The European Commission put forward a series of measures designed to further strengthen the EU’s framework to fight against money laundering and terrorist financing:
- An Action Plan for a Comprehensive EU policy on Preventing Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing
- A refined and more transparent methodology to identify high-risk third countries
- An updated list of high-risk third countries
To ensure inclusive discussions on the development of these policies, the Commission launched a public consultation today on the Action Plan. Authorities, stakeholders and citizens will have until 29 July to provide their feedback.
Action Plan for a Comprehensive EU policy on Preventing Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing
Why is the Commission adopting this Action Plan now?
While current EU rules are far-reaching, and even go beyond international standards, they are not applied in a fully coherent manner across the EU. This leads to fragmentation between Member States. The challenge lies not only with specific pieces of legislation but with how these rules are implemented effectively across the EU. There is a clear need to tackle this lack of coherence and ensure a more harmonised implementation of the rules across the EU.The recent increase in criminal activities in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that criminals will exploit all possible avenues to pursue their illicit activities to the detriment of society. The EU needs to be equally determined in ensuring that they do not benefit from the proceeds of these crimes.
In July 2019, the Commission adopted an Anti-Money Laundering Communication, which highlighted a number of measures that could be taken to remedy the weaknesses in the EU’s current anti-money laundering rules.
Following this, the European Parliament and the Council invited the Commission to investigate what steps could be taken to achieve a more harmonised set of rules across the EU, including better supervision at an EU level and improved coordination among Member States’ Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs).
Today’s Action Plan is the Commission’s reply to these calls and is a first step towards a new, comprehensive framework to fight money laundering and terrorist financing in the EU.
How is the EU going to stop money laundering and terrorist financing?
Money laundering is a difficult crime to detect. Its consequences can have a severe impact on the EU’s economy and on its financial system. Therefore, the EU needs to have a multi-faceted approach to properly tackle money laundering and terrorist financing. Action is needed on several levels.
This is why the Commission has today put forward a series of measures aimed at closing any loopholes or weak links in the EU’s anti-money laundering rules.
Today’s Action Plan is built on six pillars, each of which is aimed at improving the EU’s overall fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as strengthening the EU’s global role in this area. When combined, these six pillars will ensure that EU rules are more harmonised and therefore more effective. The rules will be better supervised and there will be better coordination between Member States’ authorities.
The six pillars are as follows:
Effective application of EU rules: the Commission will continue to monitor closely the implementation of EU rules by Member States to ensure that the national rules are in line with the highest possible standards. In parallel, today’s Action Plan encourages the European Banking Authority (EBA) to make full use of its new powers to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing.
A single EU rulebook: while current EU rules are far-reaching and effective, Member States tend to apply them in a wide variety of different manners. Diverging interpretations of the rules therefore lead to loopholes in our system, which can be exploited by criminals. To combat this, the Commission will propose a more harmonised set of rules in the first quarter of 2021.
EU-level supervision: currently it is up to each Member State to individually supervise EU rules in this area and as a result, gaps can develop in how the rules are supervised. In the first quarter of 2021, the Commission will propose to set up an EU-level supervisor.
A coordination and support mechanism for Member States’ Financial Intelligence Units:Financial Intelligence Units in Member States play a critical role in identifying transactions and activities that could be linked to criminal activities. In the first quarter of 2021, the Commission will propose to establish an EU mechanism to help further coordinate and support the work of these units.
Enforcing EU-level criminal law provisions and information exchange: Judicial and police cooperation, on the basis of EU instruments and institutional arrangements, is essential to ensure the proper exchange of information.The private sector can also play a role in fighting money laundering and terrorist financing. The Commission will issue guidance on the role of public-private partnerships to clarify and enhance data sharing.
The EU’s global role: the EU is actively involved within the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and on the world stage in shaping international standards in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. We are determined to step up our efforts so that we act as a single global actor in this area. In particular, the EU will adjust its approach to third countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing regimes that pose significant threats to our Single Market. The new methodology issued alongside this Action Plan today provides the EU with the necessary tools to do so. Pending the entry into force of this revised methodology, today’s updated EU list ensures better alignment with the latest FATF (Financial Action Task Force) list.
What about the effective implementation of current EU rules?
The Commission closely monitors the implementation of all EU rules in its Member States. For example, infringement proceedings were opened in February 2020 against all those Member States that failed to notify transposition of the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive.
In parallel, we continue to verify that Member States have fully and correctly transposed the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive. The Commission has also started checking how Member States are implementing this Directive in practice. This is done in the context of the European Semester cycle. The Commission has also contracted a study by the Council of Europe, which has extensive experience in such checks. This study will feed into the report on effectiveness that the Commission is required to submit by 2022 under the Anti-Money Laundering Directive.
The Commission expects the European Banking Authority (EBA) to use its new powers to improve the effectiveness of supervisory action in the financial sector by conducting on-site examinations to assess AML framework across the EU.
Will this Action Plan lead to a new Regulation? What rules will be harmonised in the future?
This will be subject to a thorough analysis to ensure that we reach as high a level of harmonisation as possible. Current EU rules do function but Member States tend to apply them in a wide variety of different manners. Diverging interpretations of EU law therefore lead to loopholes in our system, which can be exploited by criminals. To combat this, the Commission will propose a more harmonised set of rules in the first quarter of 2021.
A number of areas where divergence should be minimised were highlighted, namely the list of obliged entities, customer due diligence requirements, internal controls, and reporting obligations.
Is current supervision sufficient or should an Agency at EU level be created?
Following recent EU reforms, the European Banking Authority (EBA) has been empowered to act quickly and decisively in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. It is now equipped with concrete tools to ensure the exchange of information between anti-money laundering and financial supervisors.
The latest amendments of the Anti-Money Laundering Directive also give national authorities more powers to act where banks, or financial and non-financial entities, breach their anti-money laundering obligations. These amendments also improve the exchange of information between authorities.
Nevertheless, as outlined in a Commission Report on the assessment of recent alleged money laundering cases, some structural weaknesses in the EU’s anti-money laundering framework persist, even after all the new measures have been fully implemented.
These weaknesses may endanger the security and reputation of the EU’s financial system. Therefore, it is essential that the EU’s anti-money laundering rules can also be supervised at an EU level.
The role and scope of this EU-level supervision – as well as the supervisory body that should be tasked with carrying out this role – will be proposed following a thorough assessment of all options, also based on the feedback we will receive in the open public consultation launched today.
The EU-level supervisor will be established as part of a comprehensive new policy to fight money laundering and terrorist financing. The Commission has set the political objective to achieve this within this mandate, and we count on the support of the European Parliament and the Council to ensure that the legislative work will progress as swiftly as possible.
Will all operators be supervised by this EU-level supervisor?
This matter will be thoroughly analysed. As the Action Plan notes, there are several options regarding the scope of EU-level supervision, ranging from a narrow to a broad scope. Each of these options has pros and cons, and the Commission’s proposal will be based on a careful assessment of all options, also based on the feedback we will receive in the open public consultation launched today, ensuring that the future supervisory framework is of the highest quality and leaves no weak links nor loopholes in the system.
