Islamist militants are turning to common crime — from dealing drugs to selling knockoff shampoos and pirated compact discs — to pay for attacks because they no longer can move funds easily through world banks, security officials say.
As terrorist cells become more self-reliant, they are calling into question the notion that they need an international financial-support network to stage attacks, said the independent commission that investigated the September 11, 2001, attacks.
U.S. Treasury officials, who have driven the campaign to stem terrorist funding, acknowledge the shift and say it is a symptom of their success.
“Treasury’s efforts have made it harder and costlier for terrorist groups like al Qaeda to move and raise money,” said Molly Millerwise, a department spokeswoman.
“However, as we strengthen our defenses against financial crimes and better safeguard the financial sector, al Qaeda and like-minded groups will resort to other means — such as petty crime, drug trafficking and commodities fraud — to raise and move money.”
U.S. officials think that the September 11 attackers were funded by al Qaeda, either through wire transfers or cash distributions. They spent between $400,000 and $500,000 over two years to plan and execute the attacks, the September 11 commission said.
Since then, U.S. officials have identified 383 persons and organizations thought to have supported terrorist activities, leading to the freezing of about $141 million linked to al Qaeda and other groups worldwide.
In response, terrorist cells have learned to rely on community solicitations, tapping local charities, conducting small-business operations and often engaging in petty crime, said a report submitted to the U.N. Security Council at the end of 2002.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been linked to the heroin trade in Afghanistan, credit-card fraud in Europe and gem smuggling out of Africa — although the September 11 commission maintains that there is no conclusive evidence to support suspicions that the terror network had laundered millions of dollars through diamonds before staging the U.S. attacks.
Al Qaeda and others also have tapped into the lucrative trade in counterfeit goods, ranging from knockoff handbags to pirated music CDs, according to Interpol, the organization that coordinates information among law-enforcement agencies in 181 countries.
Last year, Danish customs intercepted a container filled with counterfeit shampoos, creams, colognes and perfume purportedly sent from United Arab Emirates by a member of al Qaeda.
Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble sounded the alarm at the first Global Congress on Combating Counterfeiting, held in May in Belgium. He said pirated goods are an attractive source of revenue for terrorists because it is a low-risk, high-profit crime that is not a priority for most governments and police forces.
Spanish investigators think Islamist militants accused in the March 11 train bombings in Madrid were involved in drug dealing.
They are said to have traded 70 pounds of hashish and a relatively small amount of money — perhaps a few thousand dollars — for 440 pounds of stolen dynamite from a former miner in the northern Asturias region.