Intelligence analysts and document exploitation ("Doc X") specialists are reportedly already sifting through this intelligence treasure trove and have found evidence of notional al Qaeda plots, including aspirational plans to attack the U.S. train system, and more. In all likelihood, the files will include clues pointing to bin Laden's money trail as well.
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.
But even if the files seized in bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house do not include explicit references to the next "million-dollar man" or "golden chain," they will likely contain information that could help expose the money trail sustaining the al Qaeda core.
- First, they may point to who covered bin Laden's personal expenses, which could have added up quickly. Think of the 500 euros sown into his clothes, the costs of feeding his 18-person entourage, the salaries of his bodyguards and couriers, the expense of building and renovating his compound, and the cash that may have been needed to bribe Pakistani authorities not to look too closely at his fortified three-story villa.
- The files may even reveal information about the current balance sheets of al Qaeda, which, as of October 2009, was said to be "in its weakest financial condition in several years."
Even then, though, U.S. authorities were quick to add they were not "taking any victory laps," because there were still likely new donors willing to step in. At the time, Cohen warned that the international community's success in disrupting al Qaeda's finances might only be temporary, because "we have not yet dissuaded nearly enough donors from wanting to give in the first place."
News of the Abbottabad raid alone may dissuade many of those donors in the near term, and the intelligence windfall from the raid may lead to more tangible disruptions of some donor channels. That could place the al Qaeda core under still further financial strain, but it would have little if any impact on the funding of key al Qaeda franchises such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), affiliated groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, foreign-directed al Qaeda networks like those recently arrested in Germany, or the homegrown violent extremists like Maj. Nidal Hassan, who present the most immediate terrorist threats to the United States and its allies.
Whereas al Qaeda directly funded and controlled operations from its base in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks, today al Qaeda franchises and homegrown extremists are self-financed. We know that al Qaeda provided funding for the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Even after 9/11, al Qaeda continued to provide money for operations, such as the $20,000 it furnished for the 2002 Bali bombings.
The terrorist threat is far more decentralized today, and al Qaeda's central command is not funding operations as it once did.
- To help finance the Bali bombings, Jemaah Islamiyah operatives had to resort to robbing jewelry stores because the al Qaeda core's contribution was not enough to foot the bill.
- Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's North African branch, raises significant funds through kidnapping and other types of organized crime.
- AQAP, now based in Yemen, has worked hard to develop its own network of major donors. For example, in September 2009, Saudi security forces found a video clip of AQAP leader and former Guantanamo detainee Saeed al-Shihri making a pitch for money to help "jihad to keep going," calling the need for funding "the core of life and the core jihad."
- a unifying figurehead, Zawahiri is a divisive figure whose presumed accession to the top spot in the al Qaeda hierarchy may well rekindle simmering tensions between the organization's Egyptian and Yemeni factions. Moreover, the al Qaeda core—lacking the power of the purse and stripped of its founding icon—may find itself less able to exert authority over its self-financed franchises. The death of bin Laden does not mark the end of al Qaeda, but it may mark the beginning of the end of its core—and the rise of al Qaeda affiliates and homegrown violent extremists.
Matthew Levitt is director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute, from where this article is adapted.