Loss of moneyman a big blow for al-Qaeda

Slain al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, in an image made from an undated video.
Slain al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, in an image made from an undated video. (Associated Press)
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By Stuart A. Levey
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Last month, al-Qaeda was dealt a major blow. In losing Mustafa Abu al-Yazid -- also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri -- the terrorist organization was deprived of one of its founding members and also its third-highest official. An early confidante of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, Yazid has essentially served as al-Qaeda's "chief financial officer," coordinating the group's fundraising and overseeing the distribution of money essential to its survival. While Yazid's death deprives al-Qaeda of a uniquely valuable commander, the ideology that underpins terrorism continues to attract adherents, and we must redouble our efforts to prevent the emergence of the next generation of Yazid's replacements.

More than anyone else, Yazid possessed links to the deep-pocketed donors in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond who have historically formed the backbone of al-Qaeda's financial support network. Wealthy donors gave their money and, more important, placed their trust in Yazid, which makes him exceedingly difficult to replace. With Yazid gone, confidence that donations to al-Qaeda will reach their intended destination will continue to erode.

Over the past several years, the United States and allied governments have made it a top priority to target financial facilitators such as Yazid, thereby disrupting al-Qaeda's access to money. When experienced financial facilitators are arrested or killed, al-Qaeda is forced to turn over their duties to increasingly junior and untested members. These low-ranking members often do not know and are not trusted by potential donors. They also lack a deep understanding of the most effective ways to move money.

Actions that have significantly disrupted the activities of key terrorist financiers and facilitators have been the product of the hard work of devoted but unheralded people who risk their own lives to protect our safety and well-being. In addition to these efforts, we continue to target those who provide financial and other material support to al-Qaeda for designation and asset freezing. Financial institutions all over the world use our list of designated parties to protect themselves from engaging in transactions that involve al-Qaeda or its supporters. The U.N. sanctions program targeting al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups further ensures that those who support these organizations do not have access to the international financial system and are constrained from travel. There is also ever-improving cooperation between the United States and our allies in the Middle East and South Asia to disrupt facilitation networks.

As a result, al-Qaeda is in its weakest financial position in years. While the group undoubtedly maintains the capability to carry out attacks, its financial woes matter a great deal. Its lack of funds is inhibiting its ability to recruit and train new cadres, purchase arms, support operatives and provide benefits for the families of terrorists. In the months before his death, Yazid himself said that the organization urgently needed money and that some who wanted to sacrifice themselves fighting against U.S. troops in Afghanistan were prevented from doing so because of this. Al-Qaeda is in such dire financial straits that operatives are being required to pay for their own room and board, training, and weapons.

All of that is a real success. But there is a risk that the advantage that comes from these disruptions will be only tactical or temporary. As long as there is a significant number of people who wish to give money to groups such as al-Qaeda, a more difficult strategic battle remains.

It is therefore critical to go beyond efforts to incapacitate individual financiers, facilitators and terrorists to focus on the long-term objective of deterring and dissuading potential donors from supporting terrorism. Attaining this objective means holding terrorists and their supporters publicly accountable by imposing sanctions or pursuing prosecutions to send a strong message to those who might be tempted to support terrorists financially. The United States and its allies must continue to work to counter the violent extremist ideologies that are the foundation of terrorism. We must also support the efforts some countries have undertaken to reintegrate former terrorists into society by persuading them to abandon those ideologies.

Even more important, however, is preventing people from embracing violent extremism in the first place. Among other things, we must focus on educational reform in key locations to ensure that intolerance has no place in curricula and textbooks. There is still much to be done in this area, but unless the next generation of children is taught to reject violent extremism, we will forever be faced with the challenge of disrupting the next group of terrorist facilitators and supporters.

Because of the role he played in al-Qaeda, Yazid's demise is an important marker for all those engaged in the struggle against terrorism and especially for those focused on terrorist financing. For his death to have a lasting impact, however, it must become a part of a broader campaign to deter or otherwise dissuade those who would follow in his footsteps. Our work toward this end continues.

The writer is Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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