In March, the House Committee on Financial Services announced the creation of a bipartisan Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing. The Task Force's broad mandate gives it the authority to investigate all matters "relating to terrorism financing issues" within the committee's jurisdiction. As threats proliferate, the Task Force has the opportunity to rethink how the United States combats terrorism financing and provide recommendations to improve this effort.
This type of congressional oversight is both timely and essential. The post-9/11 anti-money-laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) architecture has been dynamic and resilient when addressing diverse threats. Now, after 14 years, Congress can reflect on enormous changes in the space. Looking forward, the Task Force must balance the immediate risks posed by groups such as ISIS with emerging and over-the-horizon challenges that include changing technological capabilities, cyberterrorism, and systemic vulnerabilities to the financial system. Any findings and recommendations must also take into account larger national security, foreign policy, and economic goals.
As previous efforts inside and outside of government demonstrate, researching opaque terrorism financing networks and their infrastructure is no easy charge. The Task Force has assembled some of the most prominent scholars and practitioners working on these issues. To date, the Task Force has held four hearings with fifteen witnesses on issues ranging from the security of the financial system to the effect of the Iran Deal on terrorism financing. The hearings show the myriad threats posed by terrorism financing. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance has provided a broad spectrum of experts, contributing one third of the total witnesses. Other witnesses include representatives from the RAND Corporation, National Defense University, the American Foreign Policy Council, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, and Harvard University's Belfer Center. Committee staffers have also met privately with industry groups such as the American Bankers Association.
The Task Force has already made important contributions, like highlighting the corruption-crime-terrorism nexus to understand terrorist organization engagement with criminal enterprise. Such findings corroborate the Treasury Department's detailed and insightful 2015 National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment which, among many other topics, addresses the linkages between terrorism financing and cybercrime, identity theft, and new payment systems.
The Task Force has also sought testimony to elevate the technical issue of beneficial ownership to combat anonymous corporations that aid and abet terrorist financiers. Congress is well placed to take action to close beneficial ownership loopholes through legislation. Another witness put forward ideas to improve systemic "financial integrity," financial transparency and accountability, through enhanced legislative authorities.
However, more attention is needed on several critical areas.
First, the Task Force can take a more holistic approach to the potential consequences of new terrorism financing measures. New terror financing proposals may undermine efforts to provide economic opportunity to populations at risk of radicalization. Often, these are exactly the populations that the U.S. government is attempting to assist through its policies. Particularly, AML/CFT measures must be incorporated into broader national security, foreign policy, and economic objectives. The Task Force can benefit from ongoing study of this precise challenge to craft smart policy. The financial industry remains central to this issue as well.
For instance, take "de-risking," i.e. the termination of banking relationships based on perceived rather than actual risk, often in high-risk jurisdictions. In places like Somalia, shuttering licit banks and money remitters pose a very real impediment to U.S. goals for economic growth and development that is needed to counter terrorist groups like Al-Shabab. At least one senior administration official has raised similar concerns when pushing back against de-risking. This issue was also mentioned in two brief exchanges during the hearing on April 22, 2015, but more expert contributions are needed.
Second, the Task Force should study how technology is transforming the delivery of financial services in the United States and abroad. The Financial Action Task Force then-president, Roger Wilkins, noted last year that technology can be considered "value neutral": the widespread access to digital and mobile technologies directly affect how law-abiding citizens and terrorists interact with an increasingly interconnected financial system. This creates further challenges for legislators and regulators alike. Additionally, traditional banking services face increasing competition: peer-to-peer platforms, underground marketplaces, crowdfunding, and digital currencies can weaken, if not evade, regulatory monitoring and reporting mechanisms. The United States has been at the forefront of engagement in this space. While one witness briefly identified these issues in his testimony, the Task Force could bring in additional experts to understand the implications of changing technology on terrorism financing.
Third, separate and apart from the previous recommendation, cybersecurity should play a more pronounced role in this Task Force. While one witness provided technical guidance on information sharing and security threats to the financial system, greater attention is needed. Another witness noted that fallout from financial warfare poses the "greatest vulnerability" to the U.S. financial system. This same witness recently published a monograph on cybersecurity that could be used by the Task Force. Much of the Task Force's work focuses on the ways in which terrorists can exploit the financial system without causing harm to it. The Task Force's expansive mandate appears to allow it to look further at the inherent vulnerabilities of the financial system to attack.
Fourth, the Task Force can explore ways to harness the power of the private sector to deter and disrupt terrorism financing. One witness already testified about the courageous persistence of victim-plaintiffs in the fight against Iranian state-sponsored terrorism financing. However, deeper engagement on this topic is needed. In particular, financial institutions and private parties are critical to thwarting non-state actors' use of the financial system for terrorism financing. Financial institutions and other entities are on the front lines of deterring bad actors from entering the financial system as well as detecting illicit activities when they occur. Private parties, like U.S. victims of terrorist attacks, are empowered by Congress through laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act to hold financial institutions accountable for material support of terrorism. Recent federal court decisions have demonstrated the effectiveness of the civil litigation system in deterring terrorism financing and articulating the standards of liability for financial institutions (I worked for the plaintiffs' counsel in one such case). The Task Force can continue to incorporate the practical experiences of the private sector as it compiles findings and recommendations.
To its credit, Congress has shown a willingness to approach this complex issue in a thoughtful and bipartisan manner. Now, only weeks remain before the Task Force dissolves in late September. Congress has the opportunity to use this time to compile a strong record to inform its legislative priorities and prepare for future threats.
Alex Zerden is an attorney who has worked on financial crimes and congressional oversight matters involving terrorism financing and money laundering, economic sanctions enforcement and cybercrime. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexZerden