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“Trump, you know he may turn out to be the bad guy that solves the problem.”
Loretta Napoleoni, for 20 years an expert on the politics and finances of jihadi terrorism, says this with a dry smile.
I can’t quite tell if she’s serious, or being provocative, or a bit of both. How, I ask?
She makes an outrageous prediction.
“Let’s assume [Donald Trump] is not going to be assassinated, and they let him do what he wants to do,” she begins.
“Then he will make a deal with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan will sort out the Middle East – and it will be done in blood, for sure. The Islamic State will survive and carve out a little ‘reality’, a little state inside. Because they all have interests to keep a new power to balance Saudi Arabia. So it’s going to be like a buffer.
“It’s not going to be run by [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi but there will be a Sunni state somewhere there and it’s going to be run by them [Islamic State].”
Around the same time, she predicts, Turkey becomes a dictatorship, Trump abandons NATO and Europe has to figure out how to defend itself.
“But, I mean, then who is our enemy? Terrorism will cease. Absolutely. It will be like the 1970s. Within five years it’ll be over if they get their state, if they get their own reality. Why should they bomb us?”
It’s vintage Napoleoni. It’s why she keeps getting called up as the dial-an-expert for current affairs shows. As we speak, a car and driver idle outside, waiting to take her to a TV studio to debate terrorism once again.
She offers me a lift across London, and we chat in the car. With the “official” interview over she’s more open and personal. She’s more than a little sick of it, she confides. She’s sick of being the dial-an-expert, sick of being set up in a studio debating some professor she’s never even heard of.
“I’m tired,” she says. “I’ve done this for 20 years, before anybody else was doing this … The analysis is [now] getting worse and worse, the field is getting more and more crowded [but] all they care about is selling their books.”
Napoleoni has a new book. It’s a continuation on a theme – the financing of terror, which she’s written about many times, always ahead of the curve.
This time she was asked by her publisher to write about kidnapping, on the theory that this was a topic strangely untouched in the literature, and it seemed to be on the rise.
At first, she says, she wondered what she would write.
“I was stumped,” she says. “There was a moment of panic.”
But then she remembered she had run into professional hostage negotiators over the years, including one who negotiated with Islamic State. She called him and he agreed to talk.
That interview is the gripping heart of the book.
“I have been a negotiator for 30 years … never before have I seen such an increase in the number of abductions as during the last decade,” he told her. “We are facing a kidnapping crisis of global proportions … This type of exponential growth makes my job more difficult; it increases the risks and reduces the rate of success. The kidnapping business is like a cancer that has metastasised.”
He told her of the “global ancillary industry” that grew up around this trade in human beings: profiteers, crooks, corrupt fixers.
“In many regions of the world kidnapping is perceived as a mechanism that redistributes wealth from the rich West to the poorest areas of the planet,” he said. “[Negotiators’] funds are spent in the local economy in the areas where the hostages are kept … which makes the locals regards abduction as a good business.
“If there are several hostages from countries that pay, then the ransom rises due to the competition among officials from the different countries to get their guys out before the others.”
Napoleoni had the core of her book. As her research continued she realised to what an extraordinary extent the abduction, trade and trafficking of people had become central to jihadist terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East.
“All of a sudden I connected the dots,” she says. “Kidnapping was not such a big business until the beginning of the century … and we’re now facing a serious crisis.”
In Syria, Napoleoni wrote: “The insurgency is just a variation of criminal jihadism, a modern phenomenon that has only one loyalty: money.” Regardless of how the various groups began, many sank into “the quicksand of criminal jihadism”, branching into kidnapping when the money from their Saudi or Gulf state sponsors ran low.
“The hunting season on foreign hostages began in Syria in 2012,” she wrote.
A network of criminal gangs specialising in the abduction of foreigners, composed of former rebels and jihadists, soon emerged. They snatched people – often freelance journalists taking big risks while dreaming of scoops – and often resold them straight away.
Former Syrian rebels or “simple criminals” pretending to be refugees set up in southern Turkish towns, targeting journalists seeking drivers and fixers to get them across the Syrian border.
Napoleoni is angry.
She says the extraordinary growth in the kidnapping “industry” is partly the fault of editors, who tacitly or directly encourage freelancers to take risks that experienced, expensive correspondents would not.
