Al-Qaeda’s Code

Intelligence services across the world are busy analyzing the latest speeches of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Ayman al-Zawahri, the three leaders of the jihadist movement, released almost simultaneously at the end of April. Their hope and objective is to break al-Qaeda’s code and access valuable information about future attacks. Encrypted in those messages is also the "profit-sharing map" of those who have been bankrolling al-Qaedism, the new anti-imperialist ideology. Al-Qaedism is the deadly phoenix born from the ashes of al-Qaeda – the transnational armed organization that was destroyed when the Taliban regime fell – a terrorist mutant nurtured by the war in Iraq. Jihadist investors who support al-Qaedism range from rich Saudis, who funnel a river of cash toward Iraq, to the friends of the July 7 bombers, who pledged their modest savings to fund the London suicide mission. The diversification of jihadist investors is a direct consequence of the constant reshaping of jihadist finances, undoubtedly the most dynamic aspect of al-Qaedism.

The absence in the three speeches of any reference to financial matters is music to jihadist investors’ ears. Hidden inside al-Qaeda’s financial code are praises for the sponsors and reassurance about the abundance of funds – i.e., money is no longer a problem. Thus, the restructuring of al-Qaeda’s finances after the fall of the Taliban regime has been successful. But was this reorganization the result of a pro-active policy or was it the inevitable consequence of Western policy mistakes? A quick look at how jihadist terrorist finances have evolved since 9/11 confirms the movement’s remarkable ability to adapt to Western legislation and to capitalize on errors in policy. Thus, the inevitable conclusion is that the dynamism is not endemic but rather springs from our failure to understand and properly address the jihadist challenge.

Until 9/11, al-Qaeda was a small transnational organization, hardly known outside its small group of sympathizers. It was funded by a complex network of investments and sponsors whose primary aim was to bankroll training camps in Afghanistan where Muslim warriors were forged for eventual deployment wherever needed: Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo, etc. After 9/11, the world had a chance to trace this network as well as to destroy al-Qaeda’s leadership. The 19 hijackers had left a long money trail – bank accounts, credit cards, and money transfers – and purchased U.S. entry visas. Names of people suspected of involvement with bin Laden’s finances were quickly put forward, yet no proper investigation was conducted. As early as November 2001, for example, U.S. authorities had the list of shareholders of al-Tawqa, a bank inserted in the terror lists in October 2001, yet not one of them was investigated or even interviewed. From September 2001 to February 2002, the West had a window of opportunity to hunt al-Qaeda’s financiers and capture bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan, but the opportunity was not exploited. Instead, Bush’s war on terror focused on Iraq. Although Saddam Hussein had not participated in 9/11 and was not part of al-Qaeda, his removal from office became a priority.

The war in Iraq offered the dissolved al-Qaeda the opportunity to transform itself into al-Qaedism, a global anti-Western ideological umbrella under which the radicalization of European and Middle Eastern groups took place. Images of the Iraq invasion’s fiasco traveled across the world, fueling deep sentiments of solidarity and shared humiliation among Muslims. The presence of European troops in Iraq gave birth to an anti-European sentiment among radical Muslims, many of them born in Europe. This is a novel sentiment. Up to 9/11, Osama bin Laden had clearly stated that al-Qaeda’s fight was against the U.S., perceived as the faraway enemy that backed the near enemy, the corrupt, oligarchic Muslim rulers. Because of Iraq, money which until 2003 had gone to fund distant jihadist fights in Bosnia, Kashmir, Sudan, and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, were diverted to sustain a new breed of jihadist in Europe and the Middle East. It was not al-Qaeda but self-funded, homegrown groups that carried out the Madrid and London bombings, as well as the Casablanca and the Sinai terrorist attacks.

Against this new backdrop, Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Ayman al-Zawahri became icons, beacons of al-Qaedism, semi-supernatural figures who inspire the jihadists via al-Qaeda’s code. While al-Qaeda’s traditional sponsors established new channels, all inside the booming Islamic economic system, to fund Zarqawi and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, in Europe the network of sponsors underwent a profound restructuring. Cross-border transactions were replaced by cash couriers (people carrying suitcases full of money to faraway countries). Underground mosques, some as small as prayer rooms in universities, indoctrinated and radicalized young European Muslims, teaching them how to raise money among friends to fund suicide missions inside their country of birth and residence. Thus, spontaneous groups of friends, as was the case with the July 7 bombers, united to stage attacks.

Within this scenario, Osama bin Laden does not need to plan, plot, and fund another 9/11; all he needs to do is issue a call to implement a thousand replicas of such an attack. What changes is the scale of the suicide missions – much smaller than the American template, due to financial constraints. A quick look at the cost of jihadist terror attacks from 9/11 to the London bombing shows the declining expenditures on such operations. The execution of the U.S. attacks cost half a million dollars, the Madrid bombing $10,000, and the July 7 suicide missions less than $1,500.

Counter-terrorist measures, some of which have greatly reduced the liberties of European citizens, and legislation implemented in recent years may have foiled several attacks in their early stages, but they have failed to destroy al-Qaedism, as proven by the three speeches released at the end of April. Above all, they have not pacified Europe and the Muslim world. The next attack is lurking in this twilight zone where the elusive jihadist network lives and breeds its offspring; it is only a matter of time until the next bloodbath.

The solution rests on the analysis of our mistakes and in the root causes of al-Qaedism. Time is short, but there IS still time. The majority of Muslims, in Europe and elsewhere, are moderates; they are equally victims of al-Qaedism, and they are as ignorant as we are about al-Qaeda’s code. Yet daily some of them – the less integrated, the weak, the dreamers – are lured into radicalization by preachers, recruiters, even friends who unveil the messages contained in the secret code. It is this process that needs to be stopped. Tough anti-terrorist legislation, such as the abolition of habeas corpus in the UK, is ineffective in preventing these phenomena, as demonstrated by the London bombings, because what we face is not an integrated terrorist organization, as was the IRA or ETA, nor a terror multinational, as was the pre-9/11 transnational al-Qaeda, but rather a loosely connected, often virtual, network of people who do not even know each other. This network is inspired by a handful of elusive icons who talk to their followers via a secret code. The July 7 suicide bombers could not have been infiltrated as was the IRA; their funding could not have been tracked down; but their radicalization could and should have been prevented.

Thus, the way out has to come from the acceptance of past mistakes, i.e., the invasion of Iraq and the failure to bring to justice al-Qaeda’s leadership. Ending policies that fuel the jihadist movement should be our first priority; this in turn will help silence bin Laden, Zarqawi, and Zawahri. Second, we should seek cooperation with Muslim moderates. More than enlarging the powers of intelligence and police, Europe needs to back policies of integration with Muslims, to join forces with the parents, the brothers and sisters, the wives and husbands, the children of this generation of suicide bombers; they, together with us, are the future victims of al-Qaedism.

The West does not need to break al-Qaeda’s code; it is sufficient to make sure that nobody understands it.