Bin Laden's gone, but what about al Qaeda's finances?

May 2, 2011: 1:48 PM ET

As the world absorbs the news of Osama bin Laden's death, government warnings of counter strikes show that the death of one man won't kill al Qaeda. One reason: the terrorist group doesn't need bin Laden for money.

"There are two things a brother must always have for jihad, the self and money." -- An al Qaeda operative

This truism is cited by none other than the 9/11 Commission in the detailed report that it published in 2004. One of the first and most important chapters in that document looks at how al Qaeda raises cash and moves it to its operatives around the world, weaving a financial web that the Commission said "allows the organization to support itself, its operations, and its people."

"You can't run a terror network without funding because it takes money to train operatives, transport them, and buy equipment," Thomas Kean, the former New Jersey governor who chaired the Commission, tells Fortune. "When you cut off those supplies, it becomes very difficult to operate."

Contrary to popular opinion, the death of bin Laden does not strike a blow to the organization's financial health. "[Osama bin Laden] Does not support al Qaeda through a personal fortune or a network of businesses," the Commission wrote in its report.

"Al Qaeda relied on fund-raising before 9/11 to a greater extent than thought at the time," the Commission wrote. "Bin Laden did not have large sums of inherited money or extensive business resources. Rather, it appears that al Qaeda lived essentially hand to mouth."

And yet the myth has persisted that bin Laden has been the organization's financial pillar. This is likely because he was the son of a billionaire who used a portion of his inheritance to start al Qaeda in the 1980s and he nurtured it to become, in the words of the New York Times, "a multinational enterprise to export terror around the globe."

But by 2004, al Qaeda financed itself by raising money from "witting and unwitting donors, mosques and sympathetic imams, and nongovernment organizations such as charities," says the report. Intelligence reports reveal a financial web that is nearly impossible to track, as the money is distributed as fast as it is raised by a network of couriers. Each strand in the web is taken down and distributed as fast as it is woven. There is no war chest to discover and no bank from which al Qaeda draws funds.

The reality of how al Qaeda actually survives has kept intelligence officials and operatives in other countries fighting to stay one step ahead of the organization. "One lesson of 9/11 was that you can't fight the last war," says Kean. "We talk about a failure of imagination on 9/11 because the terrorists did something we never imagined they would do. The way they raise money is no different."

This game of whack-a-mole has changed global finance. Banks now must take responsibility for knowing who their customers are and for sussing out unusual behavior.

Kean says the Treasury has used its powers to disrupt the flow of money to al Qaeda, including tracking down individual financial deals.

But it hasn't stopped terrorism.

"A lot of what al Qaeda is doing now doesn't require a lot of money, like recruiting people over the Internet," says Kean, who notes that the amounts seem to have gotten smaller since 9/11. "That huge 9/11 operation only took $500,000 maximum."

Bin Laden's death is an important moral blow to al Qaeda, but it is less of a blow to the organization's lifeline.

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Katie Benner
Katie Benner
Writer, Fortune

Katie Benner joined Fortune in October 2006. As a writer for the magazine and the website, she focuses on Wall Street and the economy. Prior to joining Fortune, Benner worked at TheStreet.com, CNNMoney, and as a freelancer in Beijing for China International Business, the South China Morning Post, and as a columnist for Beijing Review. She has a B.A. in English from Bowdoin College.

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