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.
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.
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 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, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.