Counterfeiting, forgery and credit card fraud have become the financial backbone of numerous individual terrorist cells linked to al-Qaeda in western Europe, according to intelligence services across Europe and central Asia.
Fake documents, credit cards and other forgeries are being used to provide extremist groups with new identities or to be sold at a premium to criminal gangs.
Interpol figures indicate that counterfeiting may now be more profitable than drug-trafficking in western Europe. The organisation believes “there is a significant link between counterfeiting and terrorism in locations where there are terrorist groups,” Ronald Noble, secretary-general of Interpol, told reporters in Brussels last month.
According to the agency, earnings from counterfeiting and drug-trafficking may amount to ?10 for every ?1 invested.
But fake goods may be easier and more economical to transport – 1kg of pirated compact discs is currently worth ?3,000 in western Europe, while a kilo of cannabis resin is valued at ?1,000, according to Interpol.
The penalties for trafficking drugs are also higher than those for counterfeiting.
“Al-Qaeda is rethinking aspects of its modus operandi,” says a senior intelligence officer. “But it would be wary of dealing with a criminal network that was not their own people. The Islamists are also alert to law enforcement, and aware that criminal networks can be infiltrated.”
But supporting a terrorist network is expensive. According to Mr Noble, 10 per cent of al-Qaeda’s estimated $30m-$50m annual expenditure in 2001 was used to finance attacks. The rest was used to maintain the terrorist network. US officials now put al-Qaeda’s annual expenditure at about $10m (?8.3m, £5.5m).
Mr Noble told a US congressional committee last July: “Intellectual property crime is becoming the preferred method of funding for a number of terrorist groups.
“In the case of terrorist groups who resemble organised crime groups, counterfeiting is attractive because they can invest at the beginning of the counterfeiting cycle and extract an illicit profit at each stage of the counterfeiting process – from production to sale – thus maximising returns,” Mr Noble said.
Security services in several European countries say that individuals arrested for alleged links to al-Qaeda are often caught with fake documents.
When Dutch police raided a house in Rotterdam just after the September 11 2001 attacks, they discovered extensive forging equipment and false passports.
At his trial on charges of belonging to the extremist Takfir w’al Hijra group linked to al-Qaeda, Rabah Idoughi, an Algerian, admitted to police that he was a forger but said he provided documents for illegal immigrants.
He was acquitted late in 2003 of extremist associations, but jailed on forgery charges after police evidence substantiating the more serious charge was dismissed on technical grounds.
However, the prosecutor, Theo d’Anjou, told the court that Mr Idoughi “made up part of a criminal organisation that ran a sort of business where fundamentalist Muslims could come to get false passports”.