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Money, bombs and freelance terrorism - how is it all financed?

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Tuesday, 25 November 2003

In Hollywood films terrorist groups are always portrayed as ruthless, well trained, highly efficient, absolutely certain of their aims and, above all, well funded. The reality that seems to be emerging - at least the reality of terrorism outside Iraq - is that of groups of amateurs who have managed to get a hold of some money, in a Hollywood-style approach to financing.

To explain. As I write, workers in Istanbul are clearing up the rubble from a major bomb blast obviously directed again British interests in Turkey - the latest in a string of outrages in that city. A Turkish Islamic extremist group, Islamic Front of Raiders of the Great Orient (IBDA-C) has claimed responsibility for the attack, “in co-operation with al-Qa'ida”, according to reports.

This sounds like a Hollywood film. The producer is this person, the director someone else, and its all done under the label of this other, major studio. In fact it may well be something like a film production with al-Qa'ida in the role of producers-financiers and IBDA-C the directors and actors. A point made occasionally amid all the anti-American screaming that frequently counts as media comment on the terrorist bombings, is that al-Qa'ida’s main role may be to provide the money in response to “pitches” by fundamentalist groups, or even what may be called freelance terrorist producer-directors.


These producer-directors may roll into a secret meeting with Bin Laden or a designated producer who hands out money (in Hollywood, producers may have an extensive role in organising the fim or they may simply raise the money) and say "Osa baby, have we got an anti-Western deal for you"! then make their pitch. The money guy will say something like "okay, sounds good, we’ll allocate budget. Remember, we want lots of bodies". That many of the subsequent bodies are those of innocent Muslims, is entirely incidental.

Although the above is simply guesswork - and only explains a part of what is happening - it does explain why these attacks have been spread throughout the world and been conducted by groups that had previously been almost unknown outside their own countries. They previously did not have any money to do anything. September 11 – perhaps al-Qa'ida had a more direct role in that – both inspired these groups and made them realise there was someone they could ask for funds. In fact, I would suggest that any self-respecting fundamentalist Islamic group now has to have a project or two on the books. They have to be seen to be doing something. Because of that need to be "seen" they may also be making more of an effort to find their own funding, if their pitches are unsuccessful.

But the producer-director model at least helps explain why the attacks have been almost random or, at least, made very little political sense. Turkey is an Islamic country that had opted out of the Iraq war, despite pressure from the Americans. It had eventually agreed to send troops to help with the occupation but had not sent them, so they may not arrive in time in any case. In fact, the real reason may be that IBDA-C, whoever they are, were anxious and willing to do something against Western interests in their own country, mostly for their own reasons, and made a pitch that the al-Qa'ida "money" liked. There would be Western bodies and terror, and that was all that mattered.

To judge from recent events in Iraq, plenty of groups there have been "pitching" projects successfully but also following their own agendas. The attacks on American personnel and helicopters may be due to the Hussein’s Ba’athist party, with or without al-Qa'ida funding, while the various bomb attacks on anything Western may be different groups with al-Qa'ida funding.

A notable example of the mixed agenda that may be behind the various attacks is the bomb assassination of a senior Shi’ite Cleric earlier this year. As has been strongly suggested, the outrage was a warning to the Shi’ite majority by the now dispossessed Sunni minority (the ruling Ba’athist party in Iran was Sunni) that they are not be pushed around. An incidental reason may have been that he urged his followers not to oppose the American occupation.

All of the above is mostly guesswork but my guess is just as good as that of anyone else given that the workings of fundamentalist Islamic faction groups are mysterious even to moderate Muslims, let alone Western intelligence organisations and especially not to the Western journalists panting around Baghdad or New York. One difficulty the latter have is that the terrorists are not about to hold news conferences and explain their motives. "Yes, I sent someone on that particular suicide mission for this reason ... and this is where the money came from..." Journalists are often further handicapped by the need to denounce America and all its works in every news story, and gloat over the steady trickle of American casualties. The result is hardly measured analysis.


Sure, there has been a trickle of casualties but that trickle needs to be placed in some sort of perspective. Although September 11 stands on a pinnacle as a supreme moment of terrorist glory, and the producer-director model has had its moments, the current series of incidents in Iraq is small beer compared with the truly terrible, bitter terrorist campaigns of the past. Connoisseurs of real terrorism cannot go past the ongoing wars in Algeria, the highly effective Jewish terrorist campaign in Palestine that helped create the state of Israel, and the campaign that booted the British out of Aden in the Middle East. Towards the end of the campaign in Palestine in 1948, for example, members of the British occupation forces dared not go out in less than groups of four, and eventually simply scuttled for the airport. The National Liberation Front in Aden assassinated British agents at will. For that matter the Viet Cong also knew a few things about assassination. The Americans in Iraq have it easy, although they may not feel that way.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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