Europe isn't ready to take hard line on terror financing

By L. Todd Wood

Dec. 30 (UPI) -- European political leaders are very good at two things: hypocrisy and projection. They apparently see no problem with criticizing the United States for policies on terror while secretly enabling financial crime by jihadists in order to fatten their financial bottom lines.

The European Union and its member states have talked a big game on cracking down on the illicit monetary networks, which terrorist groups like the Islamic State have used to conduct attacks on the continent, but the reality is quite different.


As a former financial professional, having spent 18 years on "The Street," primarily trading institutionally with offshore financial jurisdictions, I can testify that extensive networks exist offshore for Europeans to hide money, evade taxes and commit other nefarious fiscal misdeeds. Europe has gone to great lengths to ensure the continent's citizens pay their "fair share," but has Brussels taken an interest in stamping out any other financial crimes? Not so much.


"Countering the financing of terrorism is a core component of the EU's strategy in the fight against terrorism. As terrorists and their supporters constantly modify their ways to collect, move and gain access to funds, the EU needs to adapt its instruments and measures to deprive them from the possibility to engage in criminal activity," the European Commission states on its website.

Again, unfortunately, the European Union has failed to live up to these pledges.

The case of Hezbollah provides just one concrete example of how terrorist organizations continue to transfer their funds around Europe with impunity. The Lebanese syndicate, which the United States and numerous allies have labeled a terrorist group, uses a center in Berlin as well as other locations across Germany to recruit members and raise funds for terrorist activities and weapons purchases, according to a report by the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel newspaper.

What's more, terrorists aren't just using "offshore jurisdictions" in Europe to carry out their financial crimes. Onshore locations such as "freeports" -- opaque, ultra-secure warehouses in which goods can be stored nearly indefinitely without being taxed -- also enable illicit monetary transactions to fund Islamic extremism's deadly activities.

In classic form, earlier this year the European Commission ignored a major report from the EU Parliament about financial crime and tax evasion. That report, from the European Parliament's "TAX3" committee, explained in detail how facilities like freeports help global elites hide their money and -- often looted -- art and artifacts, some of which could well be helping finance terrorist groups.


The TAX3 report's conclusions shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone in the know: France's finance minister and UNESCO spoke out about the dangers posed by freeports all the way back in 2016. "There is a high risk that the freeports are used by art dealers to store works of art from thefts, lootings or illicit excavations for resale in the black market when things have cooled down, even many years later," UNESCO highlighted at the time.

Why did the EU fail to take action for three years after these concerns were first raised? The fact the political allies former Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker were involved in opening one of Europe's largest freeports in Juncker's native Luxembourg may have played a role. The high-tech facility next to Luxembourg's Findel Airport, which former German Member of European Parliament Wolf Klinz dubbed "fertile ground for money laundering and tax evasion," was founded by "freeport king" Yves Bouvier, who faces a raft of unrelated allegations over cheating clients and evading Swiss taxes. Bouvier owns a stake in a similar facility in Geneva, as well as another one in Singapore.


Even when the European Commission has attempted to crack down on the problem, its efforts have been watered down by individual member states. Never was this tendency clearer than when the Council of the EU shot down the "dirty money" blacklist put forward by the Commission, insisting that the EU executive had not been transparent during the drafting process. Many of the EU's member states, it seems, are unwilling to take a tough line on countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unsurprisingly, those same EU member states are now going out of their way to throw the Islamic Republic a financial lifeline and undercut the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign.

The EU's unwillingness to take a firmer stance is particularly remarkable given that Iranian agents continue to be arrested on European soil attempting to commit terrorist acts and bombings and targeted killings of the regime's enemies. The planned bombing of the Iranian Resistance event in Paris in 2018, where Iranian diplomats were arrested in the act of supplying weapons to sleeper agents in Europe, is only one of the more egregious examples.

Now that a new Commission president -- Ursula von der Leyen, formerly of Angela Merkel's government -- has taken the reins of the EU's executive and identified the fight against tax avoidance and money laundering as a particular priority, one might be tempted to think the European Parliament's warnings will be taken more seriously. Unfortunately, given Brussels' lackluster track record, that optimism is probably unwarranted.


L. Todd Wood is a former U.S. Air Force special operations helicopter pilot and emerging market bond trader.

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