As the world witnessed on 7 July 2005, London—a major global city and a key hub in the international financial system—is not immune to terrorist attack. Since enduring the 7/7 attacks, Britain has sought to increase security, combat hate speech and curtail extremist ideologies that might incite violence or encourage terror attacks on British soil. Recent reporting indicates that high street banks are also taking proactive steps to limit their risk exposure to organizations with Islamist ties and to curb money-laundering and terrorism finance.
HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, quietly closed the accounts of Islamic organizations in Britain under suspicion of Islamist ties over a year ago. Leaders of those organizations were given no concrete explanation, and were forced to move their accounts to Islamic banks. According to a recent BBC Radio report, the accounts were closed after World Check, a financial compliance tool owned by Thomson Reuters that is used by the banking industry, designated the account holders as having ties to terrorism.
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Among the organizations impacted was the Finsbury Park Mosque, which formerly had ties to extremist cleric Abu Hamza, who is currently in prison in the United States. Now under new management, the mosque has worked to rehabilitate its image and distance itself from Hamza, who has had no association with the mosque for over a decade. More recently, the mosque has been dogged by media reports linking it to the Muslim Brotherhood. The chairman of the mosque, Mohammed Kozbar, is also vice president if the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). The organization is admittedly “influenced by Muslim Brotherhood thinking,” and its founder was a member of the Brotherhood.
The Cordoba Foundation, which bills itself as an “independent public relations, research and policy think tank promoting intercultural dialogue,” also had its accounts suspended by HSBC. Prime Minister David Cameron once called the foundation a “political front for the Muslim Brotherhood.” Its CEO, Anas Altikriti, has been described as “one of the most prominent supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in Britain.”
Leaders of both organizations have denied any ties to terrorism and have sought to have the designation removed in order to reestablish accounts with British banks. Altikriti, the CEO of the Cordoba Foundation, blamed the situation on the United Arab Emirates, which has designated the foundation as a terrorist organization. However, terrorist designations—by any country—are routinely included in compliance databases used by financial institutions.
Recent history suggests that HSBC was motivated not by the undue influence of Arab countries opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, but rather an strong desire to mitigate risk and comply with banking regulations. After paying $2 billion in 2012 to settle charges that its anti-money laundering (AML) controls were too lax, HSBC has overhauled its AML and compliance regimes, and reportedly spends $800 million annually on compliance costs. In this context, HSBC’s decision to close the accounts of controversial customers with Islamist ties suggests a more proactive approach to curbing money-laundering and terrorism finance, which is a welcome change.