Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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The Success of Counter-Terror Financial Measures
As David Cohen, assistant secretary of Treasury for Terror Finance recently noted, the United States and its allies have enjoyed some under appreciated success in cutting off the finances of al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, a goal that once seemed far out of reach.

As Cohen noted in a recent speech, "In the first six months of this year, al Qaida's leaders made four public appeals for money, including one in June of this year, when an al Qaida leader announced that a lack of funding was hurting the group's recruitment and training. We assess that al Qaida is in its weakest financial condition in several years, and that, as a result, its influence is waning."

This is interesting not only for what it says, but for what it implies. Core al Qaeda does not need vast amounts of money to operate. The amounts are significant, but not what they were al Qaeda core could help finance and direct franchise operations. This means that not even the relatively small sums needed are getting to al Qaeda's leadership.

This has been one of the most interesting success stories about what has gone right in the inter-agency process, and forward thinking that is often absent. Given that I have frequently commented on the short-coming in these two areas -- inter-agency cooperation and lack of adaptability and innovation in the intelligence, military and law enforcement communities, it is only fair to note this success.

Much of the current success began in Iraq, and the Special Operations programs there of collecting tactical financial intelligence on the ground during operations. This not only led to the unraveling of numerous financial networks that fed Al Qaeda in Iraq, it also shed new light on the funding sources and the major donors to the al Qaeda network.

The change in SOF strategy and conduct was deliberate and driven by forces on the ground, who integrated their findings into the inter-agency working group that includes Treasury and other entities with financial specialization. As intelligence accumulates and is exploited, it yields more intelligence and more success. This has been the case in going after core al Qaeda's revenue stream.

Fortunately Cohen was honest enough acknowledge the rest of the picture: The Taliban, with its access to drug money, is not weakened, and is in fact in a far greater position of strength than al Qaeda. It must be an odd reversal from when Osama bin Laden helped the Taliban, to the Taliban holding the money and not seeming to be too eager to help al Qaeda.

This, of course, is part of what makes the policy for Afghanistan so difficult. Not only is the enemy less dependent than ever on external sources of finance that can be pressured (Saudi nationals, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan), it has a source of revenue that is hard to combat.

The difficulty in part is because the government is corrupt and weak enough to allow many of its senior officials to engage in the very same trade, sapping the Karzi government's ability to even begin to make inroads into the opium trafficking. All sides benefit, so who is going to be serious about combating it? No one.

It is clear, as Richard Holbrooke has said, that crop eradication has been an abysmal failure. It can be done successfully under very specific conditions in very small areas. The new strategy is to go after the upper-echelon traffickers.

If the intent is clear, the full range of expertise engaged and inter agency struggles overcome, serious progress can be made under that strategy. The future of a great many people depend on getting it right.
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