Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shebab recruits walk down a street in the Deniile district of Mogadishu on March 5, 2012
Kidnappers extract ransoms of up to $10 mln per head; Ransoms account for half of group's operating revenue

Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for al-Qaida, and a main source of financing to fund its operations across the globe, a report by The New York Times revealed.

According to the report, al-Qaida and its international affiliates earned between $125 million to $165 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, $66 million of which was paid in 2013 alone.

While European governments, including France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany, repeatedly denied paying ransoms, the investigation conducted by The New York Times showed that money is often funneled through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid.

In its early years al-Qaida received the bulk of its budget from rich donors, but officials now say the group finances its recruitment, training and arms from ransoms paid to free European citizens.

While in 2003 kidnappers received around $200,000 per hostage, they now succeed to extract ransoms of up to $10 million per head.

“Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”

The report further revealed that due to the immense significance of the stream of income generated through kidnappings al-Qaida’s central command in Pakistan personally oversaw many negotiations for hostages grabbed as far away as Africa.

In addition, the accounts of survivors held thousands of kilometers apart show that the three main affiliates of the terrorist group - al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in northern Africa; al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen; and the Shabab, in Somalia - are coordinating their efforts and operate according to one common protocol.

To minimize exposure of their own fighters, al-Qaida's affiliates are outsourcing the kidnapping of hostages to criminal groups working on commission.

Negotiators reportedly receive 10 percent of the ransom, creating a large incentive to step up efforts for hostage seizures. 

“We know that hostage takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not — and make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that do not pay,” David S. Cohen, the US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence said in a 2012 speech to the Chatham House think tank in London.

“And recent kidnapping-for-ransom trends appear to indicate that hostage takers prefer not to take US or UK hostages, almost certainly because they understand that they will not receive ransoms.”

Of the 53 hostages known to have been taken by al-Qaida and its official branches in the past five years, a third were French while small nations like Austria, Switzerland and Spain account for over 20 percent of the victims.

“For me, it’s obvious that al-Qaida is targeting them by nationality,” said Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism. “Hostages are an investment, and you are not going to invest unless you are pretty sure of a payout.”

Read More: UN Security Council passes resolution "to prevent terrorists from benefiting' from ransom payments

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