Another Takeaway from the Trump Trip: Targeting Terrorist Financing

Many (see herehere, here, and here) are listing takeaways from President Trump’s trip abroad, such as the unusual pomp and circumstance in Saudi Arabia, the unprecedented non-stop flight from Riyadh to Jerusalem, the significance of the follow-up leg to Rome, and the interactions with NATO and the G7 countries.

A takeaway that has received far too little attention, in my view, is the announcement of an agreement between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council to set up a new effort to combat terrorist financing. It highlights the role that finance and economics can play in foreign policy and national security. In the speech in Saudi Arabia at the Arab Islamic American Summit, Trump announced “that the nations here today will be signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism, called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center—co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is another historic step in a day that will be long remembered.”

The aim is to cut off financial channels through which ISIS gets cash, to “strip them of their access to funds” whether from selling oil or receiving transfers of funds which are used to pay fighters and recruit reinforcements. It is an important part of the new accelerated strategy to defeat ISIS, as Secretary of Defense Mattis has explained. Later in the trip the US and the other G7 countries followed up in a communique that “we will refocus our efforts and take action to cut off sources and channels of terrorist financing and the financing of violent extremism,” and Trump mentioned it again in the final speech of the trip in Sicily.

That this is a highly visible joint effort demonstrates significant strength and resolve, especially with Saudi Arabia and the United States co-chairing and with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council–Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates—participating. The new agreement and center will include countries that could be doing more stop the flow of money to extremists. The action is similar to, but stronger and wider than, previous joint agreements, some going back to the months after 9/11. For example, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia jointly designated branches of the Saudi based charity, Al-Haramain, in Bosnia, Somalia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, and Tanzania in 2002 and 2004. At that time U.S. intelligence showed that these branches of Al-Haramain were diverting funds to Al-Qaeda and to Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, and were linked to bombings in Bali and in U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam.

The Treasury will play a key role in the new Center, and details are posted here along with the MOU on the Treasury web site.  Of course, the specific actions of the Center going forward are what will really matter, and Treasury’s job will be key, at least that is my experience from developing the initial international efforts to combat terrorist financing at the Treasury in the days and months after 9/11 as described here. That job will be in the hands of the incoming Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

Unfortunately, the confirmation of the nominee for that position, Sigal Mandelker, is now blocked. As Senator Ron Wyden tweeted “I’ve placed a hold on nominee for Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism & Financial Intelligence until Trump Admin produces Russia docs.” This hold obviously has an adverse effect on the new Center. It is important for the Senate to confirm Sigal Mandelker so that she and the United States can get going on implementing the new initiative.

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