Kidnapping-for-ransom is considered by many experts as an “alternative source of terrorism financing.” But the recent abduction of five French nationals in Niger by the Al Qaeda’s Islamic Maghreb terrorist group (AQIM) highlights a worrisome regional trend that emerged in 2003, when AQIM first launched a major hostage taking campaign targeting foreign tourists.
Since then, AQIM has developed a growing criminal industry that sustains itself through huge ransoms they extort and drug trafficking.
It is estimated that the kidnap-for-ransom business in the Sahel region alone, put at least $65 million in the coffers of AQIM since 2005. More than 90% of the group’s funding derives from this single financial source. The rest comes from drug trafficking and donations.
The kidnapping business is so good, that hostage taking in the Sahel region had risen 150% between 2008 and 2009. The average ransom for the release of a Western hostage is $6.5 million.
Since 2008, AQIM raised more than $25 million from ransom for foreign nationals in the Sahel region. This makes AQIM richer than “Al Qaeda Central”, whose annual income was recently estimated by U.S. officials to be between $5 million to $10 million.
The Algerian President’s advisor for Counter-terrorism, Mohamed Kamel Rezag Bara, corroborated these estimates during a recent UN presentation.
This new terror business not only provides the group with the ability to acquire sophisticated weapons, logistics and recruiting tools in a way that raises a major international security concern, it also fundamentally questions our ability to fight terrorism financing if hostage-countries agree to pay ransoms to terrorist groups or to meet their combined requests for the release of terrorist detainees in exchange for the release of hostages.
Until now, the international community has only provided a limited response to this growing and pressing challenge to its legal framework.
In December 2009, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1904 (2009) confirming that the ban on funds, financial assets and economic resources fully applies to the payment of ransoms to individuals, groups, undertaking or entities on the sanctions list. But, while the payment of ransoms now falls under the general prohibition of terrorism financing, no specific measure or prohibition has been implemented since then to deter that practice. Furthermore, existing international conventions such as the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages of 1979 and the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism Financing of 2002 do not address the issue of kidnap-for-ransom.
The question becomes crucial for the future of the international fight against terrorism financing. In July 2009, the African Union called for the criminalization of the payment of ransoms, while many countries who officially ban this practice, continue to indirectly provide ransoms to terrorist groups through thirds-countries or subcontractors of these groups.
(Originally posted on Sept 27, 2010)
On September 27, during a U.N. Security Council meeting on terrorism, the British Foreign Secretary expressed concern about the "growing trend in kidnapping for ransom", stressing the need to "act to prevent kidnapping ransoms from becoming a significant source of terrorist finance", echoing a speech delivered on September 7 by Algerian President’s advisor for Counter-terrorism during the 2010 review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. His speech can be found here.