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Terror Expert Discusses Taliban, Al-Qaeda Funding

An Afghan police officer destroys a field of poppies in Afghanistan's Nade-i-Ali District of Helmand Province
An Afghan police officer destroys a field of poppies in Afghanistan's Nade-i-Ali District of Helmand Province
WASHINGTON -- Although the Taliban is growing rich from the drug trade in Afghanistan, some officials, including U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary for Terrorist Financing David Cohen, say Al-Qaeda's leadership has recently fallen on hard times financially. RFE/RL's Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully in spoke about this with New York-based Rachel Ehrenfeld, a prolific author who specializes in terrorism and financial corruption.

RFE/RL: Dr. Ehrenfeld, how do groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda get money to operate?

Rachel Ehrenfeld: Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- their initial funding came mostly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This is going back when they were just organizing, years ago. Since Afghanistan is a wonderful place for growing [the poppies that are made into] heroin, the opium production has increased dramatically. This is how [the Taliban] make a lot of income. Al-Qaeda has been taxing the farmers and getting a portion [of its funding] from the Taliban from the opium revenues. But [they also get funding from] other groups, like the Iranians, all kinds of jihadist groups wherever -- in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. You don't need much in order to orchestrate a terrorist attack. Putting together a bomb or having a suicide belt put on someone doesn't cost that much money.

RFE/RL: How does the U.S. government know about these sources of money, and how much certain groups have left?

Ehrenfeld: They're probably based on their activities everywhere, and usually I [observe] another area of illegal activities such as drug trafficking. The general idea is that if you seize a lot [of drugs], you are curtailing their activity. Well, if you seize a lot -- to me -- it means that there is much more going around. And even if we increase the supervision on the banks -- and banks are cooperating a little bit -- it means that there is much more going on.

RFE/RL: The United States has had some success in limiting the Al-Qaeda leadership's access to its money. How does it do that?

Ehrenfeld: Apparently the U.S. government has a list in [the] Treasury [Department]. There is a special office in Treasury that is in charge of seizing and freezing assets of terrorists. It's called the OFAC, the Office of Foreign Asset Control. So if you look at the recent activities [of OFAC], you will see that there was much more activity related to [the] seizure of assets and freezing of assets of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, etc., and some North Korean and Iranian [assets], than that of Al-Qaeda. I really don't see a lessening in the activity of Al-Qaeda. I would like to believe the government [when it says it's limiting Al-Qaeda's access to its assets]. I hope that they are right.

RFE/RL: Are you disputing Cohen's statement that Al-Qaeda is running low on money?

Ehrenfeld: "I believe that he believes in his statement, based on information which he is privy to. I haven't been privy to that information, and therefore I can look at information I have and say, well, judging by the activities [of Al-Qaeda], I don't see a lessening of activities, and my measurements are different. I certainly want to believe him.

RFE/RL: For several years now, many terrorist attacks around the world haven't been attributed directly to Al-Qaeda, but to independent groups that have been inspired by Al-Qaeda. You said a moment ago that it doesn't cost much to set up a terrorist attack. So does Al-Qaeda need much money anymore?

Ehrenfeld: They're inspirational, but they need money in order to recruit people, they need money to train, they need money to buy weapons, they need money to corrupt people, they need money to travel around the world, they need money to pay for the families of the martyrs. How do you think these people are living? They are not getting a salary. The families [of martyrs] have to be able to pay for themselves. This is part of the benefits of belonging to this group. The families are being taken care of, and people who join this group know that.

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