The Digital Terror Financing of Central Asian Jihadis.

AuthorSoliev, Nodirbek

Like all terror groups, Central Asian terrorist groups are continuously attempting to diversify how they finance their activities to avoid detection. Drawing on various reports, court documents, an array of research literature, and online extremist materials, this article explores some innovative methods that Central Asian terrorists have recently experimented with to finance their activities. Their online financing efforts tend to involve three stages. The first is the dissemination of fundraising propaganda and contacting prospective donors via online public accounts. The second is communication via encrypted messaging apps to identify a suitable mode of transaction and to provide security protocols. The third is the transaction itself. Understanding these mechanisms can help enhance relevant countries' response strategies against terrorism financing risks.

In October 2021, Kazakh authorities revealed that the country's law enforcement entities had suppressed several dozen instances of terrorist financing in Kazakhstan since 2019. (1) Similarly, counterterrorism agencies in Tajikistan investigated 15 cases in 2021 alone. (2) In Uzbekistan, from 2016 to the first half of 2021,60 men and two women were convicted for their involvement in terrorism financing. (3) Nearly 70 percent (or 43) of these convicts in Uzbekistan reportedly committed their crimes in a foreign country. While Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have not provided many details of the cases committed abroad, what is known is that in recent years, individuals from Central Asian countries were found to have been involved in terrorism financing cases in Russia, (4) Turkey, (5) Germany, (6) Sweden, (7) the United States, (8 )and South Korea, (9) indicating terrorist groups' interest in diaspora communities and migrant workers abroad as potential donors.

Drawing on evidence sourced from various local and international news reports, court documents, and online extremist propaganda materials, this article explores various tools and methods of illicit fundraising and fund-moving that have been used by Central Asian individuals and terrorist groups linked to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State in recent years. Based on the available open-source information, the article makes some tentative conclusions about the emerging patterns of terrorism financing in Central Asia that could also help enrich existing perspectives on the issue in other contexts. The article first outlines the available literature on Central Asian terrorism financing. It then draws on the existing open-source information to outline modalities in the three-step approach that tends to be used by Central Asian jihadi fundraisers: online fundraising appeals, encrypted communication with potential donors, and the transaction itself.

The Existing Literature

The available open-source reporting about terrorism financing cases in the region suggests that funds from Central Asia and its diaspora abroad mainly go, or are intended to go, to conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to support various jihadi groups operating there. The main beneficiaries have been Central Asian units and individuals associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qa'ida's former representative on the Syrian battlefield, and the Islamic State's central network in Syria and its local faction in Afghanistan known as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISK). (a) However, due to the scarcity of relevant publicly available data, only tentative observations can be made about Central Asian terrorism financing, including the size, scope, and geography of money transfers and how money is collected, moved, and used. The lack of open-source information is a function of the clandestine nature of terrorist groups and their operations, and the unwillingness of financial investigators to reveal sensitive details. (10 )As in many other contexts, the literature covering the topic in the Central Asian problem set has been piecemeal. Most existing publications are either not recent or only touch upon certain aspects of the subject. For instance, a study published by Kamila Abdulkarimova and Sanzhar Abubakirov in 2019 analyzed Kazakhstan's anti-money laundering (AML) system and legal regulations designed to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. (11) An article published by other Kazakh experts, Zagira Iskakova and Akmeir Rakhymzhanova, in 2014 highlighted the development of effective financial monitoring systems as an important preventive mechanism against money laundering and terrorism financing in their country. (12) Similarly, a collection of essays that was published in 2019 jointly in Bishkek and Moscow as an a supplementary textbook for university students and, separately, a PhD study completed by Almaz Bazarbaev in 2004 explained the international and national legal basis of countering money laundering and terrorism financing in Kyrgyzstan. (13)

Only a handful of publications have provided a detailed examination of the issue of terrorism financing in Central Asia. One such publication came out in Bishkek in 2021 as an outcome of research that was conducted by a team led by Afzal Ashraf and Indira Aslanova. (14) Based on interviews with several foreign terrorist fighters and their family members from Kyrgyzstan, the report explored some interesting cases of fundraising from inside Kyrgyzstan and among its immigrant communities abroad, particularly in Russia and Turkey and to a lesser extent in South Korea and Ukraine. However, the report did not reveal how the funds raised had been delivered to their intended beneficiaries.

More recently, the research outlets Militant Wire and The Khorasan Diary have featured articles by Lucas Webber and others exploring how Afghanistan-based militant groups have used various online tools and platforms to boost recruitment and fundraising from Central Asia. However, this coverage has been mainly confined to the Islamic State terrorist network (15) Separately, Viktor Mikhailov of the Center for Studying Regional Threats (CSRT), a Tashkentbased independent research center, has published some articles and analysis on fundraising propaganda and tactics used by Central Asian groups linked to HTS in particular. (16) In sum, the author's review of existing literature shows there are significant knowledge gaps especially in understanding how terrorism financing risks evolve around new technologies. (b)

The Three-Step Approach to Online Fundraising

Terrorist groups have often been early adopters of new technologies. They also often imitate each other's perceived successful tactical or technological innovations. (17) Given the widespread access to the internet and the rapid expansion of virtual communication platforms and encrypted messaging apps, bad actors have for some time been exploiting such online tools for fundraising.

Open-source data indicates that the financing efforts currently employed by Central Asian groups in the online domain are typically conducted in three main phases, with each step involving a different set of tools and techniques. The general three step process that the author observed include:

Step 1: The dissemination of fundraising appeals and the establishment of contacts within the pool of potential supporters online. The process is usually conducted on public pages and accounts, with those often spelling out explicitly the launch of fundraising campaigns. (18) While the stated cause the funds are being raised for may vary from case to case, one similar feature that they share is the framing of such drives as an opportunity to make indirect contribution to "jihad" for those who cannot travel to conflict zones to attend the conflict in-person. Fundraising ads and posters tend to be first shared on websites and blogging pages affiliated with terrorist groups, from where they are further spread across various social media/networking platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and public groups and channels in encrypted messaging apps. This process is mostly relevant to HTS-linked Central Asians. As the Islamic State did not have separate media teams dedicated to propaganda in Central Asian languages, (c) to the author's knowledge, the Islamic State terrorist network has not established prominent web and blogging sites in these languages, and therefore Islamic State fundraising campaigns usually started on social media and networking sites and encrypted platforms.

As will be discussed in detail in relevant sections below, enhanced censorship and content moderation policies adopted by tech companies and the implementation of terrorist designation practices by countries have led terrorist groups to readjust their online propaganda strategies, while accelerating their shift to encrypted platforms. (19)

Step 2: The establishment of closer connections with potential supporters via encrypted messaging apps such as Element, Telegram, Tutanota, Wire, and Zello. In this stage, fundraisers tend to verify their identities, establish their financial circumstances, and determine their level of skills to conduct certain fund transfer methods. This stage also involves delivery of detailed security instructions to donors to complete the transfer through the mode identified as suitable.

Step 3: The completion of the transaction within the identified mode of digital transfer such as e-Wallets or cryptocurrencies.

The sections that follow look at the patterns of activity of Central Asian jihadi fundraisers relating to each of these steps.

Step 1: Online Fundraising Appeals

Despite the emergence of more secure types of internet communication tools such as encrypted messengers, jihadi groups of all stripes, including Central Asian groups, still rely on online public social media and networking platforms, web/blogging sites, and online forums as preferred channels for propaganda messaging. This is because, unlike private messengers where user...

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