Author: Dr. Paul Burke


1       Background/Context/Locations

2       Strategy and Tactics

3       Organisational Structure

4       Recruitment

5       Financing

1         Background/Context/Locations

1.1       Ideological Roots

The roots of the al Qa’eda organisation lie in the Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan but the ideological roots precede this conflict. Much of the inspiration for the ideology of AQ is derived from the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Egyptian author and Islamic theorist, and Ibn Taymiyah, a 13th century Islamic scholar. The path of AQ’s Islamic theory can be traced backwards through a history that encompasses authors including, but not limited to, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, Abdullah Azzam, Sayyid Qutb, Sayyid Abul al Maududi, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and Ibn Taymiyah.

1.1.1     Ibn Taymiyah

It was Ibn Taymiyah in the 13th and 14th centuries who first wrote on several concepts subsequently adopted by AQ (and more latterly by the so-called Islamic State, or IS). He provided the taxonomic foundations for the distinctions of some theological categories that we now see in both AQ and IS ideologies. Taymiyah introduced the concept of dar al Islam, (literally “the house of Islam” but mostly translated as the domain of Islam), the region in which Muslim rule was present and in which shari’a law was imposed. His second category was dar al Kufr, (the “house” or “domain” of unbelievers), which comprises the areas that reject Islam. In current AQ and IS ideology, much of what is classed as “the West” is included in this category, with the non-Muslim inhabitants being classed as “kuffar”, or unbelievers. The third category was dar al Harb, (the “house” or “domain” of war), which covered those regions in which there was an ongoing (or even a future, potential) conflict between Muslim forces, or even Islam, and unbelievers.

Taymiyah wrote of the concept of takfir, or apostasy, which encompasses the idea that a Muslim who does not live his life according to Islamic rules, and obeys the Shari’a, can be considered as an apostate. Taymiyah’s second major fatwa, concerning the invading Mogol Ilkhanids, declared the invaders to be apostates, and called for their execution on the grounds of their perceived deviation from the true path of Islam.

His views on the inappropriateness of Muslims visiting the tombs of famous or devout Muslim scholars, leaders and prophets were extremely rigid and he considered such visits to be bidah (usually translated as “innovation”), nothing more than additions which came after the time of the Salaf, or the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. In Taymiyah’s view, Muslims should strive to emulate the behaviour of the Salaf, as they had the best and purest understanding of Islam. Taymiyah strongly favoured a return to the strict and literal translation of the Quran, especially its rules on how Muslims should live.

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1.1.2     Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab

Writing in the 18th Century, Abd al Wahhab was the main architect of a revival of the Islamic thinking of Ibn Taymiyah, especially Taymiyah’s preference for a more literal interpretation of Islamic rules in the Quran. Abd al Wahhab invoked strict Islamic rules and practices that would later be adopted by the Afghan Taleban, AQ and IS, such as prohibiting men from trimming their beards, banning holidays (including the Prophet’s birthday), destroying tombs and other religious sites of antiquity, and even providing his followers with permission to kill or rape anyone who refused to accept his absolute interpretation of Islam.

Unsurprisingly, Abd al Wahhab was eventually forced out of the Najd region of what is now Saudi Arabia, and after being given protection by the King Muhammed ibn Saud, the ruler of the first Saudi State, he achieved his greatest and most enduring contribution to Islamic theology. He formed a close collaboration with the Saudi King in around 1744, which led to the adoption of the policy that religion and governance of the State were indivisible, and that ibn Saud would rule in accordance with Abd al Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam. Henceforth, the Saudi state would have this “Wahhabi” version of Islam as a central core of its governance mechanisms.

The centrality of Abd al Wahhab’s thinking was more completely cemented into the Saudi governance model in 1931, when the Saudi King, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal al Saud (usually referred to as “Ibn Saud”) asked permission from the Saudi religious leadership, to wage war against the Ikhwan (or the Brothers). The Ikhwan were Ibn Saud’s Bedouin troops who he had previously used to spread Wahhabi Islam across the Arabian Peninsula, and to expand the territory under Saudi control. When the religious leaders gave Ibn Saud permission, Wright considers this to be the “defining political moment of modern Saudi Arabia…by awarding the King the sole power to declare jihad, the Wahhabi clerics reaffirmed their position as arbiters of power in a highly religious society”.

