CTF Summit: progress in the fight against terrorism financing
18 Dec 2017|

On 23 October, Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana announced the end of the five-month battle for Marawi, after the Armed Forces of the Philippines defeated Islamic State–affiliated militants who had held the city since 23 May.

Philippine authorities discovered that IS central provided more than US$1.5 million (A$1.9 million) to finance the siege. Funds were sent via Indonesia through Western Union. Large amounts were also looted from local banks and private homes. Bundles of money were found in buildings around the city, including 800,000 pesos (A$20,000) stashed in one building and 300,000 pesos (A$7,800) and a bag of gold jewellery in another. In June, 52 million pesos (A$1.3 million) in cash was recovered from a house occupied by terrorist sympathisers.

These discoveries are a timely reminder of the importance of detecting, disrupting and denying terrorism financing, and the need for regional cooperation between Australia and Southeast Asian countries to help do so. Fortunately, regional counterterrorism financing (CTF) cooperation has been enhanced over the past two years. Australia is playing a leading role in these efforts.

Indeed, against the backdrop of the Marawi liberation, the third CTF Summit, co-hosted by AUSTRAC—Australia’s financial intelligence unit—and its Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts, PPATK and Bank Negara Malaysia, was held in November in Kuala Lumpur (KL).

The third summit built on the success of the two previous summits, held in Sydney in 2015 and Bali last year. The event has grown—the KL summit attracted participants from 32 countries, compared to 26 in Bali and 19 in Sydney. It has also matured, thanks to relationships built over the past two years. That’s not just from attendance at the annual summit, but also through three working groups—focusing on financial intelligence, technological innovation, and education and community outreach—that are doing important work in between summits. For example, the financial intelligence working group met face to face three times, and by phone monthly, between the Bali and KL summits. The group produced the world’s first regional risk assessment (RRA) on terrorism financing last year, which is an important basis for intelligence-led CTF actions.

At KL, a new RRA on terrorism financing in the not-for-profit sector was released. The assessment downgraded the sector’s risk from high to medium compared to the earlier RRA. That’s because the deeper assessment, based partly on several national non-profit organisation (NPO) risk assessments (including Australia’s), found fewer cases of terrorism financing through NPOs than expected. A clearer picture of the risk environment is a welcome development. However, as I’ve argued before, the risk downgrade doesn’t mean we should be complacent.

At the summit, Justice Minister Michael Keenan announced the establishment of the South East Asia Counter Terrorism Financing Working Group (SEA CTFWG). This group will be co-led by AUSTRAC and the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and also involve financial intelligence units from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand. Keenan noted that this is the first of a series of initiatives to support AUSTRAC and its regional partners to block funding to IS and other terrorist groups in Southeast Asia. The Turnbull government provided a $4.6 million package over three years for these initiatives in September.

The SEA CTFWG should seek to improve intelligence sharing between regional countries to better detect funds transfers and map terrorist networks. It’s well placed to do that thanks to relationships built up since the Sydney summit.

Between now and the fourth summit, to be held in Thailand in 2018, progress should be made in two key areas: better harnessing technology and building public–private partnerships.

Technologies such as blockchain, big data and artificial intelligence present opportunities to more effectively detect criminal activity among the flood of data available to government and business. However, this promise is yet to be met, as the successful deployment of these technologies to fight financial crime has been limited in practice. At the same time, financial technology is advancing rapidly, and new payment systems and virtual currencies are creating new opportunities for terrorist financiers and criminals.

To foster the better use of technology, the inaugural International Financial Intelligence Unit Codeathon was held before the summit. Sixty-nine participants from 11 countries sought to address a range of financial crime challenges through technological solutions. Following the success of this initiative, AUSTRAC announced that an ASEAN–Australia Codeathon will be held in Sydney in March 2018 in the run-up to the ASEAN–Australia Special Summit.

Public–private partnerships to counter terrorism financing and other financial crimes are in their infancy, but those countries yet to develop such initiatives should look to do so. Existing initiatives such as Australia’s Fintel Alliance can provide examples, and ASPI will continue its focus on identifying ways to improve information sharing between the public and private sectors next year.

CTF efforts are an important policy tool to counter the growing terrorist threat in Southeast Asia. The CTF Summit, working groups, Codeathons, and new SEA CTFWG provide an excellent basis for this, but in the current environment there’s much work to do.