Pressured by increased scrutiny of terrorist money sources and strikes aimed at its financiers, al-Qaida's core organization in Pakistan has turned to kidnapping for ransom to offset dwindling cash reserves, according to U.S. officials and information in files retrieved from Osama bin Laden's compound.
Bin Laden's interest in kidnapping as a cash-raiser bolsters accounts that the financial squeeze has staggered al-Qaida, forcing it to search for alternative funding sources. Officials would not detail al-Qaida's role in specific crimes, but the group's affiliates have targeted diplomats, tourists and merchants.
His awareness of al-Qaida's growing use of kidnapping is evidence that even in isolation behind high walls in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden kept tabs on how his network moved its money. The al-Qaida founder was killed last month by U.S. Navy SEALs.
"There are clearly times for them when money is tight," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "We've seen that their donors have been less dependable, and we're seeing them turning more to kidnapping as a way of keeping the money coming in."
Experts from the CIA's National Counterterrorism Center, the Treasury Department and the FBI and military are trying to learn more from the recovered files about al-Qaida's money sources and the impact of bin Laden's death on the group's financial future. They hope to identify important al-Qaida donors, especially wealthy Persian Gulf figures who dealt with bin Laden dating to his work with Afghan fighters in the campaign against Soviet occupiers in the late 1980s.
The Treasury Department's acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, said U.S. efforts are focused on disrupting al-Qaida's cash flow from donors, fundraisers and facilitators. "Al-Qaida's supporters ought to be wondering if their identities have been revealed," Cohen said.
Analysts are examining lists of numbers found in bin Laden's files, hoping to find bank accounts, credit cards or ledgers depicting the financial underpinnings of a network known to demand strict accounting from its operatives.
Al-Qaida's leadership inside Pakistan rarely championed kidnappings publicly and was not known previously to widely support its use as a funding source. The group historically relied on donations through a pipeline of couriers and money-changing operations. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the network took in as much as $30 million annually, but that money flow has tightened, Ruppersberger said.
CIA drone attacks, combined with economic penalties by the U.S. and its allies, have cut into that stream. As a result, attitudes about ransom operations inside the core group changed.
"That kind of money could go a long way to sustaining a terrorist organization," said Scott Helfstein, director of research at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center.
A U.S. official familiar with the review of bin Laden's files cautioned that the kidnapping-for-ransom material found in the seized files was outweighed by bin Laden's more copious notes on terrorist plots and long-range planning.
The official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the continuing review of classified files, would not elaborate on bin Laden's interest in kidnapping or the precise role al-Qaida's core played in any operations.
The official said the material is consistent with other evidence showing that al-Qaida had turned to abductions within the past two years as money from donors dried up, and that the group resorted to "basic criminal tactics" to compensate.