$1m of CIA cash siphoned off from secret Afghan fund to pay al-Qaeda ransom demand
It was meant for a secret Afghan government fund to buy the loyalty of warlords, MPs and anyone else whose support President Hamid Karzai needed as he battled to keep control of his nation.
Instead, however, about $1m (£680,000) of CIA cash was siphoned off for a purpose to which Washington would never have agreed: as part of a $5m ransom for an Afghan diplomat captured by al-Qaeda.
The only obstacle to the deal was Osama bin Laden himself, who at first questioned the wisdom of accepting the cash as he feared a trap, according to The New York Times.
He thought the money might be laced with radiation, tainted with poison or fitted with a tracking device that would enable the US to discover the location of senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Details of the payment emerged in letters found in a raid the following year by US Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the newspaper reported. They were submitted as evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer, who was convicted this month in New York of supporting terrorism and plots to bomb a shopping centre in Manchester and the New York subway.
The kidnapped diplomat, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, the Afghan consul general in Peshawar, Pakistan, was seized in 2008 and handed over to al-Qaeda. He was released two years later after Bin Laden finally approved the arrangement.
The newspaper said an al-Qaeda official wrote to Bin Laden that the ransom money would be used for weapons, operational needs and payments to families of its fighters held in Afghanistan.
The al-Qaeda leader warned: “There is a possibility… that the Americans are aware of the money delivery and that they accepted the arrangement of the payment of the basis that the money will be moving under air surveillance.”
He advised that the cash be changed into a different currency at one bank, then be taken to another to be exchanged into whatever currency was most useful.
“The reason for doing that is to be on the safe side in case harmful substances or radiation is put on paper money,” he wrote.
Payment of the ransom, at a time when al-Qaeda was under intense military and financial pressure, was greeted with jubilation by the group.
“God blessed us with a good amount of money this month,” the group’s general manager wrote to Bin Laden.
The CIA cash payments have reportedly slowed since Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s President in September.
The CIA declined to comment but the revelation gives an insight into the apparently lax controls exercised by the US over the multibillion-dollar budget for the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
It came amid reports that the US has abandoned plans to cut the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the year’s end. Many of the 9,800 in the country will probably stay into next year, Associated Press reported. It said President Barack Obama would use this month’s Washington visit by President Ghani to announce the new withdrawal timeline.