What about the national Financial Intelligence Units (FIU)?
Financial Intelligence Units(FIUs)in Member States play an important role in identifying transactions and activities that could be linked to criminal activities. However, several technical difficulties in the functioning of the secure communication channels (FIU.net) have created difficulties.
Several Financial Intelligence Units fail to comply with their obligation to exchange information with other Financial Intelligence Units. In addition, some Financial Intelligence Units have not managed to engage in a meaningful dialogue by giving quality feedback to private entities, as required by the Anti-Money laundering Directive. The Action Plan sets the ground for the creation of an EU support and coordination mechanism for these Units.
The aim of this mechanism is to remedy the weaknesses that were identified in how Financial Intelligence Units work. This support and coordination mechanism would support cross-border cooperation and analysis. It would also streamline how information is exchanged between Member States’ FIUs and the FIUs of third countries. Finally, this support mechanism will operate as the host and as a secure communication channel for the FIU.net.
The private sector can play a critical role in fighting money laundering and terrorist financing. What will the Commission do to support its involvement?
Private operators are the gatekeepers of our financial system and our economy. They are the first ones to detect whether a transaction or activity might be suspicious. With their day-to-day experience, they can certainly contribute to fighting money launderers and those who fund terrorist activities.
The Commission fully recognises the benefits of the public and the private sector working together in this area. At the same time, it is important that these partnerships develop in a sound manner. To this end, the Commission will issue guidance, including sharing of good practices, and will consider whether to request the opinion of the European Data Protection Board in this work.
Will the list of private operators subject to anti-money laundering/terrorist financing requirements be expanded?
We will analyse whether the current scope of operators subject to these rules is adequate. Recent reviews of international standards suggest that, as a minimum, virtual asset service providers should be requested to comply withthe relevant rules.
This is also an area where we can learn from Member States’ experiences. Some countries have expanded the list of professionals subject to these rules to include, for example, crowdfunding platforms. All these examples should be analysed, also based on the feedback we will receive in the open public consultation launched today, to arrive at a harmonised list of obliged entities.
New methodology for identifying high-risk third countries
Why do you need a new methodology to identify high-risk third countries?
Identifying and tackling money-laundering activities is a moving target. Criminal techniques develop fast and take into account the latest technological developments. The new methodology aims at tackling these issues and updating our capacity to successfully identify high-risk third countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing regimes that pose significant threats to our Single Market.
In addition, under the Anti-Money Laundering Directive (AMLD), the Commission has a legal obligation to identify high-risk third countries with strategic deficiencies in their legal systems regarding money laundering and terrorist financing. This is to ensure that enhanced due diligence measures are applied, for example, by relevant EU businesses when carrying out financial transactions involving those third countries.
The 5th AMLD, adopted in July 2018, further strengthened the criteria for the identification of high-risk third countries, going beyond the criteria of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in particular as regards beneficial ownership information.
The Council objected to the list presented by the Commission on 13 February 2019. The Commission has worked within that legal framework to address concerns expressed by the Council as regards the transparency of the process and the need to incentivise third countries and respect their right to be heard.
The key new elements of today’s refined methodology for identifying high-risk third countries concern: (i) the interaction between the EU and FATF listing process; (ii) an enhanced engagement with third countries subject to the autonomous assessment; and (iii) reinforced consultation of Member States experts. The European Parliament and the Council will have access to all relevant information at the different stages of the procedures, subject to appropriate handling requirements.
What are the criteria used for listing a third country at EU level?
The 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive (AMLD) sets out the technical criteria for identifying high-risk third countries. These requirements have been revised by the 5th Anti Money Laundering Directive in order to provide even more robust criteria.
Under the AMLD, the Commission takes into account strategic deficiencies of those countries, in particular in relation to the legal and institutional AML/CFT (anti-money laundering / countering the financing of terrorism) framework such as:
o criminalisation of money laundering and terrorist financing,
o customer due diligence and record keeping requirements,
o reporting of suspicious transactions,
o the availability and exchange of information on beneficial ownership of legal persons and legal arrangements;
o the powers and procedures of competent authorities;
o their practice in international cooperation;
o the existence of dissuasive, proportionate and effective sanctions.
As a general requirement, the effectiveness in applying those AML/CFT safeguards will be considered. When carrying out its assessment, the Commission considers relevant evaluations, assessments or reports drawn up by relevant international organisations and standard setters – in particular those issued by FATF – as well as other information sources.
Once the new methodology is in place, who will be consulted?
Member State experts will be consulted at every stage of the process regarding the assessments of third country regimes, the definition of mitigating measures, third countries’ implementation of “EU Benchmarks” and the preparation of the Delegated Regulation. This consultation will include specific Member State competent authorities (law enforcement, intelligence services, Financial Intelligence Units). The European Parliament will be fully involved in those consultations.
The Commission is committed to ensuring appropriate reporting to the European Parliament. Both the European Parliament and the Council will have access to all relevant information at the different stages of the procedures, subject to appropriate handling requirements.
How often will the list be updated?
The EU list will be updated one month following the publication of an updated FATF list, which the Commission considers as a baseline. In addition, the Commission will identify further third countries based on its own autonomous assessment, after having engaged with those countries as set out in the refined methodology published today. The Commission will immediately identify those countries that refuse to take commitments to address their strategic deficiencies (“non-cooperative jurisdictions”) or those third countries that have an overriding level of risk. Third countries taking commitments to address concerns, as part of the Commission’s autonomous assessment, will benefit from a 12-month observation period. In case they do not implement those commitments within the agreed period, the Commission will proceed with a listing.
How does the FATF lists interact with the EU list?
Third countries listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will in principle also be listed by the EU. For countries de-listed by FATF, the Commission will assess whether the reasoning for de-listing is also sufficiently comprehensive from the EU’s point of view.
With regard to EU Accession countries, the Commission may develop other mitigating measures in the context of the accession negotiations that address the identified strategic deficiencies. Accession countries could take commitments that go beyond the FATF action plans. This will be closely monitored by the Commission. This option does not apply to third countries that are not in the process of acceding to the EU.
In specific circumstances – for example, if a third country has strategic deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing regime that pose a significant threat to the EU or if certain requirements related to beneficial ownership transparency are in question – certain EU requirements can “top up” the existing FATF Action Plan.
If a third country presents a risk and is not yet subject to the FATF procedure, the Commission or Member States should flag this in FATF before considering adding this country to the EU’s autonomous list.
What is the link between the AML listing process and the EU’s list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions?
The EU list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions and the EU’s AML lists may overlap on some of the countries they feature, but they have different objectives, criteria, compilation processes and consequences. The EU’s tax list is a Council-led process, whereas the EU’s anti-money laundering (AML) list is established by the Commission based on EU anti-money laundering rules. The high-risk third country (AML) list aims to address risks to the EU’s financial system caused by third countries with deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regimes. On the basis of this list, banks must apply higher due diligence controls to financial flows involving those high risk third countries. The anti-money laundering list is compiled by the Commission. On the other hand, the common EU list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions addresses the external risks to Member States’ tax bases, posed by third countries that do not comply with international tax good governance standards. It is managed directly by the Member States, through the Code of Conduct Group, with the support of the Commission. The Code of Conduct Group decides which jurisdictions should be listed and makes a recommendation to EU Finance Ministers, who take the final decision. Nonetheless, the two lists complement each other in ensuring a double protection for the Single Market from external risks.
