After a seven-year-long counter-terrorism campaign against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Europe has failed to reach a consensus over the right balance between community outreach and targetted operational activity. According to EUROPOL’s latest report, EU member states still regard jihadi networks as the primary terrorism threat.
The debate on what to do with European return-fighters from the Middle East is ongoing, while major networks such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS continue to compete for influence across a number of theatres. Muslim communities in Europe are in effect held hostage to Taqfiri activism that stains broader social strata and communities, collectively blamed for the choices of self-proclaimed “community leaders.”
The perennial question is how to target the right individuals without targetting the community at large.
Follow the money
One answer is “follow the money.”
The funding of Islamic institutions from funds originating in the Gulf often brings European Muslims into a defensive position vis-à-vis their wider community. At the same time, community centres of this kind can often mobilise support for causes that are detached from the needs of Muslims in Europe, multiplying the influence of marginal groups. These groups are in turn able to mobilise youth online around different preaching sminars that are cumulatively emerging as a global Jihadi Network.
Therefore, the pressure is mounting for a coordinated European response with EU member states and the UK looking for a common policy position on which to base common operational responses. At the heart of tactical considerations is data management.
Data infringement nowadays can take two paths.
Given the right computing capacity, one can mine enough meta-data – electronic payments, online orders, credit cards use – to cumulatively reconstruct one’s financial behaviour. Another is to go straight for access to private account data.
The banking system needs to step up
“The effectiveness of authorities at both detecting and investigating terrorist activity is significantly enhanced when counter-terrorist intelligence and financial information are used together, notes Grahame White, an Anti-Money Laundering Specialist who was worked as a Financial Investigator for 15 years and is now the Head of Analysis International Ltd.
“I feel that for too long banks have been held accountable for protecting the financial borders without being equipped to do so effectively,” he notes.
“Whereas Banks have a significant pool of intelligence on which to draw when tackling fraud and other forms of Fin Crime, they are less well equipped to identify activity regarding Terrorists, Extremists, Radicalisers or the Radicalised unless supplied with typologies by those better informed,” he adds.
“In 2004 the Commission into 9/11 cast doubt over how important it was to arm banking personnel with intelligence to Ferret out the terrorists in their customer base. However we are now at 2021 and we know that Terrorists sit in the banking system, and advances in technology and transaction monitoring systems have definitely improved the capabilities of Banks and other Institutions to play a more proactive front line role as is required by the Authorities.”
Dilemmas before us
The tactical ability to mine, organise and cluster data to signal terrorist activity is a capability that is developing and could lead the next wave of counterterrorism policy.
Ultimately, however, the question at hand is political. Traditionally, financial data are the building blocks of individual autonomy and citizenship in the western world. Greater access to personal financial data, even meta-data, is typical of regimes dominated by state-owned companies, like China and Russia. In a world dominated by internet giants – Google, Facebook, Apple – such qualms about the consolidation of data ecosystems may seem naïve. They are not, especially because banking and currency is the next final frontier for data oligopolies. The spectre of a financial “surveillance panopticon” has far-reaching repercussions. Data ownership and individual rights go hand-in-hand. At the same time, by following the money rather than the community, societies have an opportunity to move away from scapegoating towards more targetted counterintelligence. That is a discussion with no easy answers.
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