Wonk Read: Ransoming Citizens, Europe Becomes Qaeda’s Patron

by ptinti


From dirt roads to ivory towers, semi-regular reviews of academic papers, reports, articles, and manuscripts that come across my desk about the people, places, and topics I cover on Beacon and elsewhere.

Rukmini Callimachi* has just published a must read report for the New York Times on the inner workings of ransoms paid by European governments to Al Qaeda in exchange for hostages. “Put more bluntly,” Callimachi writes, “Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda.”

That European governments have been handing millions of dollars in cash, often literally, to Al Qaeda-linked groups since 2003 will come as news to few who follow kidnapping in the Sahara and Sahel. In fact, Mauritanian activist Nasser Weddady made a similar argument in the New York Times opinion pages in February 2013 (see: “How Europe Bankrolls Terror“).

But Callimachi’s reporting on the specific amounts paid by governments, interlocutors, third-party go-betweens, and state-owned companies is the most vivid and comprehensive to date. The report also stands out for its description of how kidnapping for ransom by groups linked to Al Qaeda began as a highly improvised endeavor and matured into a sophisticated gambit replete with advanced planning, logistics networks, best-practices, and divisions of labor.

On this front, I’d like to make a few points.

For the sake of argument and clarity, it makes sense to highlight where ransom money starts and ends. It is absolutely fair and accurate to report that the bulk of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s funding comes from ransom payments and that these payments are by and large paid out by European governments.

But we can also assess the impact of ransom payments in the Sahel through the lens of organized crime and political economies.  That is, ransom payments in the Sahel are particularly problematic not only because they transfer funds to terrorist organizations, but because these vast sums are injected into a criminal economy that is intertwined with political and security arrangements throughout the region.

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