Why does the Commission not propose a “grey list” of countries being assessed?
Unlike the EU’s list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions, the Anti-Money Laundering Directive only provides for one single list of “high risk third countries” based on identification of strategic deficiencies in the anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing regime in a given country. It does not provide for a “black list” or “grey list.” As a result, the Commission considers that such a “grey list” cannot be issued, as no firm conclusion would be reached on the existence of strategic deficiencies. The Commission will, however, ensure full transparency with the European Parliament and Council throughout the process of engaging, in cooperation with the European External Action Service, with third countries, so that the co-legislators can monitor progress in the implementation of this new methodology, including in the drafting of EU benchmarks and assessing their implementation within the given timeframe.
New EU list of high-risk third countries
Why is the Commission presenting a new list of high-risk third countries?
Criminals and terrorists are not sitting back during the Coronavirus pandemic. Europol has provided a recent assessment of new threats posed by criminal groups trying to take advantage of the pandemic.
The EU is committed to protecting the integrity of its financial system and preventing financial flows involving countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing regimes. In line with the risk-based approach, banks and other obliged entities must apply enhanced due diligence in case of financial flows to/from high-risk third countries identified in the EU list.
As defined under the 4th and 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directives, the EU has to establish a list of high-risk third countries, to make sure that the EU’s financial system is equipped to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.
The Commission issued the first such list in 2016, and updated it subsequently over the past years. Since the adoption of the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive, the criteria by which a third country is assessed have been extended substantially, thereby requiring the Commission to carry out an autonomous assessment. This required an adaptation of the listing process based on a refined methodology. This also follows calls from the European Parliament to have an autonomous list. Today, the Commission has amended the list of high-risk third countries, via a Delegated Act, in order for it to be better aligned with the lists published by FATF. This update is necessary since the EU list has not reflected the latest FATF lists adopted since October 2018. Further updates will take place once the Commission has engaged with third countries subject to the EU’s autonomous assessments, according to the refined methodology published today.Given the Coronavirus crisis, the date of application of today’s Regulation listing third countries – and therefore applying new protective measures – only applies as of 1 October 2020. This is to ensure that all stakeholders have time to prepare appropriately. The delisting of countries, however, is not affected by this and will enter into force 20 days after publication in the Official Journal.
What countries have been added to the EU list?
The Commission took into account the latest lists issued by FATF. As a consequence, the Commission has listed 12 new countries on the EU list. Based on the FATF “Compliance documents”, the Commission considers that The Bahamas, Barbados, Botswana, Cambodia, Ghana, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Panama and Zimbabwe meet the criteria set out in article 9(2) of Directive (EU) 2015/849. Those countries have expressed a high-level political commitment to implement an action plan agreed with FATF to address their strategic deficiencies. We welcome those commitments and invite those jurisdictions to implement them swiftly.Given the Coronavirus crisis, the date of application of today’s Regulation listing third countries – and therefore applying new protective measures – only applies as of 1 October 2020.
What countries have been removed from the EU list?
Following progress made, the Commission has removed 6 countries from the EU list. The Commission’s review concluded that Bosnia-Herzegovina, Guyana, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Tunisia addressed their strategic deficiencies and should therefore be delisted.This decision will enter into force 20 days after publication in the Official Journal.
What is the situation of other countries recently delisted by FATF?
For those countries delisted by FATF since the adoption of Delegated Regulation (EU) 2016/1675, the assessment by the Commission is still ongoing (i.e., Afghanistan, Iraq, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu).
Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the available information and the security situation in the countries did not allow the Commission to conclude, at this stage, whether they effectively addressed their strategic deficiencies. This is due in particular to the fact that those countries were delisted by FATF based on a former procedure that did not assess the effective application of AML/CFT measures. Effective application of AML/CFT measures is a criteria explicitly included in the requirements set out in the AML Directive.
Regarding Vanuatu and Trinidad and Tobago, the available information did not allow the Commission to conclude, at this stage, whether they addressed their strategic deficiencies, notably as regards the transparency of beneficial ownership, which is a specific requirement set in the AML Directive.
The Commission will review the anti-money laundering regime of those countries as a matter of priority and will engage with them as appropriate, based on the refined methodology.
What is the situation of Albania with regard to its AML/CFT regime?
The assessment of high-risk third countries is applicable to enlargement countries – which can be listed in case strategic deficiencies are identified. As set out in the methodology, the Commission can also address these issues in the framework of the accession process where the Candidate Countries are requested to fulfil a set of stringent criteria. Therefore, alternative mitigating measures can be put in place in such instances within the framework of other EU policies, as part of the enlargement policy.
In February 2020, Albania made a high-level political commitment to work with FATF and the Council of Europe to strengthen the effectiveness of its AML/CFT regime. Similarly, the Commission developed additional mitigating measures that were put in place to address key concerns. Albania expressed a high-level political commitment towards the Commission to implement further mitigating measures, notably further aligning with the EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive and putting in place registers of beneficial ownership. These commitments go beyond the action plan agreed with FATF. Therefore those mitigating measures are considered as appropriate to address risks posed to the EU financial system at this stage. This option does not apply to third countries that are not in the process of acceding to the EU.
What are the consequences of the listing for financial institutions?
Under to the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive, banks and other financial institutions (“obliged entities”) have to apply extra checks (“enhanced customer due diligence requirements”) for transactions involving high-risk third countries identified on the list.
Customer due diligence corresponds to a series of checks and measures that a bank or an obliged entity has to use in case they have suspicions of high risk of money laundering or terrorist financing. Enhanced due diligence measures include extra checks and monitoring of those transactions by banks and obliged entities in order to prevent, detect and disrupt suspicious transactions.
The Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive clarifies the type of enhanced vigilance to be applied, which includes obtaining additional information on the customer and on the beneficial owner or obtaining the approval of senior management for establishing a business relationship.
The listing does not entail any type of sanctions, restrictions on trade relations or impediment to development aid but requires banks and obliged entities to apply enhanced vigilance measures on transactions involving these countries.
What are the consequences of the listing for the financial system?
According to the 4th AMLD, banks and other obliged entities are required to apply enhanced vigilance in transactions involving high-risk third countries (so called “enhanced customer due diligence requirements”). This is also in line with international obligations, where FATF already calls on its members to apply enhanced due diligence to high-risk jurisdictions. Those enhanced measures will lead to extra checks and monitoring of those transactions by banks and obliged entities in order to prevent, detect and disrupt suspicious transactions.
These measures do not entail any type of sanctions, restrictions trade relations or impediment to development aid but it aims to apply enhanced vigilance measures in those cases. In order to further clarify the type of enhanced vigilance to be applied, the 5th AMLD, adopted in June 2018, harmonises those enhanced measures.
