Why terrorists aren’t scared of sanctions

“I can’t believe we’re being pushed around by those two-bit p****s”, shouted President Bill Clinton one day in 1993, after the slaughter of his troops in Somalia by a Mogadishu militia.

Last week, the United States government finally declared the Taliban-linked networks of Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani terrorists — a designation that carries with it sanctions forbidding its citizens from providing any form of material support to the organisations. The sanctions, imposed in the face of warnings that they could jeopardise relations with Pakistan, a long standing patron of the Haqqanis, are the latest in a series of similar measures. Earlier in August, eight alleged 26/11 perpetrators in Pakistan were named by the U.S. Treasury Department in a sanctions order it said was “designed to undermine the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leadership and support networks”.


For all the sound and fury surrounding the sanctions, though, terrorists they are designed to intimidate seem just as unimpressed as the Somali militias Mr. Clinton railed against. The Lashkar chief, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, for one, flatly told the pro-Islamist newspaper Ummat “these latest U.S. actions are meaningless”.

The fact is this: the terrorist groups the U.S. and the United Nations have targeted through sanctions might be “two bit p****s” — but they’ve also proven to be remarkably artful dodgers.

In 1999, soon after a string of terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomatic missions in East Africa, the U.N. passed a resolution calling on all member states to “freeze the assets of, prevent the entry into or transit through their territories by, and prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale and transfer of arms and military equipment to any individual or entity associated” with the al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Yet, 13 years on, even the U.N.’s internal sanctions monitors have come to believe the sanctions are achieving little. The travel ban hasn’t tied down the leadership of groups like the Haqqanis; their financial empires have expanded; and the international arms embargo has done little to diminish their lethal capacities. The reason isn’t hard to find: “the number of times that member-states have applied any of the three sanctions measures against individuals listed under the sanctions regime,” one research report submitted to the sanctions committee states, “is very low.”

Behind this dismal state lies a stark fact about the post-1998 counter-terrorism regime: neither counter-insurgency nor sanctions will yield results unless there is a global will to enforce international norms, and underwrite the birth of state structures which can enforce them.

Early this year, the United Nations Security Council received grim testimony from the eight-member monitoring team charged with the oversight of sanctions against the Taliban. Pointing to ground realities in Afghanistan, a monitoring team document notes that “an assets freeze, a travel ban and an arms embargo are not easily applied in a country where borders with six countries totalling over 5,000 kilometres are criss-crossed by hundreds of un-policed roads and tracks and where the tradition of gun ownership is deeply embedded”. In addition, it noted, the Taliban’s finances rarely touched the banking system, making interdiction impossible.

From testimony obtained from captured Taliban commanders, and independent estimates, the monitors estimate that the Taliban raised around $400 million in revenue from March 2011-March 2012. The International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, estimates that about $150 million of that went on directly financing operations; the rest remained with the Taliban leadership to run the organisation.

A tide of cash

The cash has nurtured region-wide threats. The U.N.’s internal reports concede that the al Qaeda linked groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, have extended their reach to the north, posing threats to the country’s central Asian neighbours. The IMU-linked Islamic Jihad Union, which has drawn recruits from Germany, Turkey, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, continues to operate. Pakistan-based groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban have become increasingly powerful.

Heroin, Afghanistan’s most valuable crop, is a key contributor to the Taliban’s income. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that the organisation earns about $150 million a year from the opium trade, mainly by raising protection money from key syndicates, like Haji Fattah Ishaqzai’s Helmand-based cartel. Elsewhere, in areas it controls, the Taliban imposes a 10 per cent ushrtax on the poppy harvest, and another 2.5 per cent zakat on traders’ earnings. The narcotics trade in Afghanistan is valued at over $3.5 billion a year — meaning the Taliban could expand its income, should its control over production centres expand in coming years.

High payoffs

Even more important, though, is Afghanistan’s strangest harvest: international aid. Hard figures are, for obvious reasons, impossible to establish, but contractors in Afghanistan often say they have to make payoffs of between 10 and 20 per cent to ensure work can go ahead. In Farah, local officials have claimed that the payoffs are as high as 40 per cent. Perhaps the most lucrative pickings come from convoys carrying supplies from ports in Pakistan. ISAF’s Afghan Threat Finance Cell, an internal watchdog, estimated that the Taliban had siphoned off $360 million from a $2.16 billion contract for trucking supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Independent research has borne out the U.N.’s findings. In a recent report, analyst Gretchen Peters provided an exhaustive survey of the extortion-related earnings of the Taliban-affiliated networks of warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani. “When USAID contracted the American firm Louis Berger Group in 2007 to build a highway between Gardez and Khost”, she noted, “the contracting firm paid a staggering $1 million annually to a local strongman suspected of having links to the Haqqani network. The 64-mile highway, which has yet to be completed, has cost about $121 million so far, with the final price tag expected to reach $176 million — or $2.8 million per mile”.

Kabul-based businessman Khalil Zadran is alleged by the U.S. Commerce Department to have sunk the network’s earnings into a welter of front businesses — businesses the sanctions have done nothing to shut down. Neither have they prevented Mr. Zadran from travelling regularly, the U.S. alleges, to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China. The source of the protection isn’t opaque: successive studies have suggested the Haqqanis continue to enjoy a close relationship with the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which views them as allies in its own struggle against jihadists opposed to the Pakistan army.

Elsewhere, the story is much the same. In the Sahel, the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has cashed in on the chaos in Libya, and significantly expanded its arsenal. The Algerian authorities say that, between July 2011 and February 2012, they have seized hundreds of small arms and more than a tonne of explosives destined for AQIM’s chief, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In February 2012, Algeria seized anti-aircraft missiles destined for AQIM; one is reported to have been fired on a military helicopter in that country. The AQIM is reported to have been training fighters in Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Niger and Chad have also seized anti-aircraft missiles, along with over 200 anti-tank missiles and 640 kilograms of military-grade explosives.

Yemen, long awash with small arms, presents an even more depressing example. The al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the organisation’s regional affiliate, has even succeeded in seizing tanks and heavy weapons in the course of fighting with the country’s military.

Even where states have laws to contain arms flows, the U.N. sanctions committee was told by its monitors in a report submitted earlier this year, “terrorists have little trouble acquiring material for a violent attack where weapons and the ingredients for home-made explosives are readily available”.

Lessons and challenge

There are simple lessons in this story for the international community — and a major challenge. In many of the states where the jihadist movement is resurgent, there simply is no state structure capable of containing the challenge. Though the U.S. and other governments have pumped in cash to fund local counter-insurgency efforts, there has been little long-term commitment to state-building. For states like Pakistan, there are good reasons not to cooperate with international counter-terrorism effort. Faced with challenges from jihadists seeking to overthrow the state, after all, it makes sense to seek tactical alliances with groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Haqqanis.

For those who think the effort isn’t worth it, the case of the p****s Mr. Clinton railed against is illustrative: even though Muhammad Farah Aidid died in 1996 and his militia disintegrated, anarchic Somalia became a base for the al-Shabaab jihadist movement. It has taken African Union intervention to free the capital, Mogadishu — and Kenyan naval ships are still launching missile strikes against their strongholds in the port of Kisimayo. Kenya itself has seen terror strikes. Elsewhere in the country, pirates have established bases threatening international shipping.

The price of biting the bullet and committing to a global state-building effort is high. The price of not doing so, though, is becoming increasingly evident.

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