Can Bankers Fight Terrorism?

What You Get When You Follow the Money

Courtesy Reuters

More than a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks, Peter Neumann argues, “the war on terrorist financing has failed” (“Don’t Follow the Money,” July/August 2017). He contends that although the effort to cut terrorists off from the global financial system has crimped business and hampered humanitarian aid, “there is no evidence that it has ever thwarted a terrorist campaign.” “Governments,” he concludes, “should overhaul their approach to countering terrorist funding, shifting their focus away from the financial sector.”

That is bad advice. It is true that financial tools cannot solve the threat of terrorism. But they are not meant to. Rather, they are intended to form part of a broader strategy to confront a variety of international threats. Neumann argues that such a comprehensive approach is indeed necessary, but he claims that governments have yet to adopt one, writing, “In most countries, the responsibility for choking off terrorists’ funds lies with finance ministries, which are disconnected from broader counterterrorism strategies.” In fact, much of the integration he calls for has already happened. Take the finances of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Neumann argues that they have decreased not so much as a result of financial measures but largely thanks to military action against the group’s oil infrastructure and cash depots and the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria. What he fails to appreciate is that private-sector financial data, gleaned by finance ministries and shared with the U.S. military and U.S. law enforcement agencies, have helped identify financial targets for those military strikes. Today, banks run financial intelligence units, which in several cases have provided “that missing piece of the puzzle to identify someone here or abroad who is planning or supporting plans to attack our interests,” as Gerald Roberts, then the section chief of the Terrorist Financing Operations Section of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, told a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2015.

Neumann also wrongly assumes that

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