What is the impact of the EU anti-money laundering list on EU-funded financial operations?
The listing process does not affect EU humanitarian assistance, EU development policy or the provision of grants, procurement and budget support.
The use of EU funded financial instruments and budgetary guarantees is subject to stricter provisions in relation to anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing. According to the EU’s Financial Regulation and the European Fund for Sustainable Development Regulation, there is a prohibition against “Implementing Partners” (such as International Financial Institutions or National Promotional and Development Banks) entering into new or renewed operations with entities established in countries on the EU’s list of high risk third countries, when carrying out financial operations supported by the EU budget.
There is however an exemption when the action is physically implemented in the third country in question (subject to the absence of other risk factors). That means that when an action is physically implemented in a listed jurisdiction (i.e. when the financial operation supported by the Union budget is implemented in a listed jurisdiction exclusively for the purpose of financing a project in that same jurisdiction), the Implementing Partner can still carry out financial operations with entities established in that jurisdiction with the support of the EU. Therefore, there should be no adverse effect with regard to actions physically implemented in listed jurisdictions.
Why will the new protective measures only apply as of 1 October 2020?
The very exceptional and unpredictable situation arising from the Coronavirus pandemic has a global impact and is leading to significant disruption for economies and national administrations around the world. Therefore, the date of application of today’s Regulation listing third countries – and therefore applying new protective measures – only applies as of 1 October 2020. This is to ensure that all stakeholders have time to prepare appropriately. The delisting of countries, however, is not affected by this and will enter into force 20 days after publication in the Official Journal.
Will there be any technical assistance available for the countries identified as high-risk third countries?
The EU is committed to providing technical assistance to the countries identified as high-risk third countries. The Commission is one of the world’s leading donors when it comes to providing targeted support to tackle anti-money laundering / countering terrorist financing. The Commission currently has a programme (€20 million) under the Global Facility (AML/CFT) to support countries in the world to monitor, disrupt and deny the financing of terrorism and money-laundering. The Commission aims at supporting more partners to address AML/CFT issues. This process is demand-driven – i.e. countries will have to define their needs and request technical assistance to improve their AML/CFT regimes in the framework of the external aid policy of the Commission.
What are the next steps?
The Delegated Regulation has now been transmitted to the European Parliament and to the Council for a 1-month scrutiny period (extendable by 1 more month). If there is no objection during this period, the Delegated Regulation will be published in the Official Journal in view of its entry into force. The Commission will re-initiate its reviews under the autonomous assessment and come up with, at an appropriate time, a new autonomous list. These assessments will be subject to consultation of Member States’ experts and appropriate engagement with third countries, in cooperation with the European External Action Service (EEAS), as set in the refined methodology. The European Parliament and the Council will have access to all relevant information at the different stages of the procedures, subject to appropriate handling requirements. The Commission will continue to engage in FATF in order to ensure increased synergies between the EU and the FATF listing process.
Finally, as part of the planned review of AML/CFT rules at EU level, the Commission will conduct an impact assessment and propose legislative proposals in early 2021. Input from today’s open public consultation will feed into this impact assessment. The legislative proposals should ensure that risks posed by third countries are appropriately addressed.
Chinese Private Security Companies Along the BRI: An Emerging Threat?
When documenting China’s security footprint abroad, the PLA and the PLAN often get the spotlight. But under the hood, a relatively newer force is entering many conflicts ridden zones along China’s land based and maritime Silk Roads. These are up and coming Private Security Companies (PSCs) that are seeking to expand out of domestic Chinese markets and capitalize on growing Chinese businesses throughout the BRI. As the BRI continues to expand into countries with a weak state and ongoing conflicts, BRI businesses need security and protection. On the maritime front, increasing worries about sea piracy have created a demand for armed escorts for merchant ships. As was the case in Pakistan, on ground local government forces have repeatedly failed at providing adequate protection. This is where Chinese PSCs come in. With foreign forces failing to secure BRI projects, businesses are approaching Chinese companies. China’s entry into the international Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) market marks a significant departure in a space that continues to be dominated by American and British contractors. These westerns PMSCs have had decades to develop in the international sphere. During this tenurethey havealso managed to create a whirlwind of criticism around the field. It is in this space that Chinese PSCs, one of Asia’s strongest powers,are trying to leave a mark. Thus, it will be valuable to assess their scope, what they might evolve into, and their connection to the Chinese state.
The Current International Chinese PSCLandscape
Chinese Private Security Companies are a relatively new entry on the international scene. Beginning in the early 2010s, violent incidences – including abductions, killings, brawls, piracy, etc. – involving Chinese individuals in countries such as South Sudan, Pakistan, and Mali experienced an uptick causing concern in Beijing. The wake-up call came in 2010 when separatists from the Baloch Liberation Army in Pakistan attacked the Zaver Palace Continental Hotel situated near the Gwardar port hoping to target Chinese investors.In 2014 ten Chinese individuals working on a Cameroonian construction site run by a state owned company were kidnapped. In 2015, Chinese citizens were kidnapped again in Nigeria and several more died in a car bomb explosion in Somalia. Beijing has responded to these concerns through two step, first by deploying the PLA and the PLAN where possible and secondly by allowing domestic security organizations to go abroad. Allowing PSCs to operate instead of PLAN can actually be the better choice in some situations. China is acutely aware of rising international fears around the potential of a hegemonic China, especially among developing nations. In other cases, using military resources would simply be excessive. In such situations, PSCs can provide a viable middle ground alternative.
Currently there are thousands of Chinese PSCs operational within the country which are providing risk assessment services, surveillance equipment, private security, etc. Much of these functions transfer on to international operations as well. As the domestic market saturatessome companies are looking abroad to expand their business. Consequently, the international footprint of Chinese PSCs is expanding. According to work done by Tsinghua University, Beijing, the top 10 PSCs in China with an international footprint are:
- Control Risks
- Beijing Dewei Security Service
- ZhongguoAnbao China Security Industry
- HuaxinZhongan (Beijing) Security Service (HXZA)
- Shanghai Zhongchenwei Security Service Group
- Beijing DingtaiAnyuan Guard & Technology Research Institute
- ShengzhenZhongzhouTewei Security Consultant
- Beijing Guanan Security & Technology
- Shandong Huawei Security Group
These companies represent a very minor fraction out of a range of domestic PSCs. The reason for the small footprint abroad is manifold. Legally the Chinese government poses several restrictions on domestic PSCs that make it harder to operate abroad. The 1996 “Law of the PRC on Control of Guns” states that only the PLA, the police, and the militia can legally possess weapons andthose who possess arms overseas may face imprisonment for their crime. This is clearly a significant hurdle for PSCs that wish to operate in conflict prone areas. In a 2010 law passed by the Ministry of Commerce concerning the operation of PSCs, the government added several strict criteria for firms looking to operate abroad. These included providing security training to their employees before sending them abroad, set up security management systems and mechanisms for emergency response. Providing security systems and training to employees of firms going abroad provides one avenue for PSCs to enter the international market. While the 2010 lawopens up some paths for PSCs looking to expand, these existing regulations still prove to be a major hurdle for all but a few PSCs. Most do not have the resources to fulfill these basic requirements and cannot afford to set up bases abroad. These concerns are reflected by the Wu Guohua, Executive chairman of the “Overseas Security Guardians” which operates Zhong Jun Jun Hong Security Group. He states that while since 2011 companies, small and large, have jumped at the chance to expand abroad, many smaller companies don’t have the resources to negotiate with foreign governments or local forces, educate their personnel thoroughly on local laws to the same level that bigger companies can. Additionally, major companies that do operate abroad, like the HuaxinZhongan Security Service (HXZA) and the Zhong Jun Jun Hong, also boast a range of international certifications to bolster their bid internationally. Many other security organizations are unable to acquire them. Thus, regulatory requirements in the future must reign in these elements and bring smaller companies into the fold as well.
