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Taliban revenues: reading between the lines

October 24, 2009

Government officials have appeared to be forthcoming this month about the sources of growing Taliban revenues.  In a speech earlier this month, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing David S. Cohen pointed to drug money and protection payments as major sources of Taliban funding.

The U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, blamed “individuals carrying money in their suitcases” during an interview with CNN.  Holbrooke, somewhat more intelligibly, has also addressed donations from the Persian Gulf, hawala financing, and charities.

This week Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that certain money exchange dealers are financing terrorism, and said the government will be investigating the matter.

The media have weighed in too with a fair summary of funding sources by the New York Times.  Meanwhile, The Times of London confirmed “protection payments” from the Italian intelligence service to the Taliban.

But what’s missing from almost all of these accounts is any examination of traditional methods of Islamic revenue collection.  These reports use sanitized, Western, white-collar, criminal, or accounting terms such as “narco-trafficking,” “donations,” “money exchange,” or “protection payments” to describe funding sources.

In order to understand the context behind the sources and methods of jihadist revenue generation, we must be more accurate about these terms.

First, the Taliban may engage in activities that resemble a drug mafia, but it is not a drug syndicate like Columbia’s FARC pursuing profits for their own sake.  This is a jihadist organization grounded in the Koran and Hadith which state that a 10 percent harvest tax will be collected from Muslim farmers on naturally watered land (or 5 percent for irrigated land).  The Taliban has encouraged poppy farms because of the high Islamic tax yield involved.  This tax is usually referred to as the ushr, which may be used for the same purposes as the zakat.  Zakat can be used to help the poor, but the Koran also says the zakat (and the ushr by extension) can be used for waging jihad.

Second, although the ushr has been a driving force behind Taliban financing, “donations” have played a larger role recently.  But these “donations” would be better understood as sadaqa.  The zakat wealth tax of 2½ percent is obligatory on all Muslims.  Any voluntary contributions beyond the 2½ percent are considered sadaqa.  Sadaqa-givers are considered blessed by Allah.  It is within the context of pleasing Allah and supporting the jihad that so many wealthy donors from the Persian Gulf freely give their money to the Taliban.

Third, protection payments or customs duties paid by Muslims are properly considered to be a type of zakat.  Protection payments made by non-Muslims are considered jizya; however, this is often in the sense of non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim country, or the subjects of a defeated non-Muslim country.  Italian payments to the Taliban do not constitute jizya under these definitions, but as I have argued before, the Taliban may view it as jizya.

Fourth, the “forex dealers” who are complicit in the funding of the Taliban are actually hawaladars, or Islamic debt traders.  When a debt is owed that cannot be paid without delay, the Hadith encourage hawala: the payment of debt by transferring the debt (Sahih Muslim, Book 10).  If Blue owes Yellow $5, and Green has $5, Green pays Yellow, and Blue promises to pay back Green.  The hawala debt swapping system promotes anonymity, opacity, and inauditability of financial transactions.  Coupled with Muhammad’s saying that, “War is deceit,” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 52), the hawala is a terrifying financial system by every generally accepted principle of accounting.

Officials like Mr. Cohen keep droning on about “donor networks,” and “finance nodes,” and “fundraising” as though we’re talking about an annual Red Cross audit.  Not once in Cohen’s 3,000+ word speech did he use the words jihad, Islam, ushr, sadaqa, jizya, or hawala.  This reliance on euphemisms is akin to referring to the war on terror as “overseas contingency operations,” and terrorism itself as “violent extremism.”

If we fail, or intentionally refuse, to explain and confront the true motivations of the jihadists, we may fail to defeat them.

One comment

  1. I hope this piece gets widely disseminated.



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