Terrorism Financing

For the last 20 years, governments have contended with terrorism financing. In the wake of 9/11, efforts to clamp down on what has been termed the “lifeblood of terrorist organizations” became a centerpiece of counter-terrorism policy in the United States. The ensuing anti-terrorist financing regime heralded a new era of unprecedented interagency coordination, international cooperation, and partnerships with the private sector that sought to pursue financial flows to their source. As a consequence, groups like al Qaeda encountered increasing difficulty in raising and moving funds.

Terrorism financing, however, is an ever-evolving phenomenon. The early 2010s saw the Islamic State (IS) draw annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars from oil sales, agricultural harvests, and taxation of local populations in territories under its control in Iraq and Syria. Abroad, IS relied on low-cost networked and inspired attacks to maintain its international brand. The group’s supporters used a mixture of newly available financial technologies and conventional methods to provide financial support from afar, travel to join IS in conflict theaters, and conduct attacks at home. From shipping tactical combat gear overseas to fraudulently using student loans for plane ticket purchases to cryptocurrency, the Islamic State’s foreign financiers have exhibited a wide range of financial behaviors in support of the group.

Over the last five years, the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University has conducted extensive research of multiple aspects of jihadist networks in the West. Since the beginning of 2019, the Program has embarked on a new research project aimed at analyzing the latest trends related to terrorism financing. The project’s first report, to be published by the end of 2019, will examine how American supporters of the Islamic State raise and move funds in support of the group’s endeavors. Successive research efforts will analyze terrorism financing dynamics related to other terrorist organizations and regions.