The U.S. ambassador explains how the United Nations and its member nations can be a vital force in shutting down ISIS' finances
Samantha Power: Countries must identify terrorist financiers and middlemen and effectively prosecute them
Editor’s Note: Ambassador Samantha Power is the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a member of the President’s Cabinet. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Speaking from the Pentagon on Monday, President Obama underscored the United States’ comprehensive strategy for destroying ISIL.
The President made clear – as he has consistently – that while military power is an essential component of our campaign, we must bring to bear every instrument of American power in this fight. That includes taking terrorists off the battlefield; training and equipping Iraqi and Syrian forces to fight ISIL on the ground; and working relentlessly to find a political solution to Syria’s brutal civil war, which is one of ISIL’s best recruiting tools.
And we must use our unparalleled financial might. But to maximize our effectiveness in shutting down ISIL’s finances, we need other countries to join the effort. That’s why I’m joining forces today with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to focus the 193 member states of the United Nations on doing their part.
How terror group is funded
ISIL ruthlessly extracts financial resources from the territory where it operates.
ISIL enforcers routinely shake down civilians for cash using crude tax and protection rackets – netting ISIL hundreds of millions of dollars. ISIL also robs banks; steals money and property; profits from oil and antiquities sales on the black market; and, most grotesquely of all, sells captured women and girls in slave auctions. ISIL not only turns a profit on its terror but uses its illicit earnings to pay its followers and fund attacks around the world.
To prevent ISIL from enriching itself, we need every country and its citizens to stop buying what ISIL is selling.
This requires unprecedented collective action that the United Nations is uniquely positioned to mobilize. Whatever its flaws, the United Nations is still the only institution that brings together all the countries of the world. And it is the best forum for the United States to spur countries to act – and to hold them accountable when they don’t.
From the launch of our counter-ISIL campaign, we have worked to get the United Nations to tackle various dimensions of the ISIL threat. In September 2014, for example, President Obama chaired a high-level Security Council meeting to address the dangerous surge in foreign terrorist fighters crossing borders to join groups such as ISIL.
Changing the DNA of a large, multilateral organization such as the United Nations to deal effectively with modern threats is not easy. Indeed, when the United Nations was created in the wake of World War II, threats came almost exclusively from one state carrying out acts of aggression against another.
As such, diplomats, foreign ministers, and ambassadors were trained to challenge these kinds of destabilizing actions in diplomatic venues such as the U.N. Security Council, the world’s premier body for dealing with threats to international security. Of course, this kind of state-on-state aggression still occurs today, as we see with Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of parts of Ukraine.
But groups such as ISIL present a different kind of threat, one the drafters of the U.N. Charter could not have imagined. And to defeat these terrorist groups – as we must and will do – the United Nations must reach beyond the expertise of foreign ministries, and our traditional means of countering State aggression.
Instead, we must look to the policymakers who are developing innovative tactics to fight these groups, from strengthening border security and countering violent extremism in communities to choking off various sources of ISIL’s financing.
One by one, the United States has been working to bring these actors into the United Nations. Last May, for example, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson joined interior ministers from around the world in an unprecedented meeting at the Security Council aimed at pressing countries to do more to counter violent extremism from within their societies and to increase cooperation to stop the flow of terrorists across borders.
Intensifying efforts to combat terrorist financing
On Thursday, Secretary Lew is chairing the first-ever meeting of U.N. Security Council finance ministers to intensify international efforts on combating terrorist financing. We recognize that if we want to cut off ISIL’s access to the international financial system and prevent it from raising, transferring and using funds, we need other countries on board.
The United States has already been taking clear steps to target both ISIL’s ability to generate wealth and its ability to access the international financial system. To deny ISIL resources and funding streams, we have worked with our coalition partners to target ISIL’s entire oil supply chain, from oil fields and refineries to tanker trucks.
In addition, to isolate ISIL from the international financial system, we’ve actively targeted ISIL’s key financial facilitators. In fact, in the last year alone, the Treasury and State departments have sanctioned more than 30 of its senior leaders and financiers.
At today’s meeting, we will ask the Security Council to adopt a major new resolution to focus its longstanding al Qaeda sanctions program on the ISIL threat. Because it started as an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL has long been subject to U.N. sanctions, and all countries have a legal obligation to freeze its assets and prohibit its business dealings. But countries around the world need to do more to make these sanctions work.
The resolution we are putting forward today will help them do that, by targeting all of ISIL’s funding streams: oil smuggling, extortion and taxation, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, foreign donations, trade in antiquities and the trafficking of human beings. The resolution also sets out clear guidelines and best practices for countries to identify and disrupt transactions benefiting terrorist groups.
U.N. Security Council resolutions are only as effective as their enforcement. So we will use today’s meeting to put more pressure on the countries that are not acting aggressively enough – or at all – to cut off the funds flowing to terrorists. Such inaction puts all of our nations at risk, including the United States.
That means countries must improve their capacity to identify and block financial transactions benefiting ISIL and other terrorist groups. It means countries must do a better job identifying terrorist financiers, middlemen and other facilitators and effectively sanction and prosecute them. And it means every country must train private sector actors to identify suspicious transactions, and freeze the assets of known terrorist organizations and their supporters.
As President Obama has said, the United States will continue to lead the global coalition in our mission to destroy ISIL. We recognize that for our efforts to succeed – and succeed they must – we not only need to bring every component of American power to bear, but we also need other nations to do the same.
Today’s U.N. meeting will bring us one step closer to doing that, as we go after the financing that fuels ISIL’s terror.
Note: An earlier version gave an incorrect date for when President Obama spoke at the Pentagon.