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1.1.3     Sayyid Qutub

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian author who contributed to the corpus of Islamic theology with works such as his 1964 book “Milestones”. A key member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he was initially on very friendly terms with Gamal Abdul Nasser who overthrew the Egyptian government in the 1952 coup d’état. His strict beliefs soon led to a divergence of political opinion with Nasser and he was arrested and imprisoned by Nasser’s government. In 1966, he was sentenced to death and was hanged by the Egyptian government.

Strongly predisposed to the dogma of Taymiyah, Qutb’s writings are similarly relevant to the core of AQ thinking, but coming from a more contemporary era than Taymiyah they have enjoyed particular prominence. Of especial importance is one of Qutb’s central points concerning the necessity for the establishing of an Islamic vanguard, which would ideally emulate the behaviour of the original associates of the Prophet Mohammed. This thinking was picked up on by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, in their founding philosophy which underpinned the creation of AQ as an organisation. Also of note was Qutb’s theoretical writings on the notion that Muslims worldwide were in a state of jahiliya (usually translated as “ignorance”, mostly referring to the time before the Prophet Muhammed), because they had not lived in accordance with sharia law. The natural progression from this thinking was Qutb’s assessment that it was permissible under shari’a law, to overthrow the government of his time, as he perceived the government and the country to be in a state of such jahiliya.

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1.1.4     Abdullah al Azzam

In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a move that immediately sparked an armed resistance against the occupation. The Afghan nationals who resisted the Soviet occupation were joined by mainly Arab nationals who wanted to take part in the resistance, seeing it as a jihad, or struggle, in defence of an attack upon Islam. They became known as the Afghan Arabs and they formed a key group within the wider mujahideen in the Afghan conflict. Thousands of young Muslim men travelled to Afghanistan, mainly via Pakistan, to undergo military training and to take part in the jihad.

The man who eventually became the leader of the Afghan Arab mujahideen was a Palestinian, Sheikh Abdullah al Azzam. A Palestinian, Azzam joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the late 1960s and took part in operations against the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) after the 1967 war, which saw Israeli soldiers occupy his home village in the West Bank.

In 1980, Azzam and Bin Laden established the “Office of Services for the Arab Mujahideen” (Maktab al Khidmat lil Mujahideen Al Arab ) in Pakistan in 1980, which was a recruiting, funding and training funnel for fighters from all over the world who wanted to take part in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden personally funded each fighter with a flight ticket, accommodation in a guesthouse and a stipend of around $300 per month.

While in Afghanistan, Azzam wrote of his vision for a vanguard of combat-experienced soldiers who would form “al qa’eda al sulbah”, (variously translated as the “solid base” and the “strong foundation”), that would continue the fight beyond the geographical confines of Afghanistan, once the Soviet troops were expelled. This fight would be the campaign to conquer all Muslim lands. While the Afghans were initially fighting for the freedom of their country, bin Laden had greater plans for the longer-term, aimed at freeing all Arab lands from Western influence (in particular, influence from the US), followed by the restoration of the Caliphate, and finally the war with the Kuffar, or unbelievers, which would finish with the Day of Judgement. In November 1989, Azzam was killed by an IED placed in a culvert, which was detonated as Azzam drove past the device.

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1.2       The Founding of Al Qa’eda

Placing a date on the first known use of the organisational name “al Qa’eda” is open to question, but we do know that the term was already being used by Azzam in 1987, prior to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Writing in “Al Jihad” magazine, he stated that: “every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward that is willing, while integrating into society, to undertake difficult tasks and make tremendous sacrifices….it is al qaeda al sulbuh that constitutes this vanguard for the hoped-for society”.

According to Migaux, the formal creation of Al Qa’eda (AQ) as a de facto organisation may have occurred on 11 August 1988 during a meeting between Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and Dr. Fadl (Sayyid Imam al-Sharif), in the Peshawar region of Pakistan, while Kohlmann places the date of formation some months earlier, in April 1988. Coll also supports the August date. Curiously, however, the name appears conspicuously absent from the famous, eleven-volume opus, “The Encyclopaedia of the Afghan Jihad”, which was written around 1993.

