US continues to expose Islamic State’s global financial network

The US Treasury Department announced on Oct. 17 that Afaq Dubai, a “money services business (MSB)” based in Iraq that moves money for the Islamic State, has been sanctioned. Treasury says Afaq Dubai is part of a larger “financial network that includes an array of other MSBs, hawalas, and financial facilitators in the Middle East.”

Indeed, the US government regularly exposes parts of the Islamic State’s global financial network. And recent terrorist designations, including the one targeting Afaq Dubai, highlight the geographic reach and diversity of sources the group relies on for funding.

Islamic State moneymen operating everywhere from the Caribbean to East Africa have been designated as terrorists in recent weeks. Their funds come from multiple sources, ranging from individual donations to illicit oil deals with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Two unnamed Islamic State “financiers” operate Afaq Dubai, according to Treasury. They have “laundered money” for the organization and funded the jihadists’ families. Treasury gives an example of how this money services business (MSB) is tied into the broader network, saying another Islamic State “financial facilitator” based in Jordan “deposited $3 million from Iraqi dinar into three exchanges, including Afaq Dubai,” in May 2018.

Earlier this month, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the US-led coalition, announced that a series of raids between Oct. 7 and 9 had netted 10 members “of the al-Rawi financial network, a key ISIS financial facilitation group based out of Iraq.” This “joint operation” was conducted with both the Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government and rolled up personnel in Baghdad and Erbil.

Treasury reports that this same al-Rawi financial network “leveraged” Afaq Dubai “as part of its operation.” And Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “closely coordinated” its terrorist designation of Afaq Dubai with CJTF-OIR after the raids.

Other recent terrorist designations targeting Islamic State’s financial network

The designation of Afaq Dubai is the latest in a series of recent moves intended to restrict the Islamic State’s cash flow. Since early September, the Treasury Department has identified a key intermediary between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise and Bashar al-Assad’s government, a Kenyan with ties to the West and two men from Trinidad and Tobago as members of the Islamic State’s global financial network.

A “key” intermediary between the Islamic State and Assad’s regime

On Sept. 6, Treasury targeted several nodes on a “petroleum procurement network” operated by Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. Despite the fact that Assad and the Islamic State have fought one another for years, the two sides have frequently engaged in energy deals. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men have battled with Assad’s loyalists for control of oil and gas fields throughout the war. These same facilities were built to supply energy to civilians and others in areas governed by Assad. After losing control of some of the fields, Assad’s regime was forced to pay the Islamic State for access to its own energy supply. According to the US, these transactions have gone the other way as well, with the Syrian government providing “oil products” to territory controlled by the so-called caliphate.

Muhammad al-Qatirji and his Qatirji Company were among the individuals and entities designated by Treasury in early September. Qatirji acts as an “intermediary” between the Syrian regime, with which he “maintains strong ties,” and the Islamic State. He “facilitates fuel trade between” the two sides, “working directly with ISIS representatives to provide oil products for ISIS.”

According to Treasury, Qatirji “has a strong working relationship with multiple officials within the Government of Syria, to include several contracts with the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Syrian Ministry of Trade.” His company has acted as the “exclusive agent” in some transactions between Assad’s regime and the Islamic State, including a “2016 trade deal” in which “oil and other commodities” were provided to areas controlled by the Sunni jihadists.

Qatirji’s business doesn’t just handle petroleum products, as he also transports “weapons and ammunition under the pretext of importing and exporting food items.” These same “shipments were overseen” by Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, which has been designated by the US government. Qatirji’s trucking company has “shipped weapons from Iraq to Syria.”

Treasury also designated a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) named International Pipeline Construction (IPC).

IPC is “owned or controlled by Hesco Engineering,” which “facilitates payments originating in Syria.” Hesco Engineering, in turn, is owned by George Haswani, who is “one of the Syrian regime’s middlemen for dealings between the Government of Syria and ISIS.”

Haswani and his businesses are deeply involved in Syria’s natural gas and oil industry, and some of Haswani’s facilities were located in territory that fell under the Islamic State’s control.

The US previously designated Haswani and his Hesco Engineering on Nov. 25, 2015. However, Haswani, who is a citizen of both Syria and Russia, was removed from the European Union’s sanctions list two years later.

The Islamic State in East Africa

On Sept. 7, the US government designated Waleed Ahmed Zein, a 27-year-old Kenyan national who “established an intricate worldwide financial network to facilitate funds transfers for the” Islamic State.

Kenyan security arrested Zein this past July. From East Africa, he was operating a “financial facilitation network spanning Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Eastern Africa.” Treasury traced “over $150,000” Zein moved through this “complex” web in 2017 through “early 2018.”

Zein allegedly “deposited large sums of money into a personal account, claiming that the money came from a vehicle and [a] spare auto parts company owned by a family member. One of Zein’s associates helped conduct transactions “primarily via hawala systems.” Zein’s funds were distributed to Islamic State “fighters in Syria, Libya, and Central Africa.”

Jihadists from the Caribbean

On Sept. 19, Treasury designated two jihadists from Trinidad as terrorists. Both of the men have allegedly provided financial support to the Islamic State.

One of the two, a 51-year-old named Emraan Ali, is a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the United States.

Ali is “based” in Syria and “has been involved in money transfers from Trinidad and Tobago to Syria in support of ISIS,” according to Treasury. He would “receive and provide funds to” his fellow Trinidadian jihadists. “In the summer of 2015,” Treasury says, Ali “lived at an ISIS guest house in Syria and had been assigned to Raqqah, Syria.” Raqqah was, of course, the capital of the self-declared caliphate at the time.

Eddie Aleong, 34, was the second man designated on Sept. 19. From Trinidad, he allegedly “facilitated money transfers to” Islamic State members living inside the group’s territory overseas. Treasury says that, in early 2017, a “Trinidadian ISIS supporter possibly planned to work with Eddie Aleong, to transfer funds to Emraan Ali, who would then provide the funds to Trinidadian ISIS fighters in Syria.”

Even though the Islamic State has lost most of the ground it once controlled, the organization continues to wage insurgencies in both Iraq and Syria. The jihadists are also fighting in several other countries, spanning from Africa to South Asia. And as Treasury’s designations make clear, the group is using resources from around the globe to fuel its insurgencies and terrorist plotting.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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