By Jamie Crawford
David Cohen's office has set its sights on a key target since its inception in 2004: drastically reducing al Qaeda's ability to attack and finance its operations.
The results have been clear, the U.S. Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence said Thursday.
The core group of al Qaeda "is in a much weaker state than it was" even two years ago, said Cohen, who oversees U.S. efforts to choke off the funding for bad actors and rogue regimes around the world.
International sanctions from the United States and other nations have greatly reduced the ability of the core group of al Qaeda, thought to be based in northwestern Pakistan, to formal financial networks to move and raise money, he said.
But even so, Cohen said, al Qaeda's affiliates - particularly in North Africa - have found other ways to boost the terrorist group's coffers, including kidnapping ransoms to the tune of "tens of millions of dollars" since 2008.
That "leading edge" of terrorist financing is an area of particular concern to the United States, he said.
The Treasury Department has the authority to sanction individuals known to be the money men behind these operations, Cohen said, and a U.S. policy of not paying ransom does have an effect.
"We have seen that hostage-takers are less likely to take Americans as hostages, because they recognize that there is not a pot of gold at the end of this enterprise," Cohen said.
But al Qaeda isn't the only target that has kept Cohen's office busy this year, the Treasury official said, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In March, his office sanctioned an Iranian airline and trading company for their roles in shipping weapons to Syria and countries in Africa. Many senior Iranian officials and front companies for the country's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force have been targeted as well.
And with additional sanctions targeting Iran's oil sector and central bank set to take full effect next month, Tehran is feeling the heat of efforts aimed at curtailing Iran's nuclear program, Cohen said.
There has been a "very significant deterioration in the Iranian economy" since last autumn, Cohen said.
"The value of their currency has dropped like a rock, and that has a significant impact on Iran's ability to pay for the material it needs for its nuclear program," and more broadly, it puts pressure on the regime as more and more citizens get squeezed, Cohen said.
In a speech marking the Persian New Year in March, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians to support domestic production to stave off the debilitating effects of international sanctions.
Syria, too, has seen many members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime and family targeted by the United States. Close to 50 Syrian individuals and institutions have been designated under U.S. sanctions, Cohen said.
While Syria's GDP grew approximately 6% in 2009, Cohen said the Syrian economy is contracting significantly under the weight of international sanctions, and the nation's currency has plummeted in value. The loss of revenue from oil and tourism - Syria's largest economic sectors - has contributed to huge budget deficits as revenues fall and spending explodes while the regime works to maintain power, Cohen said.
Since the violence began over a year ago, there has been a degree of "capital flight" from Syria, Cohen said.
The trick in targeting sanctions, he said, is to recognize the difference between the flow of assets legitimately leaving the country as a means of escaping the violence, versus assets that the regime and its allies are shielding.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency has described sanctions by the United States and European countries as "unjustified," "illegal" and "inhumane."
Cohen said Thursday that financial pressure on Syria's elite will continue.
"The objective of that is to encourage the business class in Syria to recognize that their future prosperity, the preservation of their wealth, their children's future - economic stability - depends on Assad leaving power," Cohen said, "and peeling away that business community support from the regime is one of the important objectives that we are pursuing through these sanctions."