The U.S. Treasury Department, the only finance ministry in the world with its own intelligence service, is raising its public profile to demonstrate the fight against ISIS involves more than bombs.
David Cohen, the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism, has been announcing different sorts of financial sanctions intended to interrupt the flow of funds to a variety of targets, from drug cartels to Iran and now the Islamic State since he was sworn in more than three years ago.
Through that time Treasury has refined the sanctions weapon that operates in the world’s payments systems like laser-guided missiles aimed at points where money changes hands, very specific in their effect, sometimes aiming at a single individual.
By sending out its notices to the global banking system, access to the U.S. – without which foreign banks would find it hard to operate – is leveraged into a worldwide enforcement network that uses staff of financial institutions throughout the world as its agents.
Although Cohen has regularly issued press releases, some complete with big flow charts and pictures of the targets connected by lines of influence, the efforts of his office have remained in the news background – until now.
Cohen is now raising the profile of his office, Thursday taking questions first on C-Span then at the beginning of the daily White House press briefing, Wednesday appearing on the pages of the New York Times complete with the first group picture of his team, with more public exposure to come.
In his appearance Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the first global think tank, relayed to a national TV audience, Cohen acknowledged that the net he weaves of restrictions on financial transactions has big holes in it.
There are informal money networks that do not use banks. But they require individuals to make the networks operate, and the individuals have their own relationships with the formal financial system. Once identified, Treasury can try to isolate them.
The Islamic State, aka ISIS and ISIL, has been able to devise in a relatively short time a financial infrastructure it took the largest drug cartels decades to perfect. It controls territory that includes some of the oldest smuggling routes the world has ever seen. And it has the sympathy of many wealthy benefactors although, unlike the case with al Qaida, donors are a relatively small source of its funds.
A larger source are the protection payments ISIS collects from individuals and businesses in its territory they pay to be allowed to survive. When capturing territory ISIL also captures its antiquities which are sold on the black market.
It’s one thing for major players to buy stolen oil and other commodities from smugglers, for instance, that was taken from what had been the governments of Iraq and Syria, Cohen said in one of his answers Thursday. But it’s another to buy oil knowing it’s being delivered by ISIS.
“The smuggling routes have existed for a long period of time, long before ISIL was active in the territory,” he said. “The ability of people particularly at the end of these networks to be unaware of the origin of the oil may have been tolerable in a time where what was happening was just people stealing oil.”
What’s different, he continued, “is that we now know and they now know that it begins with ISIL, begins with a terrorist organization, and that the trade in this oil fundamentally funds this terrorist organization.”
So what “may have been a willingness to look the other way in the past is something I think that cannot continue going forward.” The United States, he said, “will try to emphasize that message both rhetorically and through actions as we identify the people who are involved.”
As for ISIS benefactors in other countries like Qatar and Kuwait, “I don’t sense any ambivalence whatsoever among some of the key partners in the importance of combating ISIL financing,” he said. “Both of those countries are aware of the problems.”
In Qatar there is a new law aimed at the charities that can funnel money to ISIL and other terrorist organizations, he said, with other laws that allow them to disrupt terrorist financiers. “We’re going to continue to work with both those jurisdictions so they employ those tools as effectively as possible.”
A major source of ISIL funds, ransom payments, has been addressed by the eight largest economies and the United Nations with explicit “no ransoms” policy “as a means to protect all of our citizens.”
Yet ISIL this year, he said, has received an estimated $20 million from ransoms alone. “That means not everybody is as committed to this ‘no ransoms’ policy as we are and the British are too.”
The anti-ISIL coalition now involves 60 countries and organizations, 10 of which are participating in the bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq.
“This is going to be a long-term effort,” Cohen said. “It’s going to involve work that the Treasury Department does in designations, in exposing the networks, the work of partners, in Turkey.”
In a larger context, however, Cohen said in his earlier prepared remarks that bombing and the disruptions of financial transactions are not going to be enough.
“We recognize that the only solutions to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are political,” he said. What will put ISIL out of business are “tolerant, economically vibrant societies and governments that rule in an inclusive manner,” goals the U.S. “is deeply committed to.”