Al-Qaeda’s Hostage Business

February 3, 2015
Julie S.  —  CEP Research Analyst

Al-Qaeda cells and affiliated groups are increasingly reliant on the money they collect through kidnap-and-ransom operations. Although each group develops its own financial strategy, hostage-taking is a consistent and major source of income for AQ cells everywhere. Since 2008, al-Qaeda is believed to have accrued at least $150 million through ransoms. Following are brief summaries on how collecting ransom fits into the broader financial structure of various AQ groups. For a more in-depth analysis of the groups and their finances, please see our individual website reports.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Of all al-Qaeda cells, AQIM has raked in the largest percentage of its money from ransoms, amassing upwards of $90 million to date. Kidnapping-and-ransom operations have become a characteristic of the North African al-Qaeda cell. AQIM has even published an online manual on the process for other jihadist groups. While hostage-and-ransom operations are AQIM’s primary source of funding, other fundraising operations supplement it. According to a report by the Australian government, these other fundraising operations include: “robbery, people and arms trafficking, money laundering and smuggling and increasingly, the facilitation of drug trafficking from South America into Europe,” as well as limited financial backing from AQIM supporters abroad.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): A New York Times article from July 2014 puts AQAP’s total yield from hostage-taking at almost $30 million. According to the U.S. State Department, kidnap-and-ransom operations are AQAP’s primary source of funding alongside robberies and other types of thefts. In a 2012 letter to Algerian allies, AQAP founder Nasir al-Wuhayshi wrote that “[m]ost of the battle costs, if not all, were paid for through the spoils. Almost half the spoils [for a year-long operation in Yemen] came from hostages.”

The Nusra Front: In September 2014, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate reportedly raked in $25 million in exchange for the release of 45 United Nations peacekeepers. Up until this point, the Nusra Front seems to have relied on a monthly stipend from ISIS and private donations to fund its operations. Since the 2014 split and ensuing rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS, however, it is unlikely that ISIS has continued its monetary generosity. It is also unclear as to what role hostage-taking plays in the Nusra Front’s broader financial strategy. The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate has thus far managed to garner a significant amount of financial support from wealthy Gulf-based donors.

Al-Shabab: As of July 2014, al-Qaeda’s Somalian affiliate has extorted more than  $5 million through kidnappings. Although significant, al-Shabab’s kidnapping-and-ransom operations do not serve as the group’s primary source of income. Instead, al-Shabab seems to derive most of its funding from an illicit charcoal trade, which accounts for an estimated $35-50 million annually.

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On October 27, 2018, domestic terrorist Robert D. Bowers carried out an anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He fired on congregants as they gathered for worship, killing 11 people and wounding six others.

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