State sponsorship of terrorism is like downloading illegally on the internet: everyone knows it takes place, but it is extremely difficult to find evidence to prove it. There are few cases where it happens in plain sight – Iran is one of the few states brazen enough to do it openly, in its funding of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – but for the most part funds are funneled from states to militants through a maze of proxies and offshore accounts, a dark web that is almost impossible to penetrate.
This week, a rare light was cast into the shadows of state sponsorship of terrorism. Documents obtained by the BBC reveal that in 2015, Qatar paid approximately $1 billion to one of the most dangerous Iraqi terrorist organisations, Kata’ib Hezbollah – an offshoot of the namesake organisation in Lebanon – who had taken hostage 28 Qatari nationals, including two close relatives of the Qatari Foreign Minister.
The payment was ostensibly made to set hostages free but make no mistake: this was terrorist financing plain and simple. It was a direct transfer of funds knowingly made to support the activities of some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. Kata’ib Hezbollah collaborates with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, and with Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some of the funds made their way to a number of other terrorist groups, including the infamous al-Nusra Front.
Qatar’s support for these groups is doubly dangerous given the circumstances under which it was given. It represents a significant injection of funds that will provide succour for a range of terrorist organisations. More than this, however, the incentive created by such a payoff will embolden hostage takers in the Middle East, and make the targeting of civilian targets more likely, including Westerners.
Europe needs to treat this behaviour as what it is: state sponsorship of terrorism that directly threatens the safety of European citizens. A robust response, which addresses both the incentives to engage in and the mechanisms for carrying out state funding of terrorists, is absolutely critical.
A good first step would be to tackle state funding of terrorism where it is known to happen: in the Iranian regime’s funding of terrorist organisations. Iran openly funds its own Quds Force. It also supplies weapons and funds to terrorists in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. Rather than turn a blind eye, the EU needs to sanction Iran for this behaviour. The biggest mistake the EU made in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal was to leave the issue of terrorist financing out of it. Now that the deal is collapsing following the US’s withdrawal, this is a defect which desperately needs attention.
Sanctioning Iran will act as a warning for other states that seek to expand their influence abroad through funding terrorists. So too will taking a strong stance on the payment of ransom demands to terrorists. This is something that many EU countries, including France and Germany, have been guilty of in the past. By laying down legal checks preventing the payment of ransoms to terrorists, European governments can send the message that hostage taking does not pay, and thereby make the world safer for their citizens.
Cutting off sources of finance for terrorist groups is perhaps the single best way to prevent them from carrying out attacks. Cracking down on state sponsorship is an excellent first step in this direction. With coordinated action from the EU and Member States, we can go a long way towards making it impossible for terrorist groups to carry out their agenda.