Glimpse of bin Laden Techniques in Captured Records of al-Qa'ida in Iraq


May 27, 2011

This commentary originally appeared on and on May 27, 2011.

Osama bin Laden's death will not end the operations of terrorist cells linked to him or his affiliates. But every bit of evidence pieced together sheds more light on how terrorist groups operate and helps counter the terrorist threat. The computers, flash drives, and documents captured in the bin Laden operation — along with whatever else may yet be discovered in the compound — therefore hold enormous promise for future counterterrorism action.

Financial documents previously captured by the U.S. military and Iraqi forces show the value of such evidence by revealing the internal operations of al-Qa'ida's Iraq affiliate, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), in Anbar Province throughout 2005 and 2006, the time and site of its peak power. These documents enabled one of the most comprehensive assessments of an al-Qa'ida linked group, put to rest conflicting theories about its funding and membership, and revealed it to be a highly systemized bureaucratic organization that requires bottom line accountability.

AQI is one of several worldwide affiliates of bin Laden's umbrella al-Qa'ida movement. Analysis of its records can apply to other, similar groups.

Top-tier AQI commanders in Anbar set strategic goals that local leaders carried out with their own tactical decisions. Even as U.S. military and Iraqi forces repeatedly removed AQI leadership, the group's structure let it replace staff fast and continue delivery of information and support to members through a system of couriers. A similar courier system was reportedly a key element to the intelligence that led the U.S. military to Osama bin Laden.

The documents show that Anbar Province AQI was self-financing, contrary to speculation that it could only function with international donations. The group was so profitable that it sent revenue to associates in other provinces of Iraq and perhaps further afield. The group raised millions of dollars annually from simple theft and resale of such high-ticket items as cars, generators, and electrical cable. Roadside shakedowns garnered more money and goods, including even a truckload of pajamas. A central unit of AQI's hierarchy required operatives to keep records of even the smallest outlay and to turn over their "take" to upper-level leaders who made spending decisions.

Attacks by AQI carried recurring overhead costs. These included salaries for operatives, safe houses, transportation, weapons, and a crude form of life insurance for the wounded or for families of those killed. In contrast, most civilian households in Anbar lacked any form of insurance.

AQI pay was hardly competitive considering the risk of violent death. The documents showed an annual household income for each group member of about $1,330, compared with $5,800 for the average local citizen. This suggests that money was not the primary motivation for joining the group.

Cash flowed fast in and out of Anbar AQI's central command. About every two weeks AQI doled out funds to pay not only for attacks, but also for housing, medical, and bureaucratic needs. Top-tier leaders generated media releases, kept prisoners, issued judicial rulings, and conducted internal communications, all in addition to planning operations.

This al-Qa'ida affiliate did not seem to depend on foreign jihadists, nor on international donations. This suggests that the group's structure and ability to generate local funding and recruits may keep it an effective force long after U.S. troops have left.

Aside from the valor of the American forces who carried out the bin Laden operation, the effort against bin Laden appears to have been the result of a steady long-term commitment and careful intelligence collection and analysis. That holds lessons for the ongoing effort against his offshoots.

Even with bin Laden dead and populations in democratic revolt across the Middle East, a U.S. commitment to counterterrorism will need to remain in place. The U.S. will need to provide help with intelligence, military training and aid, and law enforcement assistance to our partner nations in order to help foster effective security forces, mature intelligence agencies, and more effective governments across the Middle East and South Asia. It will be especially important to continue to ferret out terrorist revenue sources and spending patterns. Tracking the flow of funds and lines of communication within terrorist groups will continue to expose operatives, operations, and strategic insights on the inner workings of these groups worldwide.

While many Americans marked the death of the man who planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. will have to be vigilant about the continued threat. Bin Laden is dead but many terrorist organizations remain viable. Understanding the internal workings of terrorist groups is a good start to countering their threat and bringing them to justice.

Ben Bahney and Renny McPherson are adjunct staff and Howard J. Shatz is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.