Scope of Current PSC Tasks
Considering that Chinese PSCs are not permitted to carry arms abroad, PSCs often diverge into a range of other security services that do not require its personnel to be armed. These include training personnel, providing logistical assistance, serving as guards in factories, etc., and collaborating with armed local officials for providing protection to Chinese citizens abroad. The only service where Chinese PSCs have been allowed to use arms has been while escorting Chinese vessels through water bodies like the Gulf of Aden or the straits of Malacca. Maritime escorting is a rising field for many PSCs. Most major PSCs provide multiple, if not all, of these services. One of the largest is HuaxinZhongan(HXZA) Security Service that provides all of these above-mentioned services. HXZAis also recognized for their ability to communicate and cooperate with local authorities and PSCs for support. Another major PSC is the Overseas security Guardians Association, which is part of the Zhongjun Junhong group that operations other domestic security subsidiaries. The association is perhaps the most explicit in its connection to the BRI. The organization aims at “safeguarding the promotion of national ’one belt, one road’ strategy” and “building the great wall of steel” to guard the “overseas economic development and the safety of oversea China-invested enterprises and compatriots”.
Maritime escorting is slowly growing as a prominent service amongst organizations. This usually involves PSCs providing protection to merchant ships or fishing vessels in piracy prone areas of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. While the affair is expensive, PSCs can find a relative niche for themselves in the work that sets them apart from the PLAN which frequently serves this purpose. In the Sohu Military Observer, Mr. Wu wrote that using PSCs for escorting services is often more cost effective then a PLAN deployment and PSCs tend to be better matched in force as well. The scale of piracy is also smaller than one would expect. Most piracy operations are not large scale and involve the use of small and fast boats, and light weapons. This strength of force can be proportionally dealt with by well-armed PSCs without the need for large scale investment of troops or equipment from the navy. Additionally, PLAN deployments carry the risk of sending a political statement, whether that was intended or not. Here too the commitments to bolstering the BRI arein both practice and rhetoric. In 2015, HXZA made headlines for escorting a Chinese sailor, Zhai Mo, who was took a 10,000 Nautical Mile journey retracing the ancient Maritime Silk Road.
These modes of engagement however are still limited due to few key restrains. Firstly, the inability of PSCs to use arms restricts their independent operations. Many organizations continue to provide logistical services. Like stated earlier many smaller companies do not have the connections to work with local PSCs or authorities to find local forces that can help provide the muscle. HXZA is one of the few companies that has been authorized to carry arms abroad. This also puts PSC employees into severe danger themselves. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Chinese security forces from DeWei Security Services found themselves stuck in an active shooting incident that was occurring between local warring factions. Unarmed and underprepared, the security workers and the employees of its client that it was sent to rescue were trapped in an insecure building awaiting government forces to evacuate them. Secondly, PSC operatives often have limited foreign language abilities, be that inEnglish or the native language in the area of deployment. This creates a barrier between locals and the PSC which makes collaboration even harder. In many BRI locations, local population are distrustful if not outright hostile to Chinese presence as demonstrated above. Lingual barriers can add on to this sense of division between locals and the Chinese guests in addition to posing obvious administrative difficulties.
PSCs and The Chinese State
For the longest time, the Chinese state and the domestic legal framework was not friendly to the establishment of Chinese PSCs abroad. However, over the past decade the ice has started to melt as ministries have eased legal restrictions and HXZA operatives were even allowed to carry arms. Chinese firms will perhaps slowly but surely continue to expand into these new markets. Increasing foot print of Chinese agencies that are actively engaged in security operations, risk assessment, provision of security equipment (as in the case of HXZA) etc., brings with it concerns about their connection to the Chinese state and if they can be fully autonomous in their operations. Many Chinese businesses, such as Huawei, have been subject to these fears thus is it logical to worry if PSCs will function as an extension of the PLA or even the Chinese state. The evidence insupport for this is currently weak. PSCs are still mostly engaged in services like anti-piracy operations, resolving kidnapping incidents, guarding Chinese citizens and infrastructure abroad, etc. This relatively narrow range of services is still quite niche and Chinese PSCs are yet to go fully mainstream. Additionally, while some successful PSCs may have connections with their domestic state clients, it may not necessarily translate into serving as an arm of the state abroad. Thus, today the verifiable connections between PSCs and the state are quite limited.
Perhaps as the industry grows and come of its own, the Chinese state will take greater cognizance of its potential uses for state aims. It is not entirely novel for PSCs or PMCs to take government provided tenders. Afterall, the precedent for this was already set by western PMSCs who provide their own government forces, or even foreign governments, with logistical services among other facilities. Thus, it would not be wise to erase the possibility of state influence altogether either. There are few possible avenues for state influence toseep in through. First, Private Security Companies in china often hire ex-PLA and ex-PAP (People’s Armed Police) officers into their ranks. Many higher-ranking positions within PSCs are also occupied by ex-military or former public security personnel. Second, there are reports that Chinese officials are actively pressuring Chinese enterprises abroad to hire PSCs of Chinese origin.
The Chinese Private Security industry is still as its initial stages. However, it is likely that it will stay given government pressure over overseas enterprises and enthusiasm by Chinese PSCs to establish operations overseas despite the dangers. Little work has been done to study the nature of Chinese PSCs in depth, but as they grow in number and prominence it will become increasingly important to understand their ins and outs and monitor their relationship with the Chinese state. It will also be interesting to consider how, if at all, the role of the PLA might change given the emergence of these new security actors. Granted the PLA will be the most immediate and the strongest projection of Chinese national power, however this poignant power projection is not always desirable. In such scenarios PSCs may become a viable replacement in low intensity missions. Before any of this can happen however, the Chinese government would have to loosen regulation on PSC activities and develop a framework for their operation. For now, prospects are relatively limited, and existing organizations are acting in conjunction with local authorities and companies. However, the international PMSC industry is already under heavy scrutiny for acting eerily like modern mercenaries for hire. The same could happen for Chinese companies as well.
Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia
The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. How can this fight be won? While strengthening cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours will be crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, Russia needs to complement law enforcement with a softer approach for the demand side of the drug trade at home.
