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 driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara, where bearded fighters, who would soon become an official arm of al-Qaida, counted the money.
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.
In various news releases and statements, the U.S. Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total around $165 million during the same period.
These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, which sometimes mask the money as development aid, according to interviews with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Counterterrorism officials believe al-Qaida 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 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,” David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said 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.
“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 killed 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 ransom.
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.
“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 published a how-to guide to kidnapping. 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 and grew into a regional force, becoming accepted as an official branch of the al-Qaida network, which baptized them al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
An Italian tourist, Mariasandra Mariani, kidnapped in 2011 in Algeria, recalls thinking: “These aren’t just normal criminals.”
During her 14-month captivity, whenever the kidnappers felt that attention had flagged, they forced Mariani to record a video message. Mariani was ultimately released, along with two Spanish hostages, for a ransom reportedly close to 8 million euros.
Almost a year into her captivity, Mariani recalls telling her guard that her family 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.”