AUSTRAC has hundred in frame for terror financing
November 4, 2015 12:00AM
Australia’s financial intelligence agency is monitoring more than 100 people suspected of funding terrorism, as the Turnbull government prepares to host the first regional summit aimed at tackling those who bankroll terrorists.
The summit, to be held this month, comes amid concerns that terror groups such as Islamic State are increasingly drawing funds from sympathetic communities in the West, including Australia.
AUSTRAC, which polices money laundering and terrorism-financing laws, has recorded a 300 per cent increase in the number of suspicious money transactions relating to terrorism, a spike driven largely by Syria’s four-year civil war, as well as more vigilant reporting from financial institutions.
It has also revealed it is now monitoring the financial activities of more than 100 Australians over concerns they are in some way funding terror groups.
Organisations such as Islamic State are becoming increasingly inventive in the way they source or transfer finances. The Australian understands one increasingly popular method is crowd-funding, whereby Islamic State will circulate details of a bank account on social media and invite supporters to make donations before authorities detect it and shut it down.
The revelations come as the cost of terrorism plummets, thanks to the increasingly rudimentary, almost spontaneous, nature of modern terrorism.
In its 2014-15 annual report, AUSTRAC says that of the 81,074 so-called “suspicious matter reports’’, 536 related to potential terror financing. The value of those reports was $53 million, $11m of which was in cash.
The money is small compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars Islamic State is believed to have netted in black market oil sales, kidnap and ransom activities, the trade in pillaged antiquities and hard currency seized from banks overrun by the group’s marauding fighters. But with the cost of terrorism declining, the figures are significant.
AUSTRAC chief executive Paul Jevtovic told The Australian: “Involving yourself in terrorism can be as cheap as a couple of hundred dollars, it can be as cheap as buying an airline ticket.’’
The agency said that as well as funding individual attacks and operations, terrorism financing helped the network of about 120 Australian fighters believed to be in Syria and northern Iraq.
“It supports the less violent or obvious aspects of a group’s operations, such as living expenses, travel, training, propaganda activities and compensation for wounded fighters or the families of terrorists who have died,’’ its report says.
The apparent spike in terror financing has prompted the Turnbull government to convene a regional summit to address the problem. The summit, to be held on November 17-18 in Sydney, will include 150 leaders and experts in counter-terrorism financing from about 17 countries. It will be co-hosted by Indonesia’s financial intelligence unit, Pusat Pelaporan dan Analisis Transaksi Keuangan, the Centre for Financial Transactions Reporting and Analysis.
Authorities have become increasingly alarmed by the inroads Islamic State has made into Indonesia’s sprawling community of jihadists. Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual head of terror outfit Jemaah Islamiah, swore an oath of allegiance to Islamic State while in prison, fuelling concerns the Syrian conflict could revitalise JI’s networks, which have been decimated by years of aggressive counter-terrorism policing by Jakarta.
Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the summit would focus on emerging trends in terror financing and greater co-operation and information sharing among countries. “Terrorists and organised crime groups cannot operate without financial backing or a way to launder their dirty profits,’’ he said. “Cutting off their money supply goes a long way to shutting down their ability to carry out their atrocious acts.’’
The summit follows a conference hosted in June by Attorney-General George Brandis aimed at countering violent extremism and Islamic State propaganda.
Islamic State has proved agile in exploiting social media. It has also been adept at exploiting communication technologies, such as encrypted messaging apps, to frustrate surveillance efforts. There are signs it is doing the same with money. In June, a US teen pleaded guilty to offering advice on how Islamic State supporters could conceal donations using Bitcoin.
Mr Jevtovic said Islamic State was “no different’’ from crime groups in terms of how it moved money. “They’ll use any method they can,’’ he said. “They are running like a state, they need a lot of money, they have a lot of mouths to feed.’’
He said one common method of getting money to Islamic State was cash smuggling, with money transferred from Australia to a financial institution in a country on the fringes of the conflict, such as Lebanon or Turkey, and then walked across the border.
He declined to comment on suggestions the group was using crowd-funding, but agreed it was an emerging risk