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Analysis by Rajeh Said in London
When documents found at Osama bin Laden's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, indicated that he was considering changing al-Qaeda's name, a lot of discussion ensued about the reasons he was considering the move.
One discussed reason was that al-Qaeda became a tarnished brand that is associated with bloody murder, indiscriminate bombings, extremism, and intellectual hyperbole that the organisation's critics say causes it to label opponents as infidels or apostates too easily.
But another possible reason that few mentioned is the shift in al-Qaeda's tactics in many countries to operations that resemble activities normally associated with organised crime, notably kidnapping for ransom.
Bin Laden was certainly not unaware of such activities despite his reported isolation in Abbottabad and distance from direct management of the activities of the organisation's branches. Documents confiscated from his house after his death on May 2nd revealed that bin Laden maintained contact with some branches and participated in planning new operations.
Al-Qaeda was not known for kidnapping wealthy individuals for ransom money in the past to fund its activities. The organisation seemed able to obtain the funds it needed through donations from supporters in the Gulf region or through charities that apportioned part of what they collected, legally or illegally, to al-Qaeda.
This changed after 2003 when al-Qaeda splintered into branches that are largely decentralized even though they essentially remain under bin Laden's General Command in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kidnapping seems to be an integral part of al-Qaeda's policy among branches in North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) and Iraq (The Islamic State of Iraq, ISI, which is considered a local al-Qaeda front group).
Apparently those two branches resort to kidnapping as a means of financing their activities, despite recent indications that such a policy is causing a public backlash and damages al-Qaeda's "reputation" among the populace that the organisation is attempting to recruit to its side.
AQIM first to kidnap for ransom
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was the first to turn "professional" in hostage taking as the practice generated huge financial returns. Elements of the organisation in the coastal desert (Algeria's far south, Mauritania, Mali and Niger) kidnapped tourists and Westerners for ransom or in exchange for other demands that include the release of imprisoned organisation members or political demands such as the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Algerian and western officials say al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb collected millions of dollars in ransom for Western hostages.
But it's one thing to kidnap foreigners - non-Muslims – out of public sight in a remote desert and another thing to kidnap local citizens - Muslims - in populated areas, which is exactly what the Maghreb branch of al-Qaeda began doing a few month ago, particularly in its strongholds in northern Algeria. Several popular demonstrations were reported in the tribal areas east of Algiers to protest the kidnapping of local businessmen and wealthy individuals for ransom which were similar to kidnappings of westerners in the African Sahel.
The demonstrations, in which hundreds of citizens participated, were a response to the increasing frequency of kidnappings, which are attributed to the al-Qaeda branch, particularly since they are occurring in areas considered to be strongholds of its armed men, such as the provinces of Boumerdes and Tizi Ouzou. It is believed that the General Command of al-Qaeda, headed by Abdel Malik Droukdel (Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud), set up headquarters in those areas.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq turns to kidnapping
The situation In Iraq seems to be much worse than in Algeria. Hardly a week goes by without al-Qaeda kidnapping local citizens through its front group The Islamic State of Iraq.
The most recent kidnapping operation in Kirkuk that was attributed to al-Qaeda was one of the biggest kidnapping operations for the organisation to date. According to Iraqi police, terrorists kidnapped a paediatrician, Safi Harzan, from his clinic in Kirkuk and released him three weeks later after receiving a $500,000 ransom.
Over the past few weeks, several incidents were reported in Kirkuk including the kidnapping of three physicians and a physician's son, all of whom were released when ransom was paid, according to a report by Al-Furat TV. The report indicated that more than 45 kidnappings, targeting mostly affluent families, occurred this year with ransoms totaling at least $1.1 million.
Iraqi authorities are increasing their efforts to combat kidnapping operations, the latest being the arrest of the so-called "general overseer of civilian kidnap cells associated with al Qaeda" in west Baquba (Diyala province).
It will not be easy for Iraqi authorities or Algerian authorities to eliminate these lucrative operations entirely. However, the fact that al-Qaeda's branches are resorting to kidnapping indicates beyond any doubt that the organisation is suffering a shortage of funds from its "legitimate" sources of income, which in the past were from wealthy supporters in the Gulf.
The decline in financial contributions could be attributed to one of two factors. Either local government efforts to fight terrorism have succeeded in stopping the flow of funds to al-Qaeda or many of the organisation's supporters declined to contribute funding on their own after reaching the same conclusion bin Laden did prior to his death, which is that al-Qaeda is a "tarnished" brand as result of its own practices or the practices of its branches that many consider to be contrary to the teachings of Islam.
Whether the lack of funds is caused by government action or supporters halting donations on their own, both conditions bode poorly for al-Qaeda and its new leadership, led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda's new leader will be expected to clarify his stance in the near future on kidnapping policies in the organisation's branches. If he expresses support for such practices, he could risk further loss of public support that associates such actions with criminal organizations. If he rejects kidnapping policies, he risks the prospect of a tighter financial squeeze than the one al-Qaeda is already experiencing. Both options are bitter.