“The Afghan drug threat is one of the worst problems for Russia’s national security,” said Alexei Rogov, deputy director of the new challenges and threats department of the Russian foreign ministry on November 26, 2019. He thus effectively captured Russia’s persistent drug problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Accounting for one-fifth of the world’s opium market estimated at USD 65 billion, Russia is the world’s largest heroin consumer, all of it flowing from Afghanistan through Central Asia.
The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. Russia has around four to six million drug addicts and a drug-related mortality rate of 10.2 per 100 000 persons. This far surpasses the rate of its European neighbours. The UK, despite being Europe’s largest cocaine consumer, has a drug-related mortality rate of 3.7 per 100 000 persons. With a death toll of around 30 000 per year, it is no wonder Russia has marked the drug trade as a major national security threat.
How can this fight be won? The words of Alexei Rogov perfectly illustrate Russia’s heavily securitised approach to the problem. Russia’s response has focused primarily on the security aspect of the drug trade, such as policing and border control. While regional cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, initiatives between Russia and its Central Asian neighbours are short-term and poorly coordinated. Regional organisations’ anti-drug potential could be further exploited, as could cooperation with the EU, which is also affected by the Afghan drug trade. At home, the high mortality rates are explained by the draconian legislation on drug consumption and the lack of comprehensive drug policies. Faced with increasing drug-related mortality, complementing law enforcement and regional initiatives with a softer approach at home is the next logical step.
A Threat to National and Human Security: Developments and Continuities in the Afghan Drug Trade
Drug trafficking in Russia is far from being a recent problem. The drastic rise of organised crime in the tumultuous years that followed the fall of the USSR, as well as the newly opened and poorly controlled borders with former Soviet states, has facilitated the transnational smuggling of opium produced in Afghanistan (which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s heroin output). Travelling through the Northern route, the drugs are smuggled to Russia through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. While Afghanistan might be the Colombia of Central Asia, the Central Asian drug market presents different characteristics from its well-known Latin American counterpart. It is not organised in mega-cartels with the power of a small state, but in smaller more disparate criminal groups. These groups can extend their influence in the region more thanks to poor border security, lack of transnational cooperation, and rampant corruption among law enforcement and local officials than to their own strengths and ingenuity.
Pointing fingers at borders and even at the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which saw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan integrated into a free trade zone with Russia in 2015, is highly misleading. While greater connectivity and opened borders make the region an ideal transit route for illicit trade, it is complicity and impunity that explain why less than 5 per cent of the drugs passing through Tajikistan are seized. The widespread corruption and poverty that lead many to resort to drug trafficking are the root causes of the drug trade in Central Asia.
Regarding Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict (2001-2020) and political instability make it a breeding ground for drug trafficking. The drug trade has led to many disagreements between the U.S. and Russia, with the two parties failing to reach a coherent anti-drug strategy. The possibility of a NATO-Russia cooperation was briefly evoked but has been eliminated by U.S. withdrawal from the country following the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed on February 29, 2020. This recent development will risk affecting the anti-drug fight. With 61 per cent of the Afghan population deriving its income from agriculture, the impossibility of cultivating traditional crops amidst conflict, and a new power vacuum, Russia will need to step up to make sure drug production does not explode. Moreover, Afghanistan’s new dabble into the mass production of synthetic drugs, notably methamphetamines, which is cheaper than heroin, is increasingly worrying. A booming market largely driven by the rise of the Russian Hydra darknet, the quantities of synthetic drugs seized by Russian authorities have multiplied by twenty over the 2008-2018 period.
Given the growing availability and affordability of drugs on the Russian market, the security dimension of the Central Asian drug trade naturally dominates the drug discourse and, to some extent, justifies Russia’s militarised approach. With a 7 644 km-long shared border with Kazakhstan and hundreds of tonnes of drugs flowing in each year, drug trafficking has severe implications beyond the social costs of addiction and directly threatens Russia’s security. This is all the more worrying considering that Islamic terrorist groups like the Taliban use the drug trade to finance their operations. The crime and terrorism nexus operating in the region thus makes Central Asia a priority for Russian policy.
The War on Drugs at the Regional Level: Results and Future Perspectives
A relentlessly creative and adaptable market, with a myriad of new ways to conceal and smuggle narcotics every year, the illicit drug trade is truly a transnational problem and requires intense cooperation between the affected states. However, the anti-drug potential of regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Sino-Russian led security alliance, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), is not fully exploited and is limited in terms of capacity and political will.
Russia has been promoting collective security with its Central Asian neighbours through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Created in 2001 and composed of eight member-states (India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), it plays a major role in stemming the Afghan drug trade. The SCO’s 2018-2023 anti-drug strategy marks the creation of an effective anti-drug mechanism within the organisation. The SCO often collaborates with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance between six former Soviet states (Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for combating the illicit trafficking of narcotics (CARICC).
Most of Russia’s effort in the region has focused on strengthening the governments in place, such as investing in the state structure or their military. Russia has maintained a steady military presence in the region, one likely to increase after U.S. withdrawal. However, regional cooperation has mainly focused on short-termed joint operations and border security, such as operation spider web in July 2019, which led to the seizure of 6 422 kg of narcotic drugs and 3 241 arrests. The porous borders, explained in part by the geographical difficulty of border control in such mountainous terrain, the lack of training and equipment of security forces are certainly worth paying attention to, but they are also short-term solutions to a much more endemic problem. 6 422 kg might seem like a big win, but it is nothing compared to the hundreds of tonnes of heroin crossing the border each year. This purely militarised and short-term response, both from Russia’s part and in its engagement with its neighbours, is necessary but insufficient. Fighting the illicit drug trade will require a long-term strategy and a much greater political will to tackle its systemic causes. At the moment, the drug trade is 30 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP, with an increasing amount of people turning to drug trafficking to survive. Fighting corruption, implementing institutional reforms and providing economic benefits to the region are as crucial as border policing.
In light of this, international assistance could prove useful, notably from the EU. While Central Asia is not a priority for Brussels, there is still a strong case for cooperation here. Afghan heroin and meth production is not only Russia’s problem. The drug trade in Central Asia might not be a security issue for Europe in the way it is for Russia, but opium trafficking along the Northern and the Balkan route also reaches Europe and the black sea route via Turkey is rapidly emerging as a prominent smuggling corridor. In July 2019, Ukraine intercepted 930 kg of Afghan heroin destined for Western Europe. Europe’s role in Central Asia is limited compared to Russia’s, and its focus on democracy promotion tends to clash with Russia’s priority of supporting the regimes in place to strengthen their capacity to fight the drug trade. But overcoming those differences and finding ground for cooperation would be a positive step towards fighting the drug trade.
The War at Home: the Grim Reality of Drug Addiction in Russia
Draconian legislation criminalising drug use has characterised Russia’s domestic war on drugs for the past three decades. While the dominance of the security discourse in Russia’s anti-drug strategy is somewhat justified, tackling the illicit drug trade purely from a national security perspective does not diminish the social threat posed by drug consumption. Drug use is a pervasive domestic issue, but it has yet to become a policy issue. Underdeveloped drug policies and politicians’ refusal to address it largely explain the high mortality rate.