While AQ is often considered as a formal organisation when viewed through a traditional Western lens, it is interesting to note that bin Laden himself saw AQ more conceptually. In an interview in Kabul, just five weeks after the 9/11 attacks against the USA, bin Laden told the interviewer:

The situation is not as the West portrays it: that there exists an organisation with a specific name, such as “al Qaeda” and so on. That particular name is very old, and came about quite independently of me. Brother Abu Ubaida Al-Banjshiri created a military base to train the young men to fight against the Soviet empire, which truly vicious, arrogant, brutal and terrorized the faithful. So this place was called “the Base”, as in a training base, and the name grew from this”.

Fadl was the prime mover of the early ideological platform upon which AQ would be built, and he was already the leader of a powerful Islamist group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The EIJ was behind the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. It has not carried out active operations inside Egypt since 1993, but has been implicated in a number of actual and planned attacks externally, such as the attempted assassinations of Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedky, and his Interior Minister Hassan al Alfi in 1993, and also the bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan in 1995. Zawahiri would eventually assume control of EIJ and merge the organisation with Al Qa’eda in June 2001.

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The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan began in May 1988 and was completed in February 1989. Following the Soviet withdrawal, a variety of approaches were voiced by AQ leaders, about what should happen next. Some wanted to focus on fighting the “near enemy”, such as the secular Muslim regimes in the Middle East region. Others wanted to continue harrying the Soviets, by pressing on to the Central Asian Republics. Another approach was to continue the jihad in a more widespread manner, to encourage the spread of Islam across territorial gains. The death of Azzam did ultimately benefit Osama bin Laden directly, as he was able to assume the mantle of leadership in the faction that was pushing for a more global dimension of jihad.

2         Strategy and Tactics

The strategic aims of AQ were codified between 2001-03 by Zawahiri, whose writings from that time would eventually form a book “Knights under the Prophet’s banner”. The book was published in serialised format by the Saudi-owned, London-based, Arabic language newspaper, Al Sharq Al Awsat. Zawahiri laid out his grand strategy for AQ, beginning with the 9/11 attacks of 2001, and ending with the expected completion of the plan, around the year 2020. The following graphic shows these phases as determined by Zawahiri.


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The organisational and managerial approach from the post-9/11 AQ leadership was that of “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution – UBL decided on the targets, selected the leaders and provided at least some of the funding. After that, the planning of the op and the method of attack were left to the men who would have the responsibility for carrying it out”. Writing in the same article in which he employed the term “al qa’eda al sulbuh” (the solid base), Abdullah Azzam provided eight “moral guidelines” which members of this solid base should adhere to:

  1. One must unhesitatingly face the hardest challenges and the worst difficulties.
  2. Leaders must endure, along with their men, the blood and sweat of gruelling marches.
  3. The vanguard must abstain from base, worldly pleasures and its distinguishing characteristics must be abstinence and frugality.
  4. The vanguard must translate into reality the great dream of victory.
  5. Will and determination are necessary for the march ahead, however long it may be.
  6. Three things are essential to this march: meditation, patience and prayer.
  7. Two rules must be followed: loyalty and devotion.
  8. All anti-Islamic plots that are being hatched throughout the world must be foiled.

In writings on “the choice of targets and the importance of martyrdom operations”, AQ’s advice in 2003 to global jihadists fighting under the AQ banner, was to strive for maximum casualties and for the highest number of deaths in their attacks, as “this is the language understood by the West”. In terms of the rapid and global support which bin Laden was able to build after 9/11, Fouda makes the point that: “bin Laden became the hero of so many people, not because he attacked the United States, but simply because he spoke the minds of so many people. He dared to ask the right questions”.

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3         Organisational Structure

Organisational theory is arguably as important a factor in terrorism studies as it is in the commercial world, and the theory translates neatly across to AQ’s own organisational structure in the post-9/11 world. In 2010, a paper by Gunaratna provided the following organisation chart of the structural hierarchy of AQ:

Figure 1: Gunaratna’s assessment of AQ hierarchy and organisational structure in 2010.

