In many ways, the Abbotabad raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden was the beginning, not the culmination, of a massive intelligence operation. While the process of identifying the couriers that later led to the safe house was long and complicated, the bin Laden take down and the seizure of a treasure trove of al Qaeda documents and files are now yielding more leads. And, having violently shaken the al Qaeda tree, the flurry of movement and communication that is sure to follow as operatives flee their current hideouts and call in for new instructions will likely lead to still more intelligence breakthroughs.
One area that could be particularly ripe for disruption is al Qaeda’s financial support network. As I argue in ForeignPolicy.com, terrorist financiers must be under tremendous stress since news broke that U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden and seized hard drives and other electronic media from his safe house.
This puts people like Abd al-Hamid al-Mujil in an uncomfortable position. Described by fellow jihadists as the “million-dollar man” for his successful fundraising on behalf of al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, Mujil directed the office of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a charity in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Both he and the IIRO office he headed were designated as terrorist entities by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2006.
But even if being “named and shamed” forced Mujil out of the terror-finance business, there are many others just like him. Just this week, David Cohen, the head of the Treasury Department’s Terrorism and Financial Intelligence branch, told CNN that major donors from the Gulf states remain the key sources of funding for the al Qaeda core. There are no doubt dozens of radical funders now worrying that their names, bank accounts, or addresses will comes up in bin Laden’s spreadsheets – or “pocket litter” – and for good reason.
It would not be the first time authorities have recovered revealing documents about al Qaeda’s finances in a raid. In March 2002, Bosnian authorities raided the Sarajevo offices of the Benevolence International Foundation, a charity designated by the Treasury Department as an al Qaeda front. Among the material found on the seized computers was an al Qaeda memorandum from 1988 or 1989 listing 20 Saudi financial backers described by bin Laden as the “Golden Chain,” so named because they were a reliable source of funding for his organization. According to the 9/11 Commission report, the Golden Chain was put together mainly by bin Laden’s financial backers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Read more about my thoughts in my article, “Checkbook Jihad,” on ForeignPolicy.com.