List of world's richest terror networks released by Forbes Israel placing Iraqi Isis on top
A list of the world's richest terror networks released by Forbes Israel places Isis on topReuters

It's almost unthinkable that Western banks could be complicit in attacks by militants on US armed forces operating in Iraq. That they had sunk so far into the nihilism of profit-chasing that they would make money as a link in a financial chain that led to the killing of American soldiers.

But that's exactly what they stand accused of by a group of wounded Iraq War veterans. Backed by families of soldiers who died, these veterans are suing several financial institutions in a lawsuit accusing the banks of helping to fund the militants who attacked them.

The 200 people involved have filed the lawsuit under the US Anti-Terrorism Act. They want a jury trial and unspecified damages from the six banks, who are Barclays, Credit Suisse, HSBC, Standard Chartered and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

"They were indifferent to the criminal purposes a state sponsor of terrorism puts their money to," claimed Gary Osen, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, to the Wall Street Journal.

None of the banks commented on the allegation that financial transactions with Iran – money later used to fund militant attacks – were hidden to dodge US sanctions on the Middle East state.

It's claimed the money ended up in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its allies, including Hezbollah, an organisation proscribed by the US government, who were attacking US forces in Iraq during the American occupation. The allegations, so far unproven, will now be tested in court.

International security

Financial scandals, once the fuel of public rage in the smouldering rubble of the crisis, have become mundane. There's a yawning complacency about yet another bunch of fines for some of the world's biggest banks, this time for rigging the multi-trillion dollar currency market. Plus ca change.

But there is a much darker side to finance than traders fixing a few interest rates or mis-selling financial products. And it's one worthy of more fury than it gets.

The financial system is complicit in destabilising international security. It aids corrupt political elites in filtering money out of their countries. It helps funnel money to terrorists in the Middle East. It is a conduit for the financing of organised crime, like the drugs cartels in central and south America.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.Reuters

"If you look for example at the conflict that is going on in Ukraine, it is clear that one of the main reasons Yanukovich was overthrown was because of the rampant grand corruption within his presidency," Tom Keatinge, a finance and security analyst and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) thinktank, told IBTimes UK.

"And that level of corruption, the amount that he is alleged to have stripped out of the defence budget and so on, cannot have occurred without the use of the international financial system.

"So it is clearly the case that the international financial system – unwittingly in general [for] at least the banks – facilitates that kind of security instability by harbouring or laundering the proceeds of corruption.

"There are some known facilitators, for example lawyers in shell company jurisdictions etc, that know very well how to use the international financial system to assist with that kind of grand corruption."

The ousting of Viktor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine over his corruption and efforts to forge closer ties with Russia over the European Union triggered a crisis that has seen Russia annex Crimea, pro-Russian separatist groups in the east of Ukraine begin a civil war with the Kiev government, and the burgeoning of a new Cold War with between the Kremlin and the West.

Wider implications

Rusi's Keatinge said it's not his place to comment on whether or not the Iraq War veterans have a case or not against the banks they accuse of aiding militant attacks.

"But I think one needs to consider what are the wider implications of these actions and do you end up in a situation where banks will only provide services to large corporations and those where there is absolutely no hint of risk whatsoever. I think that's something one has to bear in mind," he said.

Keatinge said banks contribute to international insecurity, but not on purpose because they are "used and abused" by corrupted lawyers who know how to play the financial system.

And he said the banking system has become a "soft target" for regulators under pressure to levy fines, as well as those wanting to pursue court cases under US anti-terror law, which is extraterritorial by nature and so can engulf banks from countries that don't regard the same organisations as terrorist.

"We need to ask ourselves what do we want the banking system to do for us, because the more of this that occurs – and actually, much of this ends up being unproven and the cases don't go against the banks – the more the banks will choose not to provide banking services to people who really need them," he said.

"So they will choose not to provide banking services to charities because it's just not worth the risk. They'll choose not to provide banking services to countries which they think might be slightly higher risk but need access to the international financial system to support economic growth. And this all comes under the heading of de-risking."

Terror financing

Terrorism is funded in large part by the illicit industries, with the money made from things like drugs and human trafficking laundered through offshore shell companies and the financial system.

Figures from Global Financial Integrity estimate that the size of the global illicit flow of goods, guns, people, and natural resources is $650bn (£410bn, €521bn).

