Addressing the Foreign-Fighter Risk: a Role for Financial Intelligence?

Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib, courtesy of Freedom House/flickr

The participation of foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict is a growing concern, particularly among Western governments that are not only struggling to track the movement of their citizens, but are also fearful that those travelling to the conflict may become radicalised and return home with their extremist ideology. Recently, a UK Parliament Home Affairs Committee enquiry into counterterrorism heard from a range of experts how returning fighters pose a statistically significant risk to the security of their home countries. Research published by Thomas Hegghammer also suggests that perhaps one-in-nine foreign fighters from the West might perpetrate attacks on their home countries once they return.

In addition, several studies have been undertaken that seek to estimate the number and nationality of these foreign fighters. Consensus suggests that there are over 10,000 such fighters in Syria, with as many as 2000 (and rising) coming from Western Europe. A number of these have already died in battle or, as in the case of Briton Abdul Waheed Majeed, acted as suicide bombers. Yet, while there is certainly no suggestion that all those returning from the conflict will be radicalised, the West’s limited knowledge as to who travels and returns from Syria is alarming.

Travelling to this latest, and by most measures, most popular jihadi destination is straightforward. The prevalence of budget airline flights from many European capitals to Turkey has led some to dub this conflict ‘Easy Jihad,’ with flights from across Europe to the Turkey/Syria border costing little more than €300. A dawn flight from London could deliver you to the battle zone in time for the Isha’a prayer. But, while the relative ease of travel presents challenges and threats for the authorities, it also offers significant intelligence opportunities, in particular via partnership with the financial services industry (‘FSI’), a valuable and still underused resource in the fight against terrorism.

The Counter-terrorism Role of Financial Intelligence

The value of financial intelligence (‘FININT’) can be considerable, whether ‘pre- or post-event,’ and has been critical in the investigation of attacks like the 2009 Delta Airways ‘ underpants bomber,’ the interrupted transatlantic airline liquid-bomb plot in 2006, and the foiling by the German security service of the planned attack on Strasbourg’s Christmas market in 2000.

The FSI has highly advanced systems for screening money flows, account usage, and identifying unusual patterns. Consider, for example, the way in which credit card issuers block card usage that appears inconsistent with a cardholder’s normal habits. The FSI holds data that provides significant insight into the habits and movements of its account holders. The power of this type of data is illuminated by the simple but effective use to which it is put by retailers, proposing purchases of interest or anticipating buying needs based on habitual activity. These often accurate insights are performed using only a portion of an individual’s financial transacting.

With these snapshots of the possible intelligence value of the FSI in mind, it would seem valuable for the authorities to partner actively with the FSI so as to address the apparent lack of productive dialogue that currently exists between the two organizations. Consider the most likely steps of an individual who chooses to travel to Northern Syria. He (and they are almost exclusively male) will purchase an airline ticket, probably online with a debit or credit card. He will most likely pass through Istanbul or another airport within Turkey that accepts international flights either to change planes or to connect with ground transportation for onward travel to border areas such as Hatay Province. Turkey has an advanced banking market with ATM and credit card usage widely available. Thus somewhere, probably more than once, between touching down and arriving in the border region the traveller will use a banking service. Each of these financial footprints are recorded by the provider of the traveller’s financial services leading to the creation of a valuable picture of activity. In most cases, this picture is used to combat account fraud or tailor marketing campaigns, but there is no practical reason why it could not also be used for national security.

Of course, simple steps could be deployed by the traveller to disguise his intentions. However, most of these travellers are young and naïve and, just as they seem willing to publicise their activity via Facebook and Twitter, it is likely that their financial transactions will be equally transparent and revealing.

Clearly data protection and privacy issues are important when considering the use of any form of personal data and indeed the FSI has experienced fines and sanctions as a result of the loss or misuse of such data. Yet banks are already required to file so-called Suspicious Activity Reports (‘SARs’) to authorities. These are, in general, based on a bank’s own judgement of suspicion and, in the context of a regulatory regime that threatens material sanction if compliance failures are identified, tend to be numerous but of limited quality.

By partnering with the FSI, the security authorities could provide insights and guidance that would allow banks to monitor transaction flow for activity consistent with that associated with young men travelling across Europe to fight jihad in Syria. In return, the banks could then alert the authorities via the SARs system and augment their ability to counter a threat which is now considered as ‘a growing proportion’ of the security service’s workload.

Conclusion

As previously discussed, the lack of partnership between national authorities and the FSI is a missed opportunity and potential security weakness. The challenge posed to Western authorities by the number of foreign fighters travelling to the Syrian conflict is a real, current, and instructive example of where such a lack of partnership creates unnecessary vulnerabilities. It should not need a ‘post-event’ investigation to highlight the extent to which financial intelligence and partnership between authorities and the FSI can add significantly to the protection governments are seeking in facing down this rapidly growing security risk.

Tom Keatinge is an analyst of finance and security. He holds a Master’s in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London.


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