Al-Qaeda Masters Terrorism On the Cheap

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 24, 2008

LONDON -- Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Qaeda has increasingly turned to local cells that run extremely low-cost operations and generate cash through criminal scams, bypassing the global financial dragnet set up by the United States and Europe.

Although al-Qaeda spent an estimated $500,000 to plan and execute the Sept. 11 attacks, many of the group's bombings and assaults since then in Europe, North Africa and Southeast Asia have cost one-tenth as much, or less.

The cheap plots are evidence that the U.S. government and its allies fundamentally miscalculated in assuming they could defeat the network by hunting for wealthy financiers and freezing bank accounts, according to many U.S. and European counterterrorism officials.

In an ongoing trial here of eight men accused of planning to blow up airliners bound for the United States two years ago, jurors have been told how the accused shopped at drugstores for ingredients to build bombs that would have cost $15 apiece to assemble.

Similarly, the cell responsible for the July 7, 2005, transit bombings in London needed only about $15,000 to finance the entire conspiracy, including the cost of airfare to Pakistan to consult with al-Qaeda supervisors, according to official British government probes.

Investigations into several plots in Europe have shown that operatives were often flush with cash, raising far more than necessary through common criminal rackets such as drug dealing and credit card theft.

Testimony in the trial of the accused airliner plotters has shown that the defendants had enough money to buy a northeast London apartment for $260,000 shortly before their arrest, allegedly so they would have a safe place to mix liquid explosives for their bombs.

One of the July 2005 suicide bombers, a 22-year-old part-time worker at a fish-and-chips shop, left an estate worth $240,000 after he blew up a subway train. Neither his family nor authorities have explained where he got the money.

In Spain, the cell responsible for the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid needed $80,000 to finance the plot, according to Spanish court documents. But they had access to more than $2.3 million worth of hashish and other illegal drugs that they could have sold to raise more money, the documents showed.

Even the 9/11 hijackers wired back about $26,000 in surplus funds to accounts in the Persian Gulf area a few days before the attacks.

Authorities said it is often impossible to monitor fundraising by such cells because they generally keep so little in the bank. Instead of receiving wire transfers or making large deposits that would trigger automatic alerts, they move cash in person and are discreet about how they spend it.

"The groups operating in Europe don't need a lot of money. The cost of operations is very low," said Jean-Louis Bruguière, a former senior anti-terrorism judge in France who now works as an adviser to the European Union on terrorism financing. "But they are very skilled at obtaining money and using criminal systems to do it. They can collect thousands and thousands of dollars or euros in a few weeks. It is beyond our control."

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