On January 12, the military’s U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced aerial bombardment of a targeted ISIL cash distribution compound in Mosul, Iraq, a major center in the extremist caliphate’s administrative command and control apparatus. It was the latest turn in the military campaign against Islamic terrorism. "The bulk cash distribution site was used by ISIL to distribute money to fund terrorist activities," said Lieutenant Commander Ben Tisdale, CENTCOM spokesman. Officials did not say how much cash was in the targeted compound, or in what currency, but it was pegged in the "millions". The CENTCOM bombing followed earlier raids focused on ISIL commandeered oil fields—a major source of income estimated to produce at daily take of at least a million dollars.
The Mosul bombing of ISIL’s cash dispersal “bank" represents one mode of the military’s effort to target terrorist assets. In the post-9/11 years preceding ISIL’s emergence, DOD internal think tanks shaped a range of interdiction strategies, targeting everything from currency to bank wire transfers to small denomination money remitters to Hawalas and other modes of informal value transfer. Searches for central cash hordes presented the greatest challenges, due mainly to the absence of transaction records when soldiers or civil servants in overrun locales were paid with a handful of money. Special Operations and military intelligence officers in Iraq and Afghanistan cultivated local informants and searched suspected houses—meeting at best with spotty success.
ISIS cash blown up by U.S. recent airstrike | CNN, video released by the U.S. Department of Defense
Actually, proven techniques abound in the U.S., deployed for decades by conventional law enforcement agencies like DEA and which used courier profiles to support highway, transit port, and border interdiction campaigns. Although noted for achieving high productivity, the techniques involving consent searches and often random stops of citizens have raised growing procedural questions for agencies like DEA that appear to oversight bodies to be exploiting techniques to generate volumes of drug and money seizures.
In the Middle East and Afghanistan, military assets combating terrorist finance are not hamstrung by judicial limitations on search and seizure, but rather, by doctrinal rules of engagement. One area where profiles of potential criminals remain permissible are drug and money couriers, objective indicators of whose characteristics remain allowable based on a landmark Supreme Court case (U.S. vs. Sokolow). Although objective and often empirically validated profiles can be of great assistance in U.S. interdiction efforts, terrorists transport currency less often by vehicles, tending more often to store it for long periods of time—even in small quantities for use in purchasing bullets and IED timers.
In contrast, ISIL requires routine infusions of cash because, as government managers of their caliphates, they absolutely must meet payrolls and buy supplies. Thus, centrally stored cash stockpiles have been the preferred mode, although after last week’s bombing the terrorists can be expected to decentralize bulk storage in multiple locations, creating a de facto mode of branch banking. To combat the scourge of ISIL’s burgeoning wealth, the best course of action is to follow the Intelligence Community’s blueprint for optimum coordination of the intelligence and operational resources of the CIA, military, and law enforcement agencies. A productive first step is CIA Director Brennan’s plan to reconstitute his Agency’s intelligence and operations directorates as cross-disciplinary collaborations. Perhaps DOD could follow that example.