An affiliate of al-Qaeda that has executed several attacks across Africa — and is considered the organization's wealthiest branch — is sitting on millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains that help fund its deadly activities across the region, a new report said.
According to a new analysis by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has reaped about $100 million through a combination of ransom, drug smuggling, taxes on locals and donations from other countries.
Abductions of foreigners — with ransoms paid by Western countries — are AQIM's most lucrative source of funding, the center noted, with illegal drug trade becoming increasingly important.
A 2014 United Nations estimate pegged AQIM's yearly budget at $15 million, the FDD noted, with the group's funding derived predominantly from activities such as ransom, smuggling, cigarettes and trading in contraband.
Most of those proceeds are in cash and are moved under the radar, in ways that make it easy to avoid traditional monitoring and regulatory mechanisms.
"AQIM's first major kidnappings came in 2003, before it joined al-Qaeda, when it abducted 32 Western tourists," according to Yaya Fanusie and Alex Entz, the report's authors. By 2012, AQIM vaulted to the top of al-Qaeda's table of richest branches solely by "vast sums it obtained through ransoms," Fanusie and Entz noted.
"For the next ten years, ransoms yielded roughly $100 million, becoming the predominant source of funding that allowed the group to spread its influence" across the Sahel region of western and north-central Africa, the study added. From 2008-2013, AQIM netted $91.5 million from just seven abduction payments from governments — including those of Austria, Spain and Switzerland — and a state-run French company, FDD noted.
"The U.S., in collaboration with European partners, should support better governance by Sahelian countries and encourage wealthy nations to stop paying ransoms. Degrading AQIM's financing starts with a strict enforcement of a ransoms ban," Fanusie and Entz wrote.