Stop terrorism?

Start with the finances

May 27, 2019 22:34
3 minute read.
Islamic Terrorism

Islamic Terrorism. (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)

In 2019, the United States entered its 18th year in the “War on Terror.” Since then, the US has contributed significant resources and billions of dollars to fighting terrorism, especially militarily. As we continue to fight terrorist threats at home and abroad, we must reexamine our counterterrorism strategies and consider relying more on alternatives to military power. The US must shift its mindset from military to monetary in order to significantly weaken global terrorist groups.

Where has the US defense budget gone thus far? According to Forbes, in September of 2018, spending for the “War on Terror” reached $2.8 trillion. Included in this estimate are countless drone strikes, ground operations, special operations, flight operations, targeted killings, prison security and more. Unfortunately, military operations, especially drone strikes, in the Middle East often result in civilian casualties. Not only can this be difficult to reconcile with America’s moral standards and a positive image around the world, but it also can be counter-productive by playing into the hands of terrorists whose recruiting tools portray America as evil.

In 2018, President Donald Trump spent $142.3 billion on counter-terrorism defense, and in 2019, he allocated $150.8 billion in defense, focusing heavily on ISIS attack-prevention. A few days ago, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a video touting the group’s rebirth, appearing very much alive and well. Military campaigns may have retaken ISIS’s territory, but they cannot alone destroy ISIS. Even if Baghdadi were killed, another leader would likely take his place.

In contrast to US defense spending, terrorist groups spend far less annually. Because terrorist attacks are relatively cheap (9/11 cost between $400,000 and $500,000), the majority of a terrorist group’s finances go toward training, ammunition and propaganda. These annual activities are essential to the terrorist groups’ existence. Consider ISIS: It did not carry out a significant attack on US soil. It did, however, convince Americans to travel to Syria to join as foreign fighters and ISIS brides. How does ISIS manage to effectively inspire so many “lone wolf” attackers and runaways? It does so with large-scale, methodical, expensive propaganda campaigns. In fact, ISIS spends nearly $20 million per year just on propaganda. If the US could significantly disrupt global terrorist groups’ financial flows, it might severely minimize the spread of these types of damaging propaganda around the world.

THE US and its allies have worked to prevent terrorist financing in the past. Efforts to intervene actually began before 9/11. These efforts included, among other things, the freezing of assets, blacklisting of charities linked to terrorist organizations, and formal sanctions on individual and state sponsors of terrorism. However, targeting formal financial institutions alone is not enough. If a terrorist group is using formal institutions to raise or transfer funds, once the US freezes the assets, it will push the terrorist group’s financial activities further underground. These underground methods are more difficult to track and intercept.

Government efforts to confront terrorist financing must be focused. Each terrorist group has its own, tailor-made financing plan and methods. For example, Hezbollah perfected the diamond trade in West Africa to raise and transfer funds, whereas ISIS made use of local oil reserves and taxes. Efforts to disrupt terrorist financing must similarly be tailored to the particular means used by particular terrorist organizations.

Because each group has its own specific financial sources, a “one size fits all” counter-financing plan could not possibly apply to all terrorist financing practices. This would be like the US seeking to end all types of crime with one approach. Efforts to confront one-time murderers are different from efforts to confront organized crime.

Any plans to significantly disrupt terrorist finances would also be less likely to succeed absent cooperative diplomatic relations around the world. Terrorist groups are global, and so are financing networks. A terrorist group like al-Qaeda raised funds in North America and passed them through West Africa to the Middle East. If terrorists’ methods have no boundaries, then methods to counter terrorist financing cannot have boundaries either.

Tracking and disrupting terrorist finances requires a nuanced understanding of each terrorist group’s finance sources and a correspondingly specific financial response. Along with targeted military operations and educational initiatives, this approach is our best hope for limiting global terrorist efforts.

The writer holds a BA in International and Global Studies from Elon University, where she conducted research regarding al-Qaeda’s financing. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in counterterrorism and homeland security from IDC Herzliya.

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