Counter Threat Finance is expanding in focus and scope. Understanding how extremist groups gain funding is a fundamental question to be answered.

Let’s explore one-way terrorism finds funding. In theory, it could come from anywhere – a simple wire transfer or a Venmo payment can fuel an attack of some kind. When you think about terrorism, it’s cheap. There’s a significant return on the investment. Funding for an act of terrorism might mean cash for guns, travel costs, supplies and whatever else When you consider the damaging psychological effect these attacks incur. They end up a cost for the victims and governments far more than the perpetrator. Yes, terrorism as an act, like the recent shootings and explosions, it isn’t an expensive endeavor.

But, funding multiple coordinated acts in various theatres requires more nuance. How money travels from person to person and where it comes is probably done with great care. I wonder if Al-Qaeda has a kind of donor list like politicians. Just like politicians – I also wonder if they call or reach out every quarter, year or whatever their fundraising needs dictate.

It is an ideological campaign. A shadowy network of ideologically sensitive individuals. Some might be exploited and believe they are giving to a cause not affiliated with terrorism, while others could be fully aware they’re funding an act of terror.

When we think about Al-Qaeda, how they operate, many fundamental questions come to mind. Is there a salary for the full-time operators? They must have them to host training and check in with their proxy elements. Pure belief can only take these jihadis so far. Money and some standard of living is a fundamental driver for everyone. They must have a fundraising machine that is constantly churning.

Finance can be both personal and societal in scope. Individual investors fuel the marketplace. The same must be true for Al-Qaeda and other sophisticated terror groups. They could even dabble in a small scale private equity operation. Where they exploit family members, or those they can pressure to buy in on their businesses. They might recruit those they know own a significant portion of successful ventures, similar to how other tightly knit groups operate around the world. Everyone loves Mediterranean food. The Schwarma stands and other late night options in urban areas make a killing in this country and abroad. It’s reasonable to think an aboveboard citizen who owns a stake in such a restaurant could secretly fund terrorism at a small scale. That person might not even be aware of the involvement. It could be charitable money or for his or her family abroad to live better lives.

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If some of the financial backers aren’t aware of their involvement then how can nation states track them down? How can you charge someone if they did not intend or commit the act? Because there’s no doubt whenever money makes its way to a terror group, it’s gone through intermediaries. The systems we’ve set up to move money around the world with security is exploited for both good and bad.

Featured Image courtesy of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.