October 2, 2012 - 20:31 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Islamist militants are increasingly funding themselves through kidnapping, with al Qaeda's north African wing likely to have brought in tens of millions of dollars in ransoms in the past few years, a senior U.S. Treasury official said, according to Reuters.
The United States estimates militant organizations received $120 million over the past decade, including the ransoms paid to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Kidnapping for ransom was an "urgent threat", particularly in the Sahel, a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest nations on the Sahara's southern rim, Cohen told reporters in Berlin on Tuesday.
"It is what has become perhaps the most challenging and fastest growing technique that terrorist organizations, in particular the affiliates of al Qaeda in North Africa and in Yemen, have been using to fund themselves over the last couple of years."
Cohen said the average ransom had gone up consistently over the years and was in the range of $5 million per payment.
AQIM emerged out of Algeria's civil conflict and has expanded south into the Sahara, raising its profile in recent years with hit-and-run attacks and kidnappings of westerners.
Militant groups have benefited from lapses in security across the region as countries transition from years of dictatorship to more democratic government.
Cohen, on a week-long trip that includes stops in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, said he was talking with other governments in the hope of developing a unified approach to the kidnapping problem.
While the U.S. government has a policy of not paying ransoms, some European governments do so.
Talks were centered around steps to prevent kidnappings happening in the first place, the handling of hostage situations when they occur, and the tracing of financial flows when ransoms are paid, Cohen said.