Gunaratna considers the organisational structure an advantage due to its inherent ability to survive attrition. He makes the point that the AQ hierarchy was still able to re-form and to function, despite losing four chiefs of staff, four chiefs of the special (external) forces unit, and at least half a dozen of senior regional field commanders (Generals).

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Over time, however, AQ has morphed again, from a centrally controlled and hierarchical organisation to a looser conglomerate of global franchises which included the establishment of offshoot organisations in Iraq (2004), Algeria (2006), Yemen (2009), Somalia (2010-2012), Syria (2012) and the Indian sub-continent (2014). Mendelsohn argues that the franchising was embarked upon from a position of weakness, not strength, and was seen internally as more of a necessity than a choice.

3.1.1     Al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

In January 2009, AQ’s groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged to form Al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Anwar al Awlaki was extremely active within the group until he was killed in a US drone strike. AQAP attempted two particularly creative attacks in 2009.

3.1.2     Al Qa’eda in Iraq (AQI)

Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, formed an Islamist group called “Monotheism and Jihad” sometime in the late 1990s, with a primary aim of overthrowing the Jordanian monarchy. Having been arrested and jailed in Jordan, he was eventually released, whereupon he travelled to Afghanistan and established a terrorist training camp in Herat province in 1998. He fought with the Taleban against the US-led invasion in 2001 and managed to escape from Afghanistan, probably into Iran. At some point before the 2003 invasion, it is believed that Zarqawi eventually arrived in Iraq. Zarqawi created a fearsome reputation in Iraq, mainly due to his televised beheadings of hostages and his targeting of his own people to spark a war between the Shia and Sunna. Zarqawi was eventually killed by a US airstrike on a safe-house he was using near to Baqubah, in June 2006.

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3.1.3     Al Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

In January 2007, the creation of Al Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb was announced, following the move by Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) to place his group under the command of AQ. The GSPC itself originated from a previous group, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an extremely violent Islamist group primarily made up of Algerian returnees form the Afghan jihad who then took their war to the streets of Algeria. Over time, AQIM expanded its base of operations across the Maghreb and also across the Sahel, to include Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger.

3.1.4     Al Qa’eda Organisation in the Land of Yemen (later merged with AQAP)

The AQ presence in Yemen originally came from the formation of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA) formed sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. Although they did not achieve as much as other Islamist groups in the region, they provided a focus for Yemen as a location of opportunity for attacks and expansion. Key players like Abd al Rahman al Nashiri, from the Saudi AQ contingent, conducted operations in Yemen such as the suicide attack against the US Warship USS COLE in 2000. In 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of AQ merged into what would become AQAP and it was assessed by the US State Department as the most lethal and most capable offshoot of the AQ franchise.

3.1.5     Al Qa’eda in Somalia (Al Shabaab – merged with AQ in 2010-2012)

Al Shabaab (“the Youth” in Arabic) emerged from the security vacuum in Somalia as the armed wing of the organisation called “Islamic Courts Union”, around 1996-1997. The roots of al Shabaab came from the resistance to the leadership of Siad Barre and his military regime, which led to a civil war in 1991 during which Barre fled across the border to Kenya. This left a number of competing militias, out of which evolved the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Sometime in 2000, the collection of independent shari’a courts around the country coalesced into the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The TNG lasted for four years until an agreement between the key warlords resulted in Abdiqasim Salad Hassan assuming power in 2004. By 2006, Hassan’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the ICU were engaging in armed clashes.

By June 2006, the ICU had wrested control of the capital from the transitional government and also seized large tracts of the South of the country. It was also around this time that al Shabaab began their ascendancy. Beginning as a radical, Islamist splinter group from the Islamist group al Ittihad al Islamiya (Islamic Unity, or AIAI), al Shabaab wanted to spread a stricter version of Islam across Somalia and they became the armed wing of the ICU. They were a key actor in the fighting that led to the ICU seizing Mogadishu. Al Shabaab is assessed as having been desirous of expanding into a “truly regional organisation with membership and horizons that transcend national borders” since at least 2010. AS joined with AQ in 2010, but apparently the formal announcement of the merger did not occur until two years later. To date, al Shabaab has carried out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda and Tanzania. Its active strength has been assessed as being around 6,000-12,000 fighters as at March 2016.