But she also blames governments – especially a handful of European countries, and most especially Italy – for making kidnapping very, very lucrative. In 2014 over just three months IS released 12 hostages and netted an estimated €60-100 million ($85-142 million) – without anyone noticing.
I couldn’t help but ask Napoleoni how much I’d be worth, if I was kidnapped.
It depends. If my editors are on the ball, and they don’t make the mistake of getting the government involved, they could quickly make a deal with my abductors and get me out for, say, $US100,000 ($133,000). But if the process drags on and I get traded into the hands of a bigger group – maybe €2 million.
Assuming, of course, I’m not executed.
Napoleoni says IS realised several years ago the powerful propaganda value of viral hostage execution videos – but they kept negotiating on the quiet, aware that some hostages were worth more in ransom than they were dead.
But IS didn’t invent “criminal jihadism”. Napoleoni’s book, Merchants of Men, traces it back to the turn of the century. As one Algerian former jihadist “Rashid” told her: “We began trading arms, drugs, then someone had an idea: let’s have a go at kidnapping.”
AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (north-west Africa), was the catalyst. In 2003 European countries paid €5.5 million for the release of a group of foreigners in the region, and part of that sum founded AQIM – which according to one estimate by The New York Times went on to collect $US165 million in ransoms from 2003 to 2011. So profitable was the business, Napoleoni wrote, that al-Qaeda central in Afghanistan issued guidelines to its other offshoots, known as the “AQIM protocol”, describing how to get into the business.
There’s one problem with kidnapping: supply tends to dry up. Corporations and aid organisations hire security teams; media organisations stop sending reporters.
Hence, Napoleoni wrote, AQIM hit on a new, similar industry. By 2006, trafficking in migrants was keeping the economy of large parts of the Sahel afloat. In 2015 in Libya alone the migration rackets netted about €300 million.
They used the old smuggling routes, newly reopened by the cocaine trade from South America. Migrants were sold over and over through a series of intermediaries. In a sadistic Groundhog Day-type ritual, Napoleoni wrote, migrants were captured and recaptured, ferried across the desert in containers, and kidnapped over and over again. They could be trapped inside the Libyan Sahara for months, sometimes years.
Again, IS picked up the idea. Refugees in and from Syria and Iraq, paradoxically, find it safest to travel inside the “caliphate” – you just pay one tax at the border, rather than bribes each time you pass a checkpoint of one of the various armed insurgent groups. In 2015, IS “tax” on human cargo into Turkey generated $US500,000 a day – more than the tax on smuggled oil.
Napoleoni says it was a mix of supply and demand that drew the criminal jihadists to people smuggling. On the one hand, they needed the money and were looking for a new source. But at the same time there was an explosion in the number of people wanting to travel to Europe.
The conventional explanation, from aid organisations and governments, is the refugee surge comes from unprecedented war and unrest in sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Iraq.
But Napoleoni says, also, “everybody wants to be part of the West”.
“This is not an exodus that is 100 per cent based on people being desperate,” she says. “This is also an exodus linked to a quality of life that everybody wants to have. They have smartphones, they’re much more exposed to the fact that compared to the rest of the world they don’t have very good lives. This is the triumph of the Western model … this is a boomerang. We exported Coca-Cola and hamburgers, and now everybody wants to drink Coca-Cola and eat hamburgers where we do.”
So what to do?
Well, there’s the Gaddafi approach. In exchange for Italian money Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi stopped the flow of migrants through Libya with cruelty – with concentration camps.
“Do we want to go down that route?” asks Napoleoni. “Do we want to produce a ‘final solution’ for the migrants?”
I ask her if Australia has chosen the Gaddafi model.
“Absolutely,” she says.
She does not believe that Australia’s solution would transfer to Europe, and not just because of our geography.
“If you get people [in the Mediterranean] in distress you have to rescue them,” she says. “Australia is not a Catholic country, but can you imagine, the Pope in Italy, what would he do if something like [Australia’s Pacific solution] happens? No. There’s no way.”
So has she seen a successful policy that stops people smuggling?
“No. You can’t stop them. There’s no way,” she says. “The only way is to give these people that kind of quality of life that they’re looking for, in their own countries.”
And what about the kidnapping? What do we do about the criminal jihadists? Can we get at them through their finances?
Napoleoni, the expert in terrorist financing, is dismissive. Maybe once, she says. But now a terror attack is a loner driving a truck through a market. It’s not about the money.
Which brings us to Trump.
“I think Trump will be very good,” she says.