Paying ransom only helps al Qaeda

September 27, 2010

There’s an interesting article at the Terror Finance Blog about the increase in the use of kidnapping to raise funds for jihadist groups, specifically Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), bin Laden’s North African franchise:

Kidnapping-for-ransom is considered by many experts as an “alternative source of terrorism financing.” But the recent abduction of five French nationals in Niger by the Al Qaeda’s Islamic Maghreb terrorist group (AQIM) highlights a worrisome regional trend that emerged in 2003, when AQIM first launched a major hostage taking campaign targeting foreign tourists.

Since then, AQIM has developed a growing criminal industry that sustains itself through huge ransoms they extort and drug trafficking.

It is estimated that the kidnap-for-ransom business in the Sahel region alone, put at least $65 million in the coffers of AQIM since 2005. More than 90% of the group’s funding derives from this single financial source. The rest comes from drug trafficking and donations.

The kidnapping business is so good, that hostage taking in the Sahel region had risen 150% between 2008 and 2009. The average ransom for the release of a Western hostage is $6.5 million.

Since 2008, AQIM raised more than $25 million from ransom for foreign nationals in the Sahel region. This makes AQIM richer than “Al Qaeda Central”, whose annual income was recently estimated by U.S. officials to be between $5 million to $10 million.

The article then goes on to talk about efforts to criminalize the payment of ransom, though I suspect that would be an exercise in futility when governments themselves can pay ransom via back-channels. Italy infamously paid ransom to Iraqi terrorists to recover journalist Giuliana Sgrena in 2005, while France has been rumored to have criticized Spain for paying ransom to AQIM. (Though Paris now denies this.)

But the real problem here (aside from paying kidnappers at all) is that this money is then used by AQIM (and al Qaeda, which surely gets a cut) to finance not only further kidnappings, but terrorist operations in North Africa, Europe, and around the world. Operations that get our people killed. In effect, governments and corporations are financing the hijackers and suicide bombers sent against us. And you can bet some of this money is going to research into easy means of mass destruction, such as poison gas.

Harsh and heartless as it would be to do so, the only way to stop these kidnappings is to refuse to pay any ransom; rather than treating the terrorist kidnappers are criminals, they should be hunted down and killed. And yes, that is in full recognition of the possible consequences.

If, instead, we keep paying, we’re only giving them the rope they’ll use to hang us.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Mexican town resorts to mob justice

September 24, 2010

With the authorities unable to protect them, the residents of a small town in the state of Chihuahua that has suffered an average of three kidnappings per week finally had enough:

Ascension is a farming community of some 15,000 people, about 100 miles south of the border with New Mexico. In the past two years, kidnapping and extortion have been rampant.

“Our problems with public security have spoiled our progress in this town,” says Rafael Camarillo, the outgoing mayor.

The public fury happened Tuesday when an armed group allegedly kidnapped a 16-year-old girl from her family’s seafood restaurant. The kidnappers escaped down a gravel road, and word of the missing girl spread quickly.

Soon, a group of about 200 residents began the chase. Three of the alleged kidnappers were captured by the Mexican military, who have a presence in the town.

Three others fled into a nearby cotton field, where one was later found dead. The other two were hunted down and beaten by the mob from Ascension.

“When they found them, it was a direct aggression,” says Ignacio Rodriguez, a local kitchen-cabinet maker who was elected to head city council next month.

The girl was rescued unharmed by the residents.

Two of the kidnappers were taken by federal police to a nearby Mexican Army base, but the mob wasn’t done with them: they stormed the base, seized the kidnappers, and locked them in a hot car until they died.

Let’s be blunt: these three deaths were acts of murder. But it is both hard to sympathize with the victims and not hard to sympathize with the townsfolk. What are they supposed to do when their own government can’t or won’t protect them? The local force was so useless that the Mayor of Ascension fired them all after this incident. Corruption is rampant in the local, state, and federal police forces. At some point, the people are left with a choice: wait like sheep to be slaughtered  or fight back. The people of Ascenscion made their choice.

Of course, fighting back against teenaged kidnappers is one thing, but striking back at heavily armed, ruthless cartels is another altogether. Mexico’s gun laws are very strict, so law-abiding citizens are effectively disarmed from the start. Yet the presence of such laws implies a clause in the social contract: in return for not bearing arms, the state promises to protect its citizens. If the government cannot do this, then the contract is broken and the state loses legitimacy. Society reverts to a state of nature and residents are forced to take justice into their own hands.

