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Experts: Bin Laden’s Death Has Negative Impact on Terrorism Financing

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (1998 file photo)
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (1998 file photo)

The death this week of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is likely, analysts say, to have a negative impact on the terrorist organization’s ability to raise money and finance future large scale attacks. 

Osama bin Laden was the face of international terrorism and his financial firepower helped fund the mujahedeen in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, bin Laden became the worldwide symbol used to raise money for al-Qaida and its affiliates in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Stuart Levey is the former undersecretary of terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department and is currently with the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Osama bin Laden was the primary inspirational figure for al-Qaida both for recruiting new members to al-Qaida, but also for the funding of al-Qaida and so they will have lost that sort of iconic figure," he said.

Source of funding

Analysts say al-Qaida receives most of its funding from individual wealthy donors living in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Governments of those countries have tried to stop the fundraising and experts say in recent years it has been a challenge for al-Qaida to raise significant sums of money.

They say intelligence suggests al-Qaida is having trouble paying for the training of its militants and providing funding for their families.

Matthew Levitt, director of the program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says bin Laden’s death during a raid by U.S. forces in Pakistan creates an opening to further damage the organization.

"This is a great opportunity for us to have further disruptions of the al-Qaida network across all the different aspects of that organization from fundraising on down," he said.

The Obama administration announced that during the attack in Pakistan, U.S. forces collected intelligence information that could be helpful in the fight against terrorism.

News organizations are reporting this included a large number of computers, hard disc drives and other memory devices.

"The apparent exploitation of the intelligence that was apparently picked up during the raid is a potential huge lead with respect to terrorist financing and frankly not just financing, but going after the network in general depending on what kind of information is in those computers and whatever else was taken," said analyst Stuart Levey.

Falling Muslim support

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center says support for bin Laden among people in predominantly Muslim countries has declined significantly in recent years.

Analysts like Matthew Levitt say the recent revolts in Arab countries have offered a new and more attractive narrative to the violence and bloodshed preached by al-Qaida.

"And here you have had in a matter of weeks relatively peacefully a bunch of youth accomplishing, in places like Egypt, that which al-Qaida and its affiliates, through very bloody violence over many years, failed to accomplish," he said.

Impact on financing

Current and former officials at the U.S. Department of the Treasury say the death of bin Laden is an important step in the effort to reduce donations to al-Qaida.

But Stuart Levey says it is essential to maintain pressure on al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. "The death of bin Laden is a tremendous development for counterterrorism in general and for terrorist financing as well.  But it is not the end of the battle. It is just a significant milepost along the way and I think it is important that we do continue these efforts. I think that we will," he said.

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute says the nearly ten-year and now successful search for bin Laden since the 2001 attacks sends a strong message to anyone considering making financial contributions to al-Qaida.

"But this tightening of the noose, it is much more than just the removal of bin Laden," he said. "We have indicated that it may take a long, long time, but we will find you and that has to make people think twice about how much they want to be involved in this enterprise."

Analysts say counterterrorism efforts by the United States and its allies have forced al-Qaida’s fundraising activities to become decentralized.

They say its affiliates are now being left to raise their own funds and conduct operations without significant assistance from the core organization.

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