Former spooks question financial surveillance

July 2, 2013

Sanctions, asset freezes, and financial surveillance have produced the opposite result from what policy makers intended by driving Al Qaeda deeper underground and creating a more diffuse system of financial transactions by the terrorist group.  This is the analysis from LIGNET, a group of ex-CIA and intelligence officials.

There is a lot of truth to what these analysts are saying.  The regulatory regime has cost banks and our overall economy billions of dollars in compliance costs while producing thousands of meaningless currency transaction reports and foiling few plots.  This analysis is also consistent with what Jean Charles Brisard has written about counterterror finance bureaucracy, which he considers “basically useless.”  And recent revelations about the federal government’s domestic monitoring policies only cast financial data mining programs such as SWIFT in further doubt.

An excerpt from LIGNET’s analysis follows.  Reading their full piece requires registration.

With New Ways to Fund Attacks, Al-Qaeda Now a Bigger Threat

Posted on June 18, 2013

The overreliance by the United States on sanctions and surveillance in the war on terror has allowed al-Qaeda to adapt its methods of financing to avoid detection, and resulted in a decentralized al-Qaeda structure — and a much greater threat.

Al-Qaeda has transitioned from a hierarchical cell structure to a franchise organization that is now responsible for four times as many terrorist attacks a year as it was before 9/11. Al-Qaeda training camps are now being established on the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa, countries of the former Soviet Union, and Southeast Asia.


The current counterterrorism strategy is to rely on economic sanctions and financial surveillance to identify and then stop terrorist financing. Examples of this are the U.S. PATRIOT Act, UN Resolution 1617, and the EU’s Third Money Laundering Directive.

The success of counterterrorism efforts in freezing the assets of terrorists has diminished over time. The UN found that while $112 million was seized in the three months after 9/11, only $24 million was seized in the two years that followed.

The continued targeting of al-Qaeda’s financial assets has had the unintended consequence of transforming al-Qaeda into a loose coalition of localized, autonomous, and self-sufficient terrorist “franchise” cells. These cells, held together by a world view rather than by a hierarchical structure, have been enormously effective. The number of terrorist attacks quadrupled in five years from 208 in 2003 to 864 in 2008.

In terms of financing, al-Qaeda’s shuria or high command council, no longer plays a central role in allocating expenditures or soliciting funds. Instead, terrorist financing has moved further into the ‘grey’ economy. Cells raise funds from a combination of charities, independent criminal ventures, and licit businesses. In fact, crime is now regarded as the main source of funds for al-Qaeda. Criminal ventures generally include extortion, hijacking, theft, blackmail, the drug trade, and kidnapping for ransom (KFR). LIGNET has previously covered al-Qaeda’s use of KFR on the Arabian Peninsula.

Even the transferring of funds between franchise cells has evolved to get around U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Originally, al-Qaeda moved funds through the financial sector, using banks such as France’s Credit Lyonnais, Germany’s Commerzbank, and the Standard Bank of South Africa. However, counterterrorism measures have driven al-Qaeda’s transferring of funds under ground, forcing it to rely on hawaladars and couriers. These provide untraceable methods of securely moving funds. Al-Qaeda recently used Pakistani-based hawaladars to move $1 million from the UAE into Pakistan, at which point the money was couriered to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s pushing of its finances into illicit activities and localized funds have made it difficult for counterterrorism strategies that rely on economic sanctions to be effective. The results can be seen in Table 1, which shows the trend of cheaper – yet more frequent – terrorist attacks.

Operational expenses of jihadist attacks over timeExperts previously believed that the financial war had been a success. This presumption was based, in large part, on the success the United States had in closing down al-Qaeda’s traditional source of funding. But al-Qaeda has evolved and adapted. New al-Qaeda cells, recruiting centers and finance operations have appeared in remote areas of the world, with key affiliates on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa.


The measures that have been taken in the war on terror since 9/11 to intercept al-Qaeda’s funding have seen diminishing returns. And while financial sanctions certainly weakened al-Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks, at least for a few years, they undercut the ability of intelligence agencies to “follow the money.” The importance of money trails is highlighted by the fact that al-Qaeda spends around 10 percent of its income on operational costs: The other 90 percent goes toward maintaining an international network of cells…



  1. Reblogged this on The Firewall.

  2. Reblogged this on The Counter Jihad Report.

  3. Reblogged this on News You May Have Missed and commented:
    Former spooks question financial surveillance

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