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3.1.6     Al Qa’eda in Syria (Jabhat al Nusra)

Jabhat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, was created in 2012, originally as a sub-branch of AQ’s operation in Iraq. Once the sub-group pronounced itself the Islamic State, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Nusra group rejected this direction and confirmed their allegiance to Zawahiri and AQ instead. As early as 2013, AQ fighters and facilitators were travelling into and out of Syria, from Iraq, to provide support for the Nusra Front. This included the deployment of a specialist cell, the Khorasan group, who brought expertise and experience from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria and focused on recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, who would ostensibly have fewer problems in travelling on European and US airlines. The Khorasan group was specifically targeted by the US and they suffered heavy casualties as a result of a sustained campaign of US strikes against them. The Nusra Front has tried to build genuine support among Syrians in its areas of control, without resorting to the brutalities employed by IS to coerce populations to comply with the IS dogma but the Syrian civil war has led to much internecine fighting with all sides fighting a number of protagonists.

3.1.7     Al Qa’eda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS)

In early September 2014, Ayman al Zawahiri announced the creation of another AQ franchise – Al Qa’eda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Mendelsohn contends that the creation of this particular group was less about an actual expansion of operational capability for AQ, and more about it being a response to the change in the socio-political environment in which AQ found itself in 2014 – under pressure, in disarray and increasingly being perceived as an irrelevance. A large part of this environmental flux was down to the so-called Islamic State and their lightning-fast ascendancy in the global jihadist sphere.

Zawahiri had already been forced to denounce IS in January 2014, which made public a schism that was unfavourable for AQ’s image. AQ were largely absent from the populist uprisings in the Arab Spring, as the standard AQ position is that political change and the establishment of Islamic rule can only be effected by the “Islamic vanguard”. The Arab Spring revealed the flaw in this doctrine, as citizen protests toppled regimes across the Arab world and this contributed to the perception of AQ’s irrelevance. This image was cemented further by the speed at which IS rolled across large areas of Iraq and Syria, bringing major conurbations such as Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, under their de facto control.

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The rapid seizure of territory led to an even more significant event that pushed AQ further into the margins – the declaration of an Islamic State by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in June 2014. Not only was the announcement a surprise to AQ, but it also acted as a powerful magnet for recruitment among those for whom participation in the global jihad was a personal goal.

Zawahiri made the announcement flanked by Asim Umar, the new leader of AQIS, and Osama Mahmoud, the official spokesperson of the new AQ franchise, and he made the point that the establishment of AQIS demonstrated a “gradual consensus-building process”, a direct stab at IS’s more aggressive policy of forcing its belief system on others. Since the announcement of its inception, AQIS was aggressively targeted by the US, with five of their senior leadership being killed in US-led operations, in less than six months. The group has not been as active as other AQ franchises but it has carried out successful attacks

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4         Recruitment

Terrorist groups such as AQ have employed a sophisticated array of recruitment tools across a wide spectrum of potential environments in their efforts to draw new members into their ranks. Like any large organisation, AQ has had to focus on “recruiting, retaining, sustaining and expanding” its membership, especially at the levels of the “foot soldier” and the lower-level operational supporters.

The technological advances of the 21st Century have brought with them new opportunities for terrorist recruitment. At the time of writing, the use of social media, either in isolation or in combination with the support of internet sites, has proved to be an extremely effective recruitment tool in the jihadist arena. The internet provides several advantages for terrorist recruitment (also for the wider terrorist sphere of attack planning, communications, operational security, information dissemination and, of course, publicity).

A study of “home-grown jihadists”, including their interaction on social media platforms, identified 6 distinct manifestations of someone who has been radicalised:

  1. Adopting a Legalistic Interpretation of Islam
  2. Trusting Only Select Religious Authorities
  3. Perceived Schism Between Islam and the West
  4. Low Tolerance for Perceived Theological Deviance
  5. Attempts to Impose Religious Beliefs on Others
  6. Political Radicalization

A report based on a study of AQ recruitment methods confirms the importance of “cultural, social, and historical context” and takes the research further down this path, while emphasising that there is no single, overarching recruitment process used for a group such as AQ. Instead, the recruiting pitches are tweaked to incorporate regional and other contextual factors. Similarly, the authors also note that any recruitment strategy must also have an awareness of the potential counter-recruitment strategies which may be deployed by the authorities to counter the initiative of the terrorist groups.

