ISIS OIL
Iraqi pro-government forces fire a rocket during an operation to retake the Baiji oil refinery from Islamic State in April 2015Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty

In a post-Snowden era, at a time when the debate in many countries about the use of communications data polarises opinion instantly, it seems foolhardy to suggest that our financial data should also be exploited by security authorities in their efforts to combat terrorism.

But as investigations into how Paris suffered its worst-ever terrorist attack continue, the question of terrorist financing and the global effort to tackle the lifeblood of groups such as Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) and its supporters has once again risen to the top of the political and security agenda. Critical to this discussion is the exploitation of financial intelligence (Finint). Without a radical rethink of the role financial analysis can play in disrupting terrorists, this renewed effort will fail.

In the weeks since the attacks occurred, European politicians have called for a renewed effort to tackle terrorism and its financing. Typical have been statements from the European Council urging "increased information sharing and operational cooperation with regard to the monitoring and investigation of... terrorist financing"; from French finance minister Michel Sapin seeking new authority to monitor bank accounts and gain better access to data held by Swift, the global financial messaging service; and from the president of the Financial Action Task Force – the global standard setter for anti-money laundering and counterterror finance – acknowledging that "financial intelligence can reveal the structure of terrorist groups, the activities of individual terrorists, and their logistics and facilitation networks".

Since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC by al-Qaeda, terrorist financing has been a focus of the international community. President George W Bush fired the first shot of his War on Terror after 9/11 by announcing a strike on the financial foundations of the global terror network aimed at starving terrorists of funding.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), global standard setter for anti-money laundering, quickly added counterterror finance to its mandate after 9/11, publishing nine Special Recommendations focused exclusively on terrorist financing; countless related United Nations Security Council Resolutions have been passed; and banks have spent billions installing systems and hiring staff to comply with their delegated role on the front line of national and international financial borders.

But it would appear on the evidence of the Paris attacks that nearly a decade and a half since 9/11 the disruption of terrorist financing seems as elusive as ever. Both the United Nations and the European Union are once again trying to find an effective way of tackling what many believe is the lifeblood of terrorist groups.

At the UN a further Security Council Resolution targeting IS financing has been passed and finance ministers of the European Union are being called on to "substantially boost efforts to fight terrorism and terrorist financing at the EU level". Furthermore, an emergency meeting of the FATF has called for better terrorist finance-related information sharing between governments and with the private sector.

There is no doubt that a redoubling of efforts is required. Obvious sources of terrorist funding such as the charcoal and contraband sugar trade that finances al-Shabaab, occurring in plain sight and often facilitated by the acquiescence of nation states, need to be stopped. Those nations that fail to adhere to their obligations should be exposed and held to account by the international community.

Yet the international community continues to focus the vast majority of its effort on identifying terrorist financing flowing through the financial sector – an almost impossible task given the often small amounts involved – rather than using financial activity in combination with government intelligence to identify individuals and networks of interest. As noted by the 9/11 Commission: "Although financial institutions lack information that can enable them to identify terrorists, they have information that can be absolutely vital in finding terrorists."

The monitoring capabilities of financial institutions are immense, deployed primarily to ensure compliance with sanctions regimes and to protect customers from fraudulent activity. Appropriately used, these systems could also provide valuable support to the security authorities.

But for so long as the focus of the global counterterror finance regime remains on cutting off funding alone, the undoubted and proven value of financial intelligence will fail to be adequately exploited and potential opportunities to disrupt terrorist activity will be missed.

This change in approach, together with a genuine and accountable effort to inhibit the trade sustaining terrorist groups that control territory, needs to form the basis of a renewed, concerted, and coordinated global effort to tackle terrorists and their financing.

In the aftermath of the foiled 2006 transatlantic airline liquid bomb plot, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown called for the creation of a modern Bletchley Park, declaring: "What the use of fingerprints was to the 19th century, and DNA analysis was to the 20th century, so financial information and forensic accounting has come to be one of today's most powerful investigative and intelligence tools available in the fight against crime and terrorism." Those assessing global efforts to counterterrorist financing in the shadow of the Paris attacks would do well to recall these words.

Tom Keatinge is Director of the Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.