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Kidnapping Is A Lucrative Business For Al-Qaida, Documents Show

A neighborhood resident walks through a building in Timbuktu, used by al-Qaida-linked jihadi fighters for more than a year. Last year, The Associated Press found al-Qaida documents in the building.
Rukmini Callimachi
A neighborhood resident walks through a building in Timbuktu, used by al-Qaida-linked jihadi fighters for more than a year. Last year, The Associated Press found al-Qaida documents in the building.

A recent report by journalist Rukmini Callimachi details al-Qaida's strategy of kidnapping Europeans and demanding large ransoms — and how those ransoms are a key source of funding for al-Qaida operations.

"Europe is funneling these enormous sums of money to al-Qaida," Callimachi, a foreign correspondent with The New York Times, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They're reluctantly and unwillingly becoming al-Qaida's main patron."

Last year, while she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, Callimachi found thousands of al-Qaida documents in Timbuktu in northern Mali.

Al-Qaida left behind the pages just after a French-led military intervention drove the jihadi fighters out of the area, where they had imposed a harsh version of Islamic law. The documents include directives and letters from al-Qaida commanders.

Now at the Times, Callimachi continues to cover al-Qaida and synthesize the information in the documents.

Interview Highlights

On al-Qaida's highly detailed record-keeping

When I came back with these receipts, and we started translating them, these thousands and thousands of receipts for things like onions and a kilo of tomatoes and a receipt for a 60-cent piece of cake that somebody ate — it made us laugh. And I guess it made us laugh because we assumed that terrorists are these bad guys with guns — and violent, etc. — and we have assumed that's divorced from these bureaucratic procedures that we see at play here.

In fact, people that have covered al-Qaida and studied the group longer than me say they've found the exact same thing in Afghanistan. It's partly the DNA of Osama bin Laden, who started out life as a businessman. He was the son of a very wealthy entrepreneur, and he started out as a young man trying to run his own companies. ... Even when he ran his own companies, he was obsessed with bureaucracy. People that worked for him in Sidon [in Lebanon] remember having to turn in triplicate receipts with carbon copies for things like replacing bicycle tires or car tires.

On finding the bodies of Arab victims of revenge killings by members of Mali's army after al-Qaida was driven out

The bodies were all buried in the dunes just north of Timbuktu. And the thing that's peculiar about the dunes is you have this undulating surface of sand. And all day and all night the wind blows, and it creates these beautiful little ripples. It looks like the bottom of the ocean, so as soon as anybody makes a hole, it creates a disturbance in the sand that you can see from a distance.

And so initially people would tell me, "We saw the soldiers go in this direction or that direction." And we would just walk, and we'd find a disturbance in the sand. And then we'd return with the family members of the deceased.

And I know that this is kind of an unusual way for a reporter to behave, but at a certain point, there were no reporters left in Timbuktu. And whenever a person was taken, the family would call me. ... And I started to feel this strange sense of responsibility, that I was their only hope for finding answers for their missing loved ones.

On the link between ransoms and jihadi kidnappers' treatment of their hostages

They go out and grab these 32 Europeans, and we were able to find, through some good luck and sources, ... essentially a home video that the hostage takers made in 2003 of this operation. And the footage is fascinating because it shows the interaction between the kidnappers and their European victims. And the interaction is quite cordial.

There [are] moments in time where you see the Europeans smiling, joking with them. They're flashing a thumbs-up sign. And it's clear to me from watching this footage [that] they had not taken these people with the aim of killing them. ... In fact, there's a moment when one of the Europeans was about to faint. He has a drop in blood pressure from the heat in the Sahara, and you see one of the jihadists rushing with a compress to put on his forehead and try to cool him down.

On the ransoms paid by some European countries

So the ransoms I was able to confirm total at least $125 million [earned by the al-Qaida organization globally] over the past five years. And I believe that's the tip of the iceberg, because there [are] numerous kidnappings where I was told by the negotiators a ransom was paid, but I was not able to get them to tell me the amount.

And so this comes at the same time the world has become much more astute and much better at putting financial sanctions in place that have made it very hard for al-Qaida to funnel money through charities — or to use the banking system, to use any sort of traditional banking system. So at the same time that they're cracking down there, Europe is funneling these enormous sums of money to al-Qaida, and, as we said, they're reluctantly and unwillingly becoming al-Qaida's main patron.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: July 31, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web version of this story said al-Qaida had earned at least $125 million in ransom money for kidnappings in Africa over the past five years. In fact, that's the amount earned for kidnappings by al-Qaida's affiliates in Africa, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria.