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Harder than it Looks: Cutting ISIS’s Financing

The wake of the September 11th,, 2001 terrorist attack upon the World Trade Center in New York City drew the world’s attention to the destructive potential of extremist groups, followed quickly by questions of how to cut their financing. A popular solution is the use of the UN Security Council’s powers under chapter seven of the UN Charter to impose targeted sanctions against individuals and organizations. The targeted sanction listing creates an obligation upon UN member states to freeze the assets of listed individuals, in addition to other measures designed to cut off finances.

On February 26, 2014, these measures were taken in response to the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), starting with the passage of Resolution 2140(2014). These measures are limited to an initial one-year duration. Despite the imposition of an international legal obligation upon all states to cooperate in implementation, there are already signs of difficulties with this measure.

First, the scope of individuals and entities to be targeted can be both very small and fail to include more substantial sponsors of ISIS, yet too expansive of a listing could also deprive innocent people and organizations without an effective remedy, despite efforts to address this. Yet the current listing for ISIS, which boasts tens to hundreds of thousands of fighters, contains only three individuals selected for targeted sanctions. No private companies or institutions have yet been targeted despite the role they may play in financing ISIS. The effectiveness of the targeted sanctions measures have been called into question despite their authorization because they have not had the full desired impact.

Even placing the issues related to scope aside however, there are more fundamental questions of implementation generally. It remains to be seen whether there is any government capable of effectively implementing the sanctions requirements in the territories controlled by ISIS. Neither Iraq’s nor Syria’s governments are currently capable of asserting control over the routes and smuggling networks used by ISIS to facilitate the export of illegally seized oil; a significant source of financial revenue. ISIS may soon begin using digital currency and other unconventional financing methods and they also enjoy anonymous private funding by investors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait. This illustrates a broader problem with UN targeted sanctions: their reliance upon states to implement them and the varying degree with which this happens in practice.

The funding of ISIS by private investors violates the targeted sanctions measures adopted by the UN Security Council, but individual states are obligated to bear the burden of severing those financial streams and arresting the individuals responsible. Occasionally a state may not be able to effectively track and freeze such transactions, even if it desires to do so, and may request the assistance of other states. This normally could be expedited through mutual legal assistance treaties or multilateral treaties that both states agree to use as a substitute for a mutual legal assistance treaty. But in several cases, the states involved have no such treaty and rely upon letters rogatory. Unfortunately, these measures can vary considerably in their outcome, with requests for mutual legal assistance through treaties taking substantially less time to process than requests made through letters rogatory. Even if a request is made, there is still the question of capacity, specifically whether the state seeking to freeze the assets has the legal framework necessary to effectuate such a request or the technical ability to do so. Unfortunately, the resolution authorizing the use of targeted sanctions against ISIS does not include any legal obligations upon states to cooperate with requests for legal and technical assistance.

Depriving ISIS of its financial support is critical to undermining the long-term viability of the group, however, the current international legal measures alone, are not sufficient in scope and obligations to be as effective as intended. Though important, the targeted sanctions measure used by the UN is too limited in its temporal duration, current listing, and its lack of an obligation upon states to provide technical and legal assistance in implementation. Despite the lofty rhetoric, bankrupting ISIS will be harder than it looks.


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