With 100 000 jailed in 2018 (one in three convicts), Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe, most of them convicted under Article 228 of the Russian penal code which treats drug possession as a criminal offence. Such harsh legislation not only leads to more risky forms of drug use (the use of dirty needles for drug injection has directly contributed to the HIV epidemic currently affecting 1.16 million people in Russia, one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world), but prevents access to treatment. With such large fines and lengthy prison sentences, (for possession of 2.5 grams of meth, users can go to jail for up to ten years) as well as the social taboo around drugs and HIV, users do not seek treatment and are further marginalised.
This addiction and HIV crisis in Russia is largely homegrown and will reach endemic levels in the next few years if it continues to be swept under the rug. The peculiarity and pervasiveness of the drug trade is its creation of a steady base of consumers and addicts. Criminalisation has not and will not diminish the demand for drugs, hence the need to work on demand much as supply reduction. While the legalisation of soft drugs is unlikely to appear as a convincing solution anytime soon in Russia, a softer approach to drug use is needed. At the moment, no long-term treatment or harm reductions services are available, and opioid substitution therapy remains forbidden.
Drug trafficking is a complex issue that must be fought on multiple fronts. Russia’s drug policy needs to involve a wider concept of security that not only encompasses the threat to national security, but also the human and social threat of drugs. Intense cooperation with Central Asia and Afghanistan through the SCO and CSTO is essential, as is strict border policing and law enforcement. Nonetheless, this no-tolerance policy for the supply side of the drug trade needs to be complemented with a softer approach for the demand side at home. To dwell on the social and economic consequences of drug use would be a truism, and Russia has every interest in decreasing the influence of drug trafficking on its population’s health and security. Developing more robust social policies seems at the moment more feasible than tackling the systemic causes of the drug trade in Central Asia. The latter will require a solid long-term strategy that goes beyond anti-drug operations and border control. Russia must step up its fight both at home and abroad.
From our partner RIAC
Central Asian Jihadists’ Use of Cryptocurrencies in Bitcoin
On August 13, 2020, the US Justice Department announced that it seized $2 million in Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency from accounts of three Salafi-Jihadi extremist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, relied on to finance their organizations and violent plots. According to their statement, the U.S. authorities seized over 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites, and four Facebook pages all related to Sunni-Jihadi militant organizations. Indeed, the disclosed criminal case documents indicate that this was the largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency by US intelligence agencies in the context of terrorism.
US counterterrorism agents analyzed transactions of cryptocurrency on the blockchain, a secure form of public ledger for the online funds, and employed undercover operations as well as search warrants on email accounts to establish a money trail of Sunni terror groups that was detailed in an 87-pages of the Washington DC federal court report
The revealed papers indicate, in some instances, al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in Syria acted under the cover of charities ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Reminder for Syria’. In this regard, it should be noted that some al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups also have frequently acted under the umbrella of the charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ for bitcoin money laundering and have solicited cryptocurrency donations via Telegram channels to further their terrorist goals.
But that doesn’t mean that Islamist terrorist groups from the post-Soviet space raised funds precisely through this charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ of al Qaeda, whose accounts were seized by the US Justice Department. It has become a tradition in the Islamic world that charity organizations and foundations widely give to themselves the names ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’, as the Quranic meaning of these words (Quran 2:43; 63:10;9:103)exactly corresponds to the purposes of “voluntary charity”. Analysis of the finance campaigns of al Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian militant groups demonstrates that they frequently raised cryptocurrency donations through charities called ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’.
In order to explore the scale of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Jamaats’ crowdfunding campaigns, we analyzed their social media activities where they raised Bitcoins, dollars, Russian rubles and Turkish lira over the past two years.The methods and sources of the Uzbek and Uighur Islamist militants’ crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoins are about the same as those of their parent organizations, the global Sunni terrorist groups ISIS and al Qaeda.Due to the inclusion in the list of terrorist groups, they carry out sophisticated cyber-operations for solicitation of cryptocurrency donations.
Before “mastering” the complex technology of cyber-tools in order to raise bitcoin funds in cyberspace, Central Asian jihadists used the simple ‘hawala’ money transfer system (informal remittance system via money brokers).Sometimes they have resorted to conventional ‘hand-to-hand’ cash transfer channels, where trust, family relationships or regional affiliations play an important role.
According to a UN report, Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist group Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) leading jihad in Syrian Idlib province have close financial ties with its cells in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Monitoring Team states that “regular monthly payments of about $ 30,000 are made to Afghanistan through the hawala system for KTJ.”
The UN report asserts that “similarly to KTJ, KIB sends financial assistance, from its cell in Istanbul, through the hawala system to Afghanistan. Funds are brought in by informal money exchangers for Jumaboi from Maymana, the capital of Faryab. The original source of this income is the smuggling of fuel, food and medicine from neighboring Turkmenistan.”According to the UN report, “suffering material losses, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)and Tajik militant group JamaatAnsarullah (JA) are forced to engage in criminal activity, including transportation of drugs along the northern route in Afghanistan.”For the Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang province operating under the umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northern Syria, “funding comes primarily from the Uighur diaspora” in Turkey, Central and Southeast Asia.
Dark Web & Bitcoin: New Endeavor of Central Asian Terrorists
With the development of digital cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin, Central Asian jihadists actively began to exploit this innovative financial transaction system to support their attacks and other terrorist activities. It is known that al Qaeda-backed Salafi-Jihadi groups of the post-Soviet space are seeking to purify Islam of any innovations (Bid’ah) and strictly following the Sharia law. They live similarly to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his companions lived in the seventh-century and always oppose any form of Bid’ah, considering it to be shirk and heresy. However, the Uzbek and Uighur Wahhabis did not shy away from using bitcoin innovation.
The first advertisements of Central Asian terrorist groups crowdfunding campaigns accepting bitcoin for Jihadi purposes in Syria appeared on the Telegram channel in 2017. In November of that year, a self-proclaimed charity group al-Sadaqah began a fundraising campaign on the internet from Western supporters to help the Malhama Tactical, the first private military contractor team from Central Asia working exclusively for jihadist groups in Syria.Al-Sadaqah in English on Telegram, explicitly relying on the English-speaking western sponsors, called on them to make bitcoin donations to finance the Malhama Tactical and the Mujahedeen fighting against the Assad regime in northeastern Syria.
As we have previously analyzed, Malhama Tactical is a private jihadi contractor operating in the Idlib-Aleppo region of Syria. The group, founded by an Uzbek jihadist Abu Salman (his real name is Sukhrob Baltabaev) from Osh City of Southern Kyrgyzstan in May 2016, is closely allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the strongest militant factions in northern Syria. The Malhama Tactical is known to have regularly conducted military training for jihadists of HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz and the Turkistan Islamic Party.After the death of Abu Salman in August 2019, Ali Ash-Shishani, the native of Russia’s North Caucasus became the new leader of Malhama Tactical.
In 2017-18, al-Sadaqah charity on Telegram called on followers to donate via a “Bitcoin wallet anonymously and safely for the Mujahedeen brothers of Malhama Tactical”. The charity group urged potential cryptocurrency contributions to benefit from “the ability to confuse the trail and keep anonymity”.