One of the groups cashing in on the illicit market is the Islamic State, also known as Isis, a self-declared theofascist caliphate stretching across parts of Syria and Iraq.

Islamic State M16 Special Forces
Islamic State fighters are seen holding M16 assault rifles.Twitter

It smuggles oil, uses extortion on those under its control, receives donations from wealthy individuals in Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It claims ransoms for people it has kidnapped and loots precious Middle East antiques to sell to private collectors.

The rich donors of Isis, the oil billionaires of the desert, are likely to have access to the international financial system through which they can make then extract money for the pursuit of Islamic terrorism.

As well as funding the military and terror operations that have seen it seize control of major towns and cities, it is trying to establish a functioning state – and that costs a lot of money. There are around eight million people living under the tyranny of the Islamic State, the wealthiest terror organisation in the world which is thought to make as much as $2m a day.

"The money is used to pay the salaries of their fighters, buy weapons and ammunition, and finance operations which have enabled the group to seize large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria," Julie Lenarz, executive director of the Human Security Centre thinktank, told IBTimes UK

"In return, with more territory comes more revenue and Isis ever more powerful."

Because of its financial structure, Lenarz said it is extremely challenging to stop its flow of money. But it is still possible to block some of its funding channels.

"Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and other prominent terrorist organisations heavily depend on the generosity of wealthy donors to sustain themselves and finance their operations," she said.

"A significant portion of their money is being processed via the international banking system and can be restricted by imposing traditional money laundering laws."

But Loretta Napoleoni, an expert on terrorism finance, has previously told IBTimes UK that traditional Western anti-terrorism and money laundering legislation cannot tackle Isis because it operates a closed, cash-only economy.

"The West is embarrassed at the failure to prevent this. So they say it has come from nowhere, in order to hide the failing of anti-terrorist measures, but these people have been operating for three years in Syria," she said.

Past scandals

Some of the world's best known and most respected financial institutions have been caught up in financing terror and organised crime.

In 2012, HSBC apologised and was fined almost $2bn by US authorities after its money laundering controls failed to detect that its Mexican business was "under siege from drug crime, violence and money laundering," according to an investigation by the Senate.

The same investigation found that HSBC Europe and HSBC Middle East had edited out references to Iran in financial transactions, potentially to get under the bank's internal compliance radar. As a result, the Senate said this "may have facilitated transactions on behalf of terrorists, drug traffickers or other wrongdoers".

And HSBC had continued to do business with the Saudi Al Rajhi Bank after it was accused of having links to terror organisations.

hamas informants
Hamas militants grab Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, before executing them in Gaza City.Reuters

Standard Chartered got into trouble with US authorities for "illegally moving millions of dollars through the US financial system on behalf of sanctioned Iranian, Sudanese, Libyan, and Burmese entities," said the FBI at the time, which cost it $327m in fines.

It was a failure of the bank's money laundering controls. But that wasn't the last of it. In 2014, it was fined a further $300m for not fully fixing its money laundering controls.

And Natwest, owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, is facing a renewed legal challenge over its ties to Interpal, a charity that offers Palestinians humanitarian support but has been accused by the US and Israel of giving material support to Hamas, which both define as a terrorist group.

Natwest opened an account for Interpal and continued to maintain it after the Bank of England and others said there was no evidence that the charity financed terrorism. For this reason, a US judge threw out a lawsuit against Natwest by 200 victims of terror attacks in Israel that are blamed on Hamas.

But a US appeals court said in September 2014 that the case should be brought back to life. According to Reuters, Circuit Judge Pierre Leval said the US Anti-Terrorism Act required a showing only that NatWest knew or was deliberately indifferent to whether Interpal provided material support to Hamas "irrespective of whether Interpal's support aided terrorist activities of the terrorist organisation."

"Frankly, we've seen the thin end of the wedge. This latest news I would say is a logical next step," Rusi's Keatinge said.

"If you think you can tie a bank to doing business with Iran – and by the way, doing business with Iran has not always been subject to sanction – and you think you can tie Iran to the actions of Hezbollah, and if in the country you are talking about – in this case the US – that [organisation] is a designated terrorist organisation, then you will try and make the case to extract more dollars from the banking system."