BAMAKO, Mali — The cash filled three suitcases: 5 million euros.
The German official charged with delivering this cargo arrived here aboard a nearly empty military plane and was whisked away to a secret meeting with the president of Mali, who had offered Europe a face-saving solution to a vexing problem.
Officially, Germany had budgeted the money as humanitarian aid for the poor, landlocked nation of Mali.
In truth, all sides understood that the cash was bound for an obscure group of Islamic extremists who were holding 32 European hostages, according to six senior diplomats directly involved in the exchange.
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The suitcases were loaded onto pickup trucks and driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara, where the bearded fighters, who would soon become an official arm of al-Qaida, counted the money on a blanket thrown on the sand. The 2003 episode was a learning experience for both sides. Eleven years later, the handoff in Bamako has become a well-rehearsed ritual, one of dozens of such transactions repeated all over the world.
Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for al-Qaida, bankrolling its operations across the globe.
While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that al-Qaida and its direct affiliates have earned at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just in the past year.
In various news releases and statements, the U.S. Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million during the same period.
These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funnel the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal al-Qaida documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year.
In its early years al-Qaida received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans.
Put more bluntly, Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of al-Qaida.
The foreign ministries of France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany denied in emails or telephone interviews that they had paid the terrorists. “The French authorities have repeatedly stated that France does not pay ransoms,” said Vincent Floreani, deputy director of communication for France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Kidnapping for ransom has become today’s most significant source of terrorist financing,” said David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a 2012 speech. “Each transaction encourages another transaction.”
And business is booming: While in 2003 the kidnappers received around $200,000 per hostage, now they are netting up to $10 million, money that the second-in-command of al-Qaida’s central leadership recently described as accounting for as much as half of his operating revenue.
“Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”
The stream of income generated is so significant that internal documents show that as long as five years ago, al-Qaida’s central command in Pakistan was overseeing negotiations for hostages grabbed as far afield as Africa. Moreover, the accounts of survivors held thousands of miles apart show that the three main affiliates of the terrorist group — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in northern Africa; al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen; and al-Shabab, in Somalia — are coordinating their efforts, and abiding by a common kidnapping protocol.
Although the kidnappers threaten to kill their victims, a review of the known cases revealed that only a small percentage of hostages held by al-Qaida’s affiliates have been executed in the past five years, a marked turnaround from a decade ago, when videos showing beheadings of foreigners held by the group’s franchise in Iraq would regularly turn up online. Now the group has realized it can advance the cause of jihad by keeping hostages alive and trading them for prisoners and suitcases of cash.
Only a handful of countries have resisted paying, led by the United States and Britain. Although both these countries have negotiated with extremist groups — evidenced most recently by the United States’ trade of Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — they have drawn the line when it comes to ransoms.
It is a decision that has had dire consequences. While dozens of Europeans have been released unharmed, few U.S. or British nationals have gotten out alive. A lucky few ran away, or were rescued by special-operations forces. The rest were executed or are being held indefinitely.
“The Europeans have a lot to answer for,” said Vicki Huddleston, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, who was the ambassador to Mali in 2003 when Germany paid the first ransom. “It’s a completely two-faced policy. They pay ransoms, and then deny any was paid,” she said. “The danger of this is not just that it grows the terrorist movement, but it makes all of our citizens vulnerable.”
In 2004, an al-Qaida operative, Abdelaziz al-Muqrin, published a how-to guide to kidnapping, in which he highlighted the successful ransom negotiation of “our brothers in Algeria.” Within a few years, there was a split within al-Qaida, with the group’s affiliate in Iraq grabbing foreigners specifically to kill them.
In Algeria, the kidnappers of the European tourists followed a different path.
They used the 5 million euros as the seed money for their movement, recruiting and training fighters who staged a series of devastating attacks. They grew into a regional force and were accepted as an official branch of the al-Qaida network, which baptized them al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. As kidnapping revenue became their main lifeline, they honed and perfected the process.
By Feb. 2, 2011, when their lookouts in southern Algeria spotted a 53-year-old Italian tourist, Mariasandra Mariani, admiring the rolling dunes through a pair of binoculars, they were running a sleek operation.
Mariani would later learn they had an infrastructure of supplies buried in the sand and marked with GPS coordinates.
One afternoon they stopped just above the lip of a dune. The fighters got down and unfastened a shovel. Then she heard the sound of a car engine. Suddenly a pickup truck roared out. They had buried an entire vehicle in the mountain of sand.
“It was then that I realized, these aren’t just normal criminals,” Mariani said. Weeks passed before Mariani’s captors announced that they were going to allow her to make a phone call. They handed her a script and dialed the number for Al-Jazeera.
During her 14-month captivity, whenever the kidnappers felt that attention had flagged, they erected a tent in the desert and forced Mariani to record a video message, showing her surrounded by her armed captors.
All over Europe, families rallied, pressuring governments to pay. Mariani was ultimately released, along with two Spanish hostages, for a ransom that a negotiator involved in her case said was close to 8 million euros.
Negotiators believe that the al-Qaida branches have now determined which governments will pay.
Of the 53 hostages known to have been taken by al-Qaida’s official branches in the past five years, a third were French. And small nations like Austria, Switzerland and Spain, which do not have large expatriate communities in the countries where the kidnappings occur, account for more than 20 percent of the victims.
By contrast, only three Americans are known to have been kidnapped by al-Qaida or its direct affiliates, representing just 5 percent of the total.
“For me, it’s obvious that al-Qaida is targeting them by nationality,” said Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, who helped set up Switzerland’s counterterrorism program. “Hostages are an investment, and you are not going to invest unless you are pretty sure of a payout.”
Almost a year into her captivity in 2012, Mariani thought she could not take it anymore. She told her guard that her modest family, which grows olives in the hills above Florence, did not have the money, and that her government refused to pay ransoms. Her captor reassured her.
“Your governments always say they don’t pay,” he told Mariani. “When you go back, I want you to tell your people that your government does pay. They always pay.”