Follow Us:

Terrorists, too, could use deadly pathogens

For instance, a FATF report on money laundering and terrorist financing noted the prevalence of fundraising scams, in which entities posing as “international organisations or charities circulate emails requesting donations for Covid-19- related fundraising campaigns.” In June 2021, under the pretext of helping India combat the pandemic, USbased charity organisations with links to Pakistan reportedly collected funds that could be used for terrorist activities.

SANJAY PULIPAKA AND KRISHNA KOUNDINYA | New Delhi |

F rom this month onwards, India will be the Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the UNSC for the year 2022. Assuming the Chair, the Indian Permanent Representative at the UNSC, Ambassador T S Tirumurti, called on the international community to refrain from adopting a ‘my terrorist’ versus ‘your terrorist’ approach and combat the misuse of emerging technologies for terrorism.

The Indian representative’s unambiguous statements are understandable, given the fragility in the international system. For almost two years, the world has been reeling under the impact of Covid-19 and the resilience of many nation-states/societies has been tested. The economic, political and security challenges spawned by the pandemic have compounded the challenges.

In the midst of the pandemic, the world is witnessing an incipient great power competition and territorial contestations. Further, many established democracies in the West are looking inwards to bridge domestic political divides. Across various countries, there is an opinion that people of ‘other’ ethnic communities are instrumental in spreading the disease.

A spike in terrorist actions will further exacerbate tensions between various ethnic communities, especially in western democracies that are having an intense conversation on issues such as immigration. Largescale terrorist violence, in the context of the pandemic, will result in political and social instability in various countries, which will be difficult to contain. For many terrorist organisations, the pandemic may appear as a technology demonstrator.

The scale of disruption that the pandemic has unleashed may prompt terrorist organisations to explore new modes of violent actions. It is distinctly possible, as we read this article, that terror outfits will be scouting for financial and technical resources to develop their expertise in the realm of biological and chemical warfare. In fact, in March 2021, the Chairperson of the UNSC 1540 Committee, which deals with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, noted that the possibility of “non-State actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction, including the spread of deadly pathogens” continues to be a threat. It is easy to dismiss such possibilities as mere speculation – the Anthrax attacks in 2001 in the US and Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 point to historical precedence. Detonating a bomb or shooting at unarmed civilians, tragic as they are, are often confined to a geographic territory.

On the other hand, deployment of biological weapons can spread across countries and its impact may be visible only after significant damage is done. All terrorist activities require considerable financial resources, which are often provided by state actors. Quite often, concerns about possible international opprobrium for supporting terrorist organisations prompt some governments to create fronts such as civil society organisations, which raise the necessary resources through various activities such as drug trafficking, smuggling, extortion and illegal use of natural resources.

Sometimes, groups such as ISIS invested in legitimate commercial enterprises ranging from real estate, hotels, to automobile dealerships. Quite often, the profits from such enterprises are ploughed back to fund activities through money laundering and illicit financial transactions. ISIS’s assets, according to some estimates, run into “hundreds of millions of dollars across the Middle East and Central Asia.”

According to the US State Department , “criminals launder an estimated two to nearly four trillion dollars each year.” The pandemic has scaled up opportunities to mobilise resources for various terrorist outfits. A substantial amount of economic activity is now conducted on digital platforms due to lockdowns and social distancing measures to contain the spread of the virus. As a consequence, a large number of people across the world have not only dropped their reluctance to undertake financial transactions on virtual platforms but are also now increasingly comfortable with doing so. While increased digitization of the financial domain is a welcome development, various terrorist organisations are generating greater financial resources by tapping into gullible netizens.

For instance, a FATF report on money laundering and terrorist financing noted the prevalence of fundraising scams, in which entities posing as “international organisations or charities circulate emails requesting donations for Covid-19- related fundraising campaigns.” In June 2021, under the pretext of helping India combat the pandemic, USbased charity organisations with links to Pakistan reportedly collected funds that could be used for terrorist activities. Collecting money under the banner of charities by various terror groups has a long history.

For instance, a New York Times report in 2006, pointed out that some charities in Pakistan were funnelling money to fund terror activities. In 2019, media reports speculated that Lashkar-eTaiba might have received support from civil society organisations based in the US. With the proliferation of financial digital platforms, there is an urgent need for enhanced tracking of finances to terror organisations /armed groups.

In fact, in August 2020, the US Justice Department announced the “dismantling of three terrorist financing cyber-enabled campaigns,” which involved 300 cryptocurrency accounts and social media platforms. A month later, French police arrested some 29 people for using cryptocurrency to finance terror outfits in Syria. In 2021, Germany banned religious organisations and conducted simultaneous raids in different parts of the country to disrupt international money laundering networks.

Given these developments, it is important that international organisations scrutinise and rigorously evaluate countries and their compliance with various international anti-terrorism standards/recommendations developed by multilateral institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The nation-states that are lackadaisical in implementing agreed recommendations to curtail money laundering and combat financial flows to terror organisations are actually few in number. However, their actions can have a deleterious impact on the regional and global economy. It is precisely for this reason that there is very little space for the arguments that call for a lenient approach under the pretext of domestic economic stress caused by the pandemic.

Countries that take a few symbolic actions instead of initiating genuine structural change in the financial system that make it difficult to launder money for terrorist actions should not be let off the hook.

(The writers are, respectively, a Senior Fellow at the Delhi Policy Group, India, and an Indian Revenue Service officer with the Government of India. The views expressed here are personal.)