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Terror in Europe

The Poisonous Link Between Underground Economy And Terror Financing

Fighters from a Shiite paramilitary unit
Fighters from a Shiite paramilitary unit
Marie-Christine Dupuis-Danon*


PARIS — Little is known about the financing of terror. Where does it come from? What part did it play in the Paris shootings and Brussels bombings? Are we able to fight it effectively?

We are, on all counts, poorly equipped to deal with this challenge.

In France and our neighboring countries, there is an entrenched underground economy fueled by the trafficking of weapons and drugs, social benefits fraud, gaps in the legal economy fed by high unemployment and the development of a system of solidarity that values community ties above all else. There are also far too few measures to stop illicit foreign money pouring into France.

French Minister of Urban Affairs Patrick Kanner famously declared that there could be "100 Molenbeeks" in our country, a reference to the Belgian town near Brussels that has turned into a hotbed for Islamic terrorism. Some considered his remarks politically incorrect, but Kanner was simply acknowledging that many socially and economically marginalized areas could be potential support bases for the kind of astonishing violence we have recently endured.

Codes of silence

The problems in these areas were first identified in the mid-1990s. They have since supplied terrorists with the means to access guns and explosives, and gave them the logistics to carry out the recent attacks in Europe. These places also offered the help of residents who are ready to abide by a strict code of silence, as was seen when after the November attacks in Paris, a key suspect Salah Abdeslam, was able to hide for four months in Molenbeek.

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Molenbeek by night — Photo: Aktron

That's the heart of the problem. If we are to fight against gangsters-turned-terrorists by targeting the financing of their operations, we need to focus primarily on the criminal economy that feeds this "ecosystem" in which they feel so at ease. We need to do that, first and foremost, because trafficking makes it possible for them to move forward, without any major difficulties, along the clearly marked path that goes from street crime to mass murder.

Terror acts, like those committed in Paris and Brussels, don't require a lot of money. Even the day-to-day preparation such as organizing an apartment, cars, cellphones and the like, remains relatively cheap and is therefore financially undetectable. It's only after an attack that the financial system offers investigative leads that help ascertain those complicit or the existence of a network. The measures, especially those used after Sept. 11, 2001, are efficient, and investigations have quick results.

Some avenues are hard to control: daily transactions in cash, consumer credits (for instance, Amedy Coulibaly, the Paris kosher supermarket attacker, had borrowed 6,000 euros), informal cross-border transfers like the hawala system, anonymous payment methods, the dark Web. We need to get around these gaps to trace financial flows. But measures such as those announced by the European Union, which calls for stricter regulation on prepaid cards and virtual currencies, are likely to bring about marginal changes, if any.

Meanwhile the Islamic State terror group (ISIS) has amassed the largest treasury ever accumulated by a terrorist organization. Several figures circulate, and must be regarded cautiously, including one of $2.26 trillion, an estimate from the sale of oil, gas, mines and antiquities, as well as funds captured from the central bank in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

We must prevent the group's funds from getting bigger with each military victory. We could start by ensuring that Libya's vast resources do not fall into the hands of ISIS.

Part of the problem is the sluggish pace of blocking financial operations, and a chronic difficulty in identifying, freezing and confiscating criminal assets. "Physical" trafficking is even harder to curtail. We are limited to bombing oil wells and some tanker convoys.

Finally, we need to look at donations from rich families in the Gulf. Although such type of funding has supposedly been reduced under pressure over the past year, it still remains an opaque and sensitive topic. This reality needs to faced squarely if we want to target the wallet of the Islamic State group.

Fighting terror financing can only go so far if we don't first tackle the plagues of the underground economy and trafficking.

*Marie-Christine Dupuis-Danon is a consultant and an expert in criminal finance.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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