Security forces participate in a counterterrorism drill in western Kazakhstan. Targeting terrorists' funding sources could prevent attacks. Photo: Anatoly Ustinenko, Reuters
Security forces participate in a counterterrorism drill in western Kazakhstan. Targeting terrorists' funding sources could prevent attacks. Photo: Anatoly Ustinenko, Reuters

On February 22, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres came up with a proposal to create a new office for the purpose of rendering assistance to UN member states in implementing the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Guterres asked member states to submit their suggestions on this issue within two weeks. So I will offer mine.

I believe that the central focus should be on countering the financing of terrorist activity and enhancing financial intelligence. Funding is crucial, since it is money that allows the creation of an environment favorable for spreading and entrenching terrorism.

The terror attack that took place on July 14 last year in Nice, France, showed that the cost of mounting an attack may be low. However, maintaining terrorist networks, recruitment and propaganda are much more cost-intensive. At the same time, we are aware that even so-called “lone wolves” don’t emerge out of nowhere – all of them have been affected and strongly influenced by propaganda disseminated via the Internet or by extremist preachers.

I looked through the report on terrorist financing published in 2008 by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) and came to the conclusion that not much has changed since that time: The same challenges to be overcome by financial intelligence remain. 

Up to now, terrorists have been raising funds from both legitimate and illegitimate sources. They abuse charitable non-governmental organizations, set up legal businesses to finance terrorist activities, and use their own internal funds, such as their personal salaries. As well, terrorists raise funds from criminal proceeds, which allows them to reduce their dependence on foreign financing, something that is becoming more and more troublesome.

Drug trafficking, fraud, extortion, theft and other illicit activities are efficient ways to raise money at a local level, especially in failed states. The most striking example is ISIS generating a considerable part of its revenue from the black market, robbery and extortion in the territories controlled by this group. This was thoroughly explained in a report by the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee released in 2016. 

Exploring the subject of terror threats in Central Asia, I learned that a convergence of crime and terrorism has been increasingly taking root in the region. Kazakhstan is a bright illustration of this. Until 2004, that country had not faced home-grown terrorism, and most radicals arrived on its territory from abroad. The year 2011 became a watershed period when Kazakhstan experienced a number of terror attacks, a recent one involving firing on civilian and military targets in the city of Aktobe.

Recently, Kazakh sociologist Serik Beisembayev presented a study titled “Religious Extremism in Kazakhstan: Between Crime and Jihad”, where he outlined the pivotal role of criminal activity and illegitimate business in funding terrorism in his country. Beisembayev provided an example of a Salafi group generating most of its income from selling stolen mobile phones in a local marketplace. Extortion from businessmen and illegal taxation of non-Muslims are often practiced by extremists in Kazakhstan as well.

So it is not just financial intelligence that should be enhanced. The above-mentioned findings highlight the necessity of deepening and intensifying cooperation between police and counterterrorism agencies. We should keep in mind that terrorism is not just politics, but, first of all, it is criminal activity. Many extremists were radicalized in prisons, where they were placed for committing conventional crimes such as robbery.

A report last year by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) puts emphasis on the merging of criminals and terrorists via social networks and milieus. Their shared environments facilitate terrorist recruitment. As an example, a suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, had been involved in petty crime in Molenbeek, Belgium, before he joined jihad.

I believe that closer cooperation between police and counterterrorism officers might have been able to deter some of the terror attacks that have occurred in Europe, while enhancing financial intelligence will, no doubt, hamper creation of the enabling environment for promulgation of extremist ideas and establishment of terrorist networks.

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.