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Six factors have been identified as being relevant to the recruitment of an AQ foot-soldier: “religion, sex, age, marital status, economic background, and level of education”. They then provide a detailed breakdown under each of these categories, attempting to typify these characteristics across a range of contexts.

The internet has assumed a central role in many terrorist operational activities and recruitment is no exception to this. There is an ongoing debate on just how important the internet has become as a tool of recruitment but certainly for AQ it has played an important part. Carrier considers the internet to play the “most influential role in radicalization in recent years, especially among the millennial generation”.

There is also an array of social, political and economic factors which are exploited for the recruitment of new members by groups such as AQ. Ineffective border controls can allow recruiters to easily access vulnerable individuals or sub-groups, and to directly contribute to the radicalisation of such persons. Widespread political and/or economic corruption can be a powerful driver, especially for younger people who may feel marginalised from day one, and may see no hope of ever gaining proper employment and being able to provide for their future family. This can be seen in the occupied Palestinian territories, in particular.

The absence of an effective Police presence can allow recruitment efforts to be carried out more overtly, when there is little or no real risk of facing arrest and detention for carrying out these activities. Poverty can feed the sense of injustice, especially if neighbouring areas are seen to be more affluent, such as the situations in Somalia-Kenya and Iraq-Kurdish Autonomous Region. The relative weakness of instruments of the State can further contribute to the creation of a very fertile area for terrorist recruitment. In prisons, radicalisation and recruitment can be carried out more easily that outside in civil society, often due to the closed nature of a prison community, coupled with the inability of prison staff to maintain sufficient watch on a population that considerably outnumbers them.

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5         Financing

The Afghan mujahideen were funded by various interested parties, including at various times the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Saudi royal family and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. One of the most influential members of the Saudi royal family, Prince Turki bin Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, is believed to have managed the funding activities of upto twenty different charitable organisations, the sole aims of which were to fund the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan, raising an estimated $2 billion. In the early to mid-1980s, the various disparate armed groups formed a loose coalition called the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen, in an effort to present a united front, politically and militarily, against the Soviet occupation.

Initially under US President Carter, then President Reagan, US funding for the mujahideen began to increase, and the amounts were swelled by a Saudi agreement concluded by Prince Turki al Faisal, to match all US contributions, dollar for dollar. It was agreed with Pakistan (at Pakistan’s insistence) that US and Saudi funding should be channelled through Pakistan’s ISI Intelligence agency. Theoretically this allowed for a degree of plausible deniability from the US, that it was directly funding the mujahideen.

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In practise, however, this mechanism handed control of the spending of such funding to Pakistan, which made the decisions on how, where and on whom to spend the money, something which did not sit easily with some elements of the US Intelligence community. Even bin Laden disliked the fact that official Saudi funding was also channelled through the ISI, as he implicitly distrusted the Pakistani Intelligence agency.

When the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended, so too did the generous funding from the USA and Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden’s personal fortune, variously described as being between $250 million and $300 million, has been frequently cited as the primary funding source of AQ in its early years. It is true that he personally paid for the flight tickets, monthly stipends and associated expenses of the foreigners who travelled to Afghanistan to take part in the anti-Soviet jihad. The 9/11 Commission report, however, provides more detail on bin Laden’s personal contributions, and AQ’s budgetary outgoings.

The report states that between 1970 and 1994, bin Laden only received around $1 million per year as a stipend, and in addition, the Saudi government’s actions against him in the early 1990s meant that his personal share of the bin Laden family business had to be put up for sale. The proceeds from that sale were immediately frozen by the Saudi government, effectively removing the bulk of bin Laden’s inheritance from his personal control. Perhaps more importantly, the report also details the estimated annual running costs of AQ in the years prior to the 9/11 attacks, a figure believed to be around $30 million per year, the majority of which came from donations. The 9/11 attacks were well-planned and well-executed, all with a considerable degree of operational security. The total cost of the 9/11 attacks is estimated at around just $500,000.

