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.
The report, "Terror Finance Assessment of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb," underscores the resiliency of al-Qaeda's global movement. While perceived as being on the defensive in places such as Libya and Iraq, it is still able to execute terror attacks with deadly efficiency — and has the financial means to do so.
Africa has become a hotbed of global terror, with 16 different African countries hit by terrorism between January and September 2016, resulting in more than 8,000 deaths, according to data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor.
Since 2015, AQIM has claimed responsibility for attacks in places including Mali, Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire, and this year it merged with several local groups to extend its reach in the region. As a means to curtail AQIM's wealth and diminish the group's impact, the FDD study suggested that Western entities should refuse to pay ransoms, among other steps.
The United States should avoid taking on AQIM and its terror network directly, the report said, given that "France has already taken a leadership role in the region."
It added that "in the long run, AQIM must be denied sanctuary through the development of states that can stem the tide of the region's Salafi jihadist movement, which includes other groups like the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, the IS affiliate whose leadership defected from al-Qaeda," the FDD report stated.
"This requires that the nations whose territory jihadists [operate in] become more formidable in governing their vast swaths of land and securing their borders," it added.