources say, is the Neapolitan Camorra, the notorious Naples-based version of the Mafia, which operates safe houses for illegal aliens. Italian court records show contact between Mafia arms dealers and radical Islamists as early as 1998.
Prison recruits. The prime training ground for Europe's jihadist criminals may well be prison. There are no hard numbers, but as much as half of France's prison population is now believed to be Muslim. In Spanish jails, where Islamic radicals have recruited for a decade, the number has reached some 10 percent. Ahmidan, leader of the Madrid bombing cell, is thought to have been radicalized while serving time in Spain and Morocco. Prison was also the recruiting center for many of the 40-plus suspects nabbed by Spanish authorities last year for plotting a sequel to the Madrid bombings--an attack with a half ton of explosives on Spain's national criminal court. Nearly half the group had rap sheets with charges ranging from drug trafficking to forgery and fraud.
_ Al Qaeda's leadership, however, has proved more wary about jumping into the drug trade. Holed up in the forbidding mountain refuges of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Osama bin Laden and his remaining lieutenants have steered clear of the largest horde of criminal wealth in years: the exploding Afghan heroin trade. Press reports of bin Laden's involvement in the drug trade are flat wrong, say counterterrorism officials. Long ago, al Qaeda strategists reasoned that drug trafficking would expose them to possible detection, captives have told U.S. interrogators. They also don't trust many of the big drug barons, intelligence officials say, and have encouraged their members not to get involved with them.
Bin Laden continues to come up with funds raised from sympathetic mosques and other supporters, but the money no longer flows so easily. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have banned unregulated fundraising at mosques, and western spy agencies now watch closely how the money flows from big Islamic charities. One result: Cash-strapped jihadists in the badlands of the border region are staging kidnappings-for-ransom and highway robberies, Pakistani officials tell U.S. News . "Those people are now feeling the pinch," says Javed Cheema, head of the Interior Ministry's National Crisis Management Cell. "We see a fertile symbiosis of terrorist organizations and crime groups." Some jihadists have joined in wholesale pillaging of Afghanistan's heritage by smuggling antiquities out of the country--a trade nearly as lucrative as narcotics. Among the items being sold clandestinely on the world market: centuries-old Buddhist art and other works from the pre-Islamic world. Apparently, al Qaeda's interest is not new; before 9/11, hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta approached a German art professor about peddling Afghan antiquities, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office revealed this year. Atta's reason, reports Der Spiegel magazine: "to finance the purchase of an airplane."