Terror expert claims extremists exploit luxury markets to generate funds for atrocities

French senator Nathalie Goulet's book outlines how terrorists use bitcoin, chocolate and counterfeiting trades to launder money

Nathalie Goulet has written a book detailing the extent of terrorist infiltration of lucrative markets. AFP
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From art and antiquities to cryptocurrency or crowdfunding, one of France’s leading security experts has written a book that calls for action against the financing tools exploited by terrorists.

Senator Nathalie Goulet has spent the past decade working on the terror threat in France, gaining insight into the extent of terrorist infiltration of lucrative markets.

“You have art, arms and drugs but you also have things that are not often known, like counterfeiting, crowdfunding and cryptocurrency," she told The National.

“Terrorism financing is something everyone needs to be aware of, money laundering especially. It opens the door to financing terrorism. It is a reality and we need to work on it.

Ms Goulet spent years studying the Muslim Brotherhood and its European links and has used her experience to write a book dedicated to the funding mechanisms used by terrorists.

The Alphabet of Terrorism Financing is an A-Z analysing the various strategies used by extremists.

“It’s a dictionary of the tools used by terrorists to finance terrorism,” she said. “It is from the work I have done over the years on terrorism. I wanted to write a book on the subject. I chose to shape it as a dictionary so it is clear and academic.

“It is a major subject for the international community. What’s important for me is for governments and heads of state to understand the links between money laundering and the financing of terrorism. It’s like a big sponge.”

Six months after the shocking Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, Ms Goulet co-chaired an inquiry into extremist networks and later wrote a report for Nato on the financing of terrorism.

Human trafficking and cryptocurrency helping to fund terror

The book covers 47 methods being used by extremists.

“The terrorists are very creative," Ms Goulet said. "There is always someone running faster and it is never the lawmakers.

“The art trade, online money pots, counterfeiting, consumer credit and even the purchase of chocolate are all unsuspected channels through which terrorist organisations finance their projects.

“One of the lesser known revenues is counterfeiting. It may seem a small thing buying a fake pair of shoes or a bag but in fact counterfeiting creates a very, very big network of financing terrorism."

Describing terrorist financing as a multibillion-pound industry, the author said extremists could be highly creative and opportunistic.

“They are ready to fill the gap," she said. "Recently we saw examples of this in Covid when fake tests were being sold.

“Another issue is human trafficking — it is growing and growing — and organ trafficking. We have seen examples of all of this being used to fund terrorism. Other trends we are seeing are cryptocurrencies being used for money laundering and crowdfunding sites.”

Last August, 23 tonnes of chocolate bars were seized by Israeli authorities, who believe the haul was intended to fund Hamas.

Low-cost terrorism making fight even harder

Ms Goulet said a major issue for governments was the low cost of terrorism.

In recent years, atrocities across Europe have been committed by ploughing vehicles into crowds.

Despite the US September 11 attacks costing $500,000 to plan and execute, European terrorism tends to cost substantially less.

The London transport bombings in July 2005 were estimated to have cost $12,000, the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 in which 130 people were killed cost $8,000 and the Charlie Hebdo killings $5,000.

"Terrorist activities in Europe do not require lots of expenses," Ms Goulet said. "To become a foreign terrorist fighter, it rarely takes more than a plane ticket for Turkey.

"You can buy an automatic rifle AK-47 for less than €2,000 [$2,003] and a pistol costs even cheaper. The cost of buying a knife or renting a vehicle is negligible.

People gather at a makeshift memorial outside the Bataclan theatre, one of the site of the attacks in Paris in November 2015. AFP

"Fighting the war on terror requires an enormous expenditure of money but conducting a terrorist operation can be surprisingly inexpensive, and inventive terrorists use every means at their disposal to raise funds and move money, from petty crime to bitcoins to legitimate charities.

"Tracking such small amounts is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. But these small amounts add up and this is where we need to be concerned.

"Committing an attack costs less and less. Faced with this low-cost terrorism, only the monitoring of weak signals makes it possible to identify atypical operations and go back to organised networks.

“Stemming this shifting and opportunistic phenomenon requires a relentless fight against fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.

“This low-cost terrorism is becoming more and more difficult to fight.”

Money laundering expected to double by 2027

Ms Goulet is hoping her book will reinforce the importance of monitoring money launderers and their criminal operations.

“We have a really big issue regarding money laundering,” she said.

“It is difficult to monitor and trace where the money is going. The UAE does a lot and has set up a special community to match international regulations for money laundering. As an international community we need to work together to tackle it.”

In the first six months of 2022, the UAE's anti-money laundering task force imposed fines of more than $11m in the fight to rein in illicit financial activity.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin pays his respects outside the former office of 'Charlie Hebdo', marking an anniversary of the attack. EPA

The UAE has been at the forefront of the fight against illegal financial activity as it seeks to promote a secure ecosystem in the country.

Globally, money laundering activity is projected to more than double to $5.8 billion by 2027 from an estimated $2.8bn in 2022, research firm Markets and Markets said in a report this month.

Ms Goulet said: “I hope this book will help wake people up and bring the subject back to the fore.

“It is the first book dealing with the financing of terrorism. I will continue to update it as things change. The structure of the book will allow it to be continually reviewed.

“It is not a best-seller but it will be a long-seller.”

Updated: July 14, 2022, 11:24 AM