Show me the money: countering terrorist financing
22 Feb 2016|


Stopping radicalisation and disrupting plots are appropriately the focus of the majority of Australia’s counterterrorism efforts.

But there are other avenues to undermine the terrorist business model that are lower profile but have the potential for sound practical outcomes.

To highlight that other element of the terrorism challenge, let’s turn to the high-profile case of Melbourne teenager Jake Bilardi.

Much of Australian media’s attention has been focussed on ‘why’ Bilardi was radicalised, and how to prevent it from happening to others. The complexity of his case—mental health issues, his reclusive nature—lend an air of futility to the community’s ability to detect and counter this type of radicalisation and recruitment.

Less attention has been focussed, however, on the mechanisms that fund and facilitate the physical travel of would-be terrorist recruits, such as Bilardi, to the conflict zone. And that’s where relevant government agencies including AUSTRAC can make a real difference.

How does a 17 year old school student and recluse from Melbourne end up reportedly blowing himself up in Iraq? And is there a point in this transition where his actions could be stopped?

A 4,300-word blog attributed to Bilardi, published in January 2015, provides a detailed account of his philosophical and ideological journey to support violent Islamic extremism.

The first 4,000 words tracks the journey of trying to make sense of the politics of conflict and 20th century world history. At the 4,000-word point, Bilardi jumps from musings on the meaning of life, democracy and discovering the Koran to state,

‘so I…sat waiting until everything was prepared and I could exit the country undetected…Without revealing any sensitive information about how I entered the Islamic State…’

‘Everything was prepared’—by whom? And how?

Could Bilardi’s journey have been stopped?

Similar questions can be asked of 18-year old ‘Ginger Jihadi’ Abdullah Elmir, his reported ‘widow’, British schoolgirl Amira Abase, as well as her two schoolfriends. So too of unemployed welfare recipients, Khaled Sharrouf and his wife, Tara Nettleton, now deceased, and their children.

It takes money to travel to the Middle East: to purchase plane tickets, use false documents and use the services of smugglers.

None of the Australians seemed to have the means needed to undertake their journeys without help.

That’s a weakness in the terrorist modus operandi, and stopping the money is another way we can undermine their strategy.

Three recent announcements highlight an important refocussing of the international community’s efforts to defeat terrorism.

On 9 February, in the first ever report to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the progress of counterterrorism efforts, Under Secretary General, Jeffrey Feltman, stressed the imperative of cutting off Islamic State’s (IS) funding.

Feltman painted a picture of IS as an organised criminal group and urged the international community to focus on practical measures to starve IS of the money required to maintain its activities, and consciously link these activities to the broader counterterrorism mission. That follows an historic meeting of UNSC Finance Ministers on 17 December 2015 to consider terrorism funding.

The second announcement, on 2 February, saw the European Commission launch an action plan on counterterrorism financing, building on a commitment by European Finance Ministers in December. The EU plan aims to enhance real-time information and information sharing, focus on transactions involving high-risk third world countries, and track otherwise ‘anonymous’ pre-paid credit cards and virtual currency such as Bitcoin.

The third important initiative is closer to home. On 16–18 November 2015, merely days after the Paris attacks, Australia and Indonesia co-hosted the first ever Asia–Pacific Counter Terrorism Financing Summit.

Attendees from 20 countries, representing governments, the finance sector and academia committed in the Sydney Communiqué, to a range of initiatives to increase sharing of financial intelligence information in the region. Those including a regional financial terrorism risk assessment and intelligence report, and a taskforce to progress initiatives including education. And the goal of reporting real progress by August this year.

That ambitious program of work could be doomed to limited success or even failure. But there are some important indicators that bode well for this project.

First, Indonesia’s Financial Intelligence Unit, PPATK, was an initiator of the Summit and, with Australia’s AUSTRAC, has the joint lead. An indicator of the importance of this initiative to Indonesia is the involvement of Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, a highly influential senior cabinet minister. And both PPAT-K and AUSTRAC have activist leaders with track records of achievement in Paul Jevtovic and Muhumud Yusuf.

Second, the financial sector and academics have been brought in as partners from the beginning. Like other terrorist groups, IS uses the international monetary system to move its money around. The banking and remittance sector are vital to identifying those transactions and assisting governments to use the information to trace terrorists and their supporters, and choke their funding. But so often they’ve been left out of the discussion on counter terrorism, which has focussed primarily on government action.

The propaganda of Islamist extremist groups would have it that divine inspiration and belief alone power the groups. But the reality is that, up close, the groups look more like the standard criminal gangs with whom they do business. They cannot succeed without funding, and future Jake Bilardis’ cannot easily engage with them or physically join them without that funding.

That’s a profile familiar from other, once successful, terrorist criminal enterprises, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. As the demise of those groups was aided by cutting off the source of their funding, so too can today’s terrorist groups be undermined.

Attacking terrorist finances can make a real difference. But that requires real and long-term commitment, from governments, banking and remittance services, academia and the community. It won’t be easy or quick, and may not make headlines. But it will happen.