While Mexico is not yet a failed state and may never become one, the incidents at Ascension are nevertheless further signs of a fraying social fabric that, unmended, could one day fall apart.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

UPDATE: A newspaper in New Mexico sees similar dangers.


State Department: “Get your kids out of Monterrey”

September 22, 2010

The security situation in northern Mexico continues to worsen as an attempted kidnapping sparks a warning for Americans living in Monterrey and an order from the State Department: Get your children out.

Affluent Americans living in Monterrey became extremely worried in late August that they were in danger after a gun battle erupted  in front of the American School Foundation, which many children of American as well as Mexican business executives attend. The firefight took place between bodyguards working for the Mexican beverage company Femsa SAB de CV and cartel attackers, who were apparently attempting to kidnap young relatives of a high-level company employee. In the course of the ensuing battle, two bodyguards were killed and two others captured. Flying bullets caused students in the school to scramble for shelter in the school cafeteria.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Charles Pascual then cautioned employees of the Monterrey consulate to keep their children home, “while we assess the risks and what measures can be taken to reduce it (sic.)” Pascual gave that recommendation even though there was no hard evidence that the children of consular personnel had been targeted.Following the incident, the U.S. consulate in Monterrey also posted an advisory on its website, directed to Americans living in the area. “The sharp increase in kidnapping incidents in the Monterrey area, and this event in particular, present a very high risk to the families of U.S. citizens,” the message read.

Three days later, the State Department escalated its warnings and issued a stunning edict. “U.S. government personnel from the consulate general are not permitted to keep their minor dependents in Monterrey,” a U.S. Embassy spokesman stated. “As of September 10, no minor dependents, no children of U.S. government employees will be permitted in Monterrey.” That was the kind of restriction, designating the Monterrey consulate a “partially unaccompanied post” for U.S. diplomats, is normally imposed only in war zones and other extremely high-risk areas. It underscored just how seriously the State Department took the surge in fighting and the extent of the kidnapping danger.

While the State Department travel warning couches it in much softer language, the message is clear: the cartel wars have made previously safe Monterrey too risky.

And it’s not just the children of diplomats: Caterpillar has told its executives to move their families out of the city, and well-off Mexicans are doing the same. The lack of security was accentuated by the discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of what are assumed to be cartel victims, and the kidnapping and murder of the mayor of a neighboring town.

Mexico’s third-largest city and an economic powerhouse, the descent of Monterrey into “cartel chaos” would be devastating to Mexico. With the growing inability of local authorities to provide security in such an important city, the reflex reaction would be to “send in the Army.” But that hasn’t worked out so well in other Mexican border cities. In fact, in many cases, the Mexican Army is part of the problem.

Take a look at this map:

(Click to enlarge)

Monterrey is dead center. To the west is Torreón, while to the east is Reynosa, both of which I’ve written about before. North lies Nuevo Laredo, where things have become so rough that they spurred crazy rumors about ranch takeovers in Texas. And we’ve all heard about the problems in places farther west, such as Juarez and Tijuana.

It’s plain that Mexico has more than just an organized crime problem in its northern territories: there is a growing challenge to the government’s authority there. While I don’t believe there’s any realistic danger of a state failure in Mexico City, it is not inconceivable that Mexican state and federal authorities might find it easier to throw up their hands and surrender de facto control of the area to the cartels, much as Colombia did with the FARC in the 1990s. The risk of that and the potential threats it would hold for our border regions makes Mexico’s internal security a vital interest for our national security.

More than just increasing border security itself (and worthwhile as that is), the Obama administration* needs to intensify cooperation with Mexico to bolster its capacity and resolve to restore its crumbling writ in its northern states. Perhaps some variant of the highly successful Plan Colombia would work. Just as important, the Mexican government** has to be brutally honest with itself and its people about the problems they face; no more trying to distract attention by lecturing us over a minor state immigration law. Their current efforts are a failure; no progress has been made. It’s time for both countries to admit there’s a serious problem and deal with it before it goes critical.

*More like “the next administration.

**Call me a cynic, but I have doubts Calderon has it in him to do this.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)