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Prior to the 9/11 attacks, core AQ was still providing the bulk of primary funding for attacks. The bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 were centrally funded, as was the attack on a US warship docked in Yemen, the USS COLE. The attack on the USS COLE is assessed to have cost around $38,000 and resulted in the deaths of 17 US Navy personnel, with another 39 injured. The warship was out of action for three years as a result of the damage and the repairs cost around $250 million.

The major “spectaculars” carried out by AQ after the 9/11 attacks were similarly well-planned and well-executed, but the centrality of funding was beginning to change and AQ core would gradually become less involved. The Bali nightclub bombings of 2002 were one of the highest-profile, post-9/11 attacks by AQ which were still funded by AQ core and cost an estimated £19,000 to conduct, according to information provided Ali Ghufron (also known by the nom de guerre of Mukhlas), Head of Operations for the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. The money was mainly funded from the proceeds of the robbery of a jewellery store and the attacks killed 202 people, injuring a further 209.

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The Madrid train bombings in 2004 are assessed to have cost around $70,000 and the funding for this attack was mostly derived from the selling of narcotics. The Madrid attacks killed 192 people and injured almost 2,000 others. The London transport bombings on 07 July 2005 were financed primarily by a combination of credit cards and a bank loan that was never intended to be repaid, and the total cost of the attack was assessed by the British government as being around £8,000, and by other sources as less than $15,000. The London bombings resulted in 52 people killed and hundreds more injured.

The methods AQ employed to generate funds included both licit and illicit means. Various charities provided money to AQ, some knowingly through the diversion of funds, and other unknowingly. In a similar vein to charity abuse, street fundraising has also been used to fund a planned terrorist attack. A plot by an AQ cell to conduct suicide bombing attacks in UK in 2012 was funded primarily by the cell members collecting money on the streets during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and telling unwitting donors that the money was to be used for charitable purposes. The cell netted over £13,500 in their unauthorised collections. They then attempted to increase this figure by doing their own trading on the stock market but they ended up losing £9,000 of the funds through poor investment decisions.

The traditional Islamic tax of zakat also generates funds for AQ and similar groups. This tax is the second of Islam’s five pillars, and only the requirement of prayer is above it. It has traditionally been considered as 2.5%, or 1/40th, of a person’s net annual wealth although there are varying interpretations of the exact calculations and responsibilities. Some Imams have voluntarily diverted a portion of the zakat collected by their mosques, and made this available to groups such as AQ.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, there has been much written on the importance of terrorist financing to organisations such as AQ. A common theory was that the targeting of finances owned and control by such groups would be an effective method of reducing their capabilities, as their finances were their life-blood. This rationale is one of the underlying premises of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Established in 1989, the organisation was originally focused on anti-money laundering (AML). Just one month after the 9/11 attacks, an additional focus of combatting terrorist financing was added to the original aim of AML work. The current objectives of the FATF are “to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system”.

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In the first few years after the 9/11 attacks, concerted efforts were made internationally to attempt to choke off the flow of funds to terrorist groups such as AQ, with varying degrees of success. In the first wave of targeted financial actions to hamper the flow of funding to AQ, 315 separate entities were identified and designated as terrorist organisations, and a total of 1,400 accounts were targeted globally, resulting in the seizure of more than $136 million. The global grip on terrorist funding was gradually tightened until, by around 2010, AQ finances were in a lamentable state compared to a decade previously.

The above truism may be appropriate for fully-fledged cells wanting to carry out a sophisticated attack but unfortunately for liberal democracies, the attack vectors have changed in recent years. More attacks are now coming from so-called “lone wolf” attacks, or smaller, pair/group attacks which are often self-financed. This has reduced the effectiveness of targeting the financing of terrorism as an operational response tool by law enforcement agencies A radicalised individual can now carry out a deadly terrorist attack for little more than the cost of a one-day hire for a vehicle, to carry out a “ramming attack” such as those witnessed in London and Berlin.

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