We do not know how much bitcoin money al-Sadaqah managed to raise for the activities of the Central Asian Muhajireen. But according to Malhama Tactical’s report on the internet, crowdfunding has been “fruitful.” In an effort to explain how donations were spent, Malhama Tactical has advertised extensively to followers on 17 October 2018, in a video posted on Telegram, that a new training camp had been built and purchased airsoft rifles, night vision devices and other modern ammunitions.
Since 2018, Uzbek and Uighur militant groups KTJ, KIB and TIP have begun an agitation campaign to fundraising bitcoin money on the Internet. Judging by the widespread call for Bitcoin donation online, their need for anonymous, secure, and hassle-free funding streams have made cryptocurrencies of some potential value to them. These properties are the anonymity of fundraising, the usability of remittance and transfer of funds, the security of attack funding, acceptance of funds, reliability, and volume of web money.
And every time they announced a crowdfunding campaign, they clearly declared for what purpose the collected bitcoins would be used. For example, al Qaeda-linked KTJ’s most recent call for bitcoin appeared on Telegram in May 2020 as a banner that asks to “Equip a jihadist”. The poster showed a masked jihadist and the exploitation of the Quran’s Hadith in Uzbek, calling on the believers to prepare and equip a fighter going on a raid for the sake of Allah.
Another picture shows a jihadist with a Kalashnikov AK-74 in his hand, over whose head enemy planes and helicopters fly. The picture gives a symbolic meaning about the empty-handed jihadists in Syria, fighting against the Russian and Syrian powerful military aircraft to protect the Islamic Ummah. Then goes on with KTJ’s call to make donations in bitcoins and rubles to purchasing equipment and ammunition for the Central Asian Mujahedeen in Syria. On the bottom it was displayed the long address of the virtual wallet for Bitcoin donations along with KTJ’s Telegram and web contacts promising the anonymity of potential donors.
On June 18, 2020, KTJ militants published the opinion of the well-known ideologue of modern jihadism Abu Qatada al-Falastini in Telegram from whom they asked whether the crowdfunding campaign of Bitcoin for the purposes of Jihad contradicts Islam. As it is known, there are still ongoing disputes among the world’s top Islamic scholars about whether cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are deemed Sharia-compliant.
Abu Qatada from a religious point of view justified the acceptability of using Bitcoin to protect the Islamic Ummah and wage holy Jihad, but at the same time warned against full confidence in Bitcoin. In his opinion, the enemies of Islam can destroy this cryptocurrency in the future, and if it loses its current value, and then the devout Muslims who have invested their savings in Bitcoin could go bankrupt. Abu Qatada al Falastini is a greatly respected Salafi thinker among Central Asian jihadists and he gave a pep talk to KTJ when it pledged bayat (Oath of Allegiance) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in 2015.
On June 25, 2020, KTJ posted another Crypto Crowdfunding campaign announcement on its Telegram channel to provide Uzbek jihadists with modern military gear and equipment. For clarity, the group published a picture entitled “Perform jihad with your property” in Uzbek, which indicates the prices for military clothing and weapons. For example, the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle costs $300, unloading vest for AK-47 cartridges – $20, Field Jacket – $50, Military Combat Boots – $30.In total, $400 will be needed on the full provision of one Mujahid with weapons and uniforms. On the upper side of the picture is a Hadith quote about “He who equips a fighter in Allah’s path has taken part in the fighting.”
A month later, the group’s Telegram channel reported that it had managed to raise $4,000, for which 8 sets of weapons and uniforms were purchased for the Uzbek Mujahedeen. Also, KTJ’s media representative announced that the group is stopping the fundraising campaign for this project.
Other projects of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were the Bitcoin crowdfunding campaign for the purchase of motorcycles for Inghimasi fighters (shock troops who penetrate into the enemy’s line with no intent to come back alive), cameras, portable radios, sniper rifles and night vision devices. For each project, a separate closed account was opened on the website of jihadist groups in Telegram, after which the Bitcoin and Monero accounts, as well as contact information, were closed.
Another crowdfunding project posted on January 29, 2020, in Telegram, called ‘Helping captive Muslim sisters’ and claims to raise money to free Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek ISIS women hold in the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The KTJ jihadists posted pictures of Central Asian women with their children holding posters “We need help” in Kyrgyz, and asked the fellow Muslim believers to raise money to ransom them from the captivity of the Kurdish communists. It was not clear to us how much money was raised as a result of the crowdfunding campaign since this channel was later blocked by the Telegram administrator.
The annual largest crowdfunding project for the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is being implemented on the eve of the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, during which believers pay Zakat (obligatory tax) and Sadaqah (voluntary alms).According to the Quran, recipients of the Zakat and the Sadaqah include the poor and needy, debtors, volunteers in jihad, and pilgrims.
The websites of the Central Asian Jihadist Jamaats revealed that their crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the jihad was particularly active during Ramadan. Ramadan is known as a holy and generous month, but this year was especially generous to notorious al Qaeda-linked Central Asian extremist groups. KTJ, KIB, Uighur’s TIP and Russian-speaking North Caucasian militant group Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), that pledged allegiance to HTS, have boosted their military budget during Ramadan.
To avoid the risk of being blocked or tracked, they created a temporary mirror group called ‘Zakat’, where the donation money was received. Zakat’s wallet received donations from Central Asian labor migrants in Russia in the amount of $150 to $220 each time to purchase livestock, which was then slaughtered in sacrificial prayer on behalf of the donors. After Ramadan and the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the ‘Zakat’ mirror group in Telegram was closed.
The Central Asian Islamist extremist groups have asked their supporters to make Bitcoin donations mainly at the following two virtual wallet addresses:
Our analysis confirmed that multiple transactions were made to these bitcoin addresses. In addition, other transactions were made in digital currencies, the addresses of which were blocked on Telegram.
In conclusion, the significance of the crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should not be given exaggerated importance, even though they have improved the position of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups in Syria and Afghanistan, and boosted their budget. Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups’ technical abilities are not currently suited to bypass the financial controls of international counterterrorism organizations and discreetly conduct money laundering.
The history of their activities has shown that small Uzbek, Uighur and Russian-speaking Islamist extremist groups from the post-Soviet space and China have been assimilated with more powerful global Sunni terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al Qaeda and HTS. And accordingly, their potential for crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should be viewed through the prism of their global parent organizations.
In any case, the governments of Central Asia and Russia do not have sufficient mechanisms and leverage to combat illegal cryptocurrency transactions on the dark web by global Salafi-Jihadi movements waging jihad in the Middle East. As noted at the beginning of this article, such opportunities to monitor and investigate jihadist crowdfunding activities are available to the US government and financial institutions. For example, the U.S. Treasury“ has access to unique financial data about flows of funds within the international financial and commercial system,” which is invaluable for tracking illicit flows of money.
Consequently, Central Asian governments must rely not only on Moscow but also actively cooperate with Western counter-terrorism and financial institutions to disrupt the Salafi-Jihadi group’s external crypto crowdfunding sources.
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