Terrorism is a phenomenon that knows no borders. The threat of extremist violence is a part of everyday life around the world, a fact that was demonstrated again and again in 2018. This is unlikely to go away in 2019, as violent extremism and terrorism continues to spread online and the world becomes more interconnected.
Due to the universal nature of this problem, however, coordinated multilateral action on the sources of terrorism remains crucial. While in 2018 we did see progress on anti-terror legislation in Germany, the United Kingdom and at the level of the European Union, these efforts should be further improved to continue to tackle the continued development of terrorist financing methods.
No terrorist organisation can sustain itself without resources. The constant stream of attacks, both in Europe and in the Middle East, would not be possible without the constant flow of money to these organisations. The current terror threat is characterised by the risk that returning foreign terrorist fighters may infuse already existing networks of supporters and sympathisers with new knowledge, new international connections and potential additional funding streams.
Furthermore, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seems to have laundered significant amounts of money over the last few years and infused them into the legitimate economy of the Middle East and beyond. This requires further attention and a combination of counter terrorism financing and anti-money laundering expertise to prevent the terror group from reaping continued economic benefits from its crimes.
Another example is Hezbollah. According to figures from the US Treasury, Hezbollah receives up to $700 million in funding from the Iranian state each year. Hezbollah has also benefited from military training by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Permitting Iran’s financing and support of Hezbollah is a dangerous strategy for Europe to pursue. Not only does this entail the risk that funds run directly to an established terrorist organisation, but it also creates an incentive for other would-be funders to pursue their agenda.
Cutting off the sources of funding for terrorist groups is therefore one of the most effective interventions we can make in the fight against violent extremism and terrorism. By sanctioning terror groups and freezing the assets of individuals engaged in sponsoring terrorism, policymakers can create significant disincentives to fund terrorism.
In parallel with efforts to tackle the sponsors of extremist violence, the European Union must step up its fight against other sources of terrorist finance. Around the world, terrorist groups use illicit commercial activities including drug and arms smuggling, extortion, kidnap for ransom, and antiquities smuggling to fund their activities.
In Europe, the links between terrorist groups and smugglers are well-established, from Bulgaria to Ireland. In America, the Tri-Border Area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay has grown into an interconnected economy of drug running and money laundering, and used by a variety of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah as a lucrative source of funds. ISIL has looted antiquities in Iraq and Syria and was involved in their smuggling to Europe, in some cases this was also connected to the illegal drug trade. Several Al-Qaida affiliated organisations in Africa and Southeast Asia use well organised kidnap for ransom and extortion rackets as their primary source of finance.
The international dimension of this network of terrorism and organised crime demonstrates the need for a multilateral approach to fight it. The European Union’s terrorist content regulation, which passed this year, shows that effective cooperation between states can make a meaningful dent in the ability of terrorists to operate across borders. A similar approach, bringing together both Europe and American states, is needed to tackle cross-border sources of terrorist finance.
As we enter 2019, the divisions in Europe look starker than the areas that unite us. Terrorism, however, is one area where all parties are on the same page. The most recent attacks In Europe at the time of writing, in Strasbourg in December 2018, is a reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent about terrorism in Europe, and that we cannot predict where or when attacks will happen.
Terrorist attacks will not go away in 2019, but through smart policymaking we might be able to make them both less likely and less deadly. Tackling the roots of terrorist financing is one of the most effective ways of doing so. Let us call on our leaders to make our world a little safer in 2019.