Funding of terrorist groups comparedJanuary 21, 2013
In a paper describing misconceptions about terrorist financing, W. A. Tupman of the University of Exeter includes a helpful typology of a variety of terrorist groups and how they are generally funded.
Tupman says that Islamic terrorists are often funded by charities and individuals, which is true. But naturally, this typology is very broad with overlap and exceptions that can’t be squeezed into a single chart. For example, Money Jihad and other sources have pointed out that Iranian-backed terrorists obviously depend on state sponsorship. South Asian and Indonesian jihadists have increasingly used bank robberies to finance their activities. Islamic militants also use sharia bank donations to fund operations.
But the one critical adjustment that should be made to this table since Mr. Tupman originally developed it years ago is the addition of the “revolutionary tax” concept, which he associates primarily with urban guerrillas, as a key funding source of Islamic fundamentalists as well.
Islamic terrorist groups with actual mujahideen fighters on the ground (as opposed to sleeker Muhammad Atta-style sleeper cells), sustain themselves by taxing the populations under their control. Consider the Taliban’s ushr tax on Afghan agricultural (not just poppy) harvests, and al-Shabaab’s 2½ percent zakat tax on the Somali charcoal trade. These are major revenue sources upon which these wealthy jihadist groups rely for two reasons: 1) such fundraising methods are consistent with Islamic tax law and the practices of Muhammad or the historical Caliphate, and 2) taxation ensures a steady, local, and accessible revenue stream independent of donations from wealthy Gulf Arabs and independent from the international banking system.
This nuance is important to understand because different terror funding methods require different counter-terror responses. Penetrating a sleeper cell structure of Al Qaeda or the Red Brigades is different from crippling a rebel movement. Contemporary anti-money laundering regulations designed to detect specific illicit financial transfers may be helpful in limiting expatriate donations to nefarious causes, but such methods are nearly useless in fighting the imposition of zakat, ushr, and jizya on populations overseas. That’s part of the reason that we’ve seen virtually zero Taliban assets frozen in the 11 years since the initial push of coalition forces into Afghanistan.
How can we bankrupt and defeat the financing methods of groups we fail to understand?