The CIA Didn’t Mean to Give $1 Million to Al Qaeda

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A New York Times report explains how, exactly, a large amount of the American government’s money wound up in the hands of Al Qaeda. It’s surprisingly uncomplicated.

According to the Times, the CIA long delivered monthly payments — ranging “from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million” — to  Hamid Karzai when he was president of Afghanistan. In 2010, Karzai’s government agreed to pay Al Qaeda $5 million in order to free Afghan diplomat Abdul Khaliq Farahi, who had been kidnapped in Pakistan two years earlier. So, the Afghans combined $1 million of the CIA’s cash with $4 million “provided from other countries” and handed the ransom over to Osama bin Laden & Co., who planned to use it for “weapons and other operational needs.”

This was all revealed during the Brooklyn trial of Al Qaeda operative Abid Naseer. Letters in which bin Laden and top aide Atiyah Abd al-Rahman discussed the exchange were submitted as evidence: 

Bin Laden urged caution, fearing the Americans knew about the payment and had laced the cash with radiation or poison, or were tracking it. “There is a possibility — not a very strong one — that the Americans are aware of the money delivery,” he wrote back, “and that they accepted the arrangement of the payment on the basis that the money will be moving under air surveillance.”

…Bin Laden was clearly worried that the payout was an American ruse intended to reveal the locations of senior Qaeda leaders. “It seems a bit strange somewhat because in a country like Afghanistan, usually they would not pay this kind of money to free one of their men,” he wrote.

Is any of his relatives a big official?” he continued, referring to Mr. Farahi, the diplomat. It was a prescient question: Mr. Farahi was the son-in-law of a man who had served as a mentor to then-President Hamid Karzai.

He needn’t have worried. “It’s cash,” a former Afghan official told the Times. “Once it’s at the palace, they can’t do a thing about how it gets spent.” Someone’s been re-watching The Wire.