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The top 5 terror finance films of all time

February 24, 2013

Thrillers about terrorism focus on adventure, explosions, and tension; while they may depict specific terrorist attacks and the logistics behind them, such movies rarely address the financing.  Meanwhile, movies about bank robberies, jewel heists, and corporate malfeasance show how bad guys finance themselves, but these financial crime films tend to boil down to greed, or the acquisition of money for personal use, rather than raising money for broader social objectives.

We are left with a handful of movies dealing with the actual financing of terrorism or rebel insurgencies, and those that do often address the subject briefly.  Although it’s tough to find movies that incorporate both elements, it’s worth the investment.  These five movies help illuminate important concepts in terrorist financing in ways that news articles and scholarly research cannot, and in ways that simple bank heist movies can’t either.  They’re also sure to entertain you along the way.

By the way, it took a long time to compile this short list, so please acknowledge Money Jihad if this ranking is reproduced elsewhere.

  1. “Casino Royale”—Le Chiffre is a bankroller to the world’s terrorists.  But he is being pursued by terrorists who want access to their funds immediately.  Le Chiffre sets up a high stakes poker game in Montenegro to get more money and restore his credibility with his terrorist clients.  His rival?  None other than James Bond, 007, who enters the match with money fronted by the British government.  If Bond wins, the international financing of terrorism will be setback; if he looses, the government will have directly funded terrorists.  While the men play their game, is Bond’s love interest being forced to work for an unnamed terrorist group in Algeria?This film shows how skill, charm, and a little bit of luck by Britain’s best spy can triumph over shadowy but well-connected forces behind the international financing of terrorism.
  2. “The Path to 9/11″—The television miniseries (especially Part I) that aired on ABC in 2006 includes an ensemble cast and multiple story lines, one of which focuses on the money trail that led U.S. intelligence to recognize the threat posed by Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s.  The trail begins with the cunning bomb maker, Ramzi Yousef, who bombs the World Trade Center and becomes and international fugitive.  From the Philippines to Pakistan, Yousef works on his explosives, causing mayhem wherever he goes.  He’s planning a massive attack–bombs detonating aboard flights, but to do it he needs money—real money—for materials, equipment, electronics, and men.  His comrade tells him about a Saudi millionaire who can help. Meanwhile, tired of going after “small fish,” the FBI’s John O’Neill and other senior members of the U.S. counter-terrorism community try to find out who’s funding Yousef.  The U.S. gets a nervous informant who is about to depart with Yousef on a trip to Afghanistan, where Yousef says they can meet his financier, whom he calls “the tall one.” The money chase story line earns this miniseries its place on the list, but even without it, the movie is a devastating portrayal of bureaucracy and politics getting in the way of mid and lower level agents who are trying to stop Bin Laden 9/11.  This important film is unfairly maligned by liberals who have flooded the Internet with an endless stream of angry, overly politicized criticism.
  3. “The Long Good Friday”—Unbeknownst to an English mafia boss, one of his lieutenants delivers cash to the Irish Republican Army, but skims a little for himself along the way.  The lieutenant ends up dead, and the boss, played by Ed Hoskins, and his loved ones wind up the target of a seemingly inexplicable bombing campaign. It turns that out another of his key gang members, a real estate developer who employs Irish workers, was the one responsible for the ongoing payments to the IRA.  While the bombs are exploding, Hoskins is trying to complete a major business deal with an American investor played by Eddie Constantine (who also appears in another noteworthy terrorist financing movie, “The Third Generation,” as a West German businessman who funds terrorism in order to sell equipment to security forces fighting it.)  His best advisers tell him to back down, but Hoskins thinks he can go toe-to-toe against one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world.  It’s a tense, exciting film, and it’s somewhat unique among movies for providing a glimpse into how front companies can be used to fund terrorism. Hoskins was widely praised for his performance, and Helen Miren who plays his wife is absolutely superlative.
  4. “Baader Meinhof Complex”—The movie portrays the terrorist acts committed by the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof group, in West Germany in the late 1960s and ’70s.  The group also carried out bank robberies which they regarded as legitimate “expropriation” to finance the revolution—a common Marxist terrorist fundraising technique.  Ultimately the first generation of the Red Army Faction fell apart.  It’s a well-done film that illustrates how the terrorists’ search for bigger and better attacks ultimately destroys and shatters not just the lives of their victims, but their own lives too.
  5. “Nighthawks”—Wulfgar, an international terrorist mercenary—sets off a bomb in England, striking “a blow against British colonialism” in Northern Ireland.  But children are killed in the attack, and the IRA refuses to pay him.  Struggling to overcome a shortage of pay and his damaged reputation, Wulfgar gets plastic surgery and sets off for New York.  There he hopes he can launch a major terrorist attack that will be covered by the news media capital of the world, and prove his worth again to international terrorist organizations that would hire him again if he succeeds.  He is aided by “Shakka Kappour,” a ruthless Moroccan terrorist in her own right.  Only cop-on-the-beat Sylvester Stallone can stop them, with assistance from his partner Billy Dee Williams and counter-terrorist expert LeGard, who does as good a job as anybody since Col. Mathieu from “The Battle of Algiers” in getting inside the mind of terrorists to defeat them at their own game.  Explosions, dramatic tension, and great pacing earn this overlooked thriller a place in the top five.

Honorable mention:  “A Bullet for the General”–Chuncho (or sometimes Chucho) and his bandits traffic arms for General Elías, a rebel leader during the Mexican Revolution.  Chuncho is joined by “El Niño,” an American man with mysterious motives.  They conduct a good, old-fashioned train robbery, seize rifles from a military garrison after assassinating its commandant, and dispossess the richest man in San Miguel of his wealth.  The film may not be the best of the Italian produced “Zapata westerns” set during the Mexican Revolution which all touched on similar themes, but it is one is quite germane to how an insurgent movement is armed and financed.

A problem worth noting about terror finance movies is that about half of them are designed convince audiences that terrorism is an artificial phenomenon created and funded by capitalists to increase profits circuitously.  While movies in this mold such as “The Third Generation,” “Burn!” and “The International” are relevant to the subject of financing terrorism or a revolution, and are entertaining, they are based on fundamentally flawed premises about the nature of the threat and cannot be wholly recommended.

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4 comments

  1. “if this ranking is reproduced elsewhere”

    Well, it should be.


    • Thanks, Bayou Coyote! I’ve noticed that there tends to be a lot of overlap on IMDB, Amazon, and other top 10 lists if you google a specific genre or category of movies, so I get the sense some writers & list-makers tend to “borrow” ideas from other lists. Nature of the beast I guess!


      • They say that “imitation is the greatest form of flattery.” Take it for what it’s worth, or so they say…


  2. […] 2006 television miniseries “The Path to 9/11,” (one of the best films ever depicting terror finance methods) dramatized this historical development by showing Yousef […]



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