New evidence supports allegations that jihadists are exploiting Turkish organizations to launder donations to armed groups involved in the Syrian civil war. While closely studying a network of websites that operate as an online portal for Turkic Islamist rebel groups, Flashpoint analysts noted a recent article from a Turkic jihadist publication about a first-hand visit to a training camp run by the Turkistan Islamic Party, a US-designated terrorist group. Content within this article further implies that jihadists are indeed exploiting Turkish organizations to launder money to rebel groups in Syria. Not only does this practice threaten international security, it poses serious compliance risks to the region’s financial institutions and hinders widespread efforts to reduce the size, influence, and capabilities of jihadist groups.
Article Outlines Fundraising Strategy
The article was published by Doğu Türkistan Bulenti (The East Turkestan Bulletin), a portal dedicated to monitoring the latest developments in jihadist movements associated with the Xinjiang province in Western China. This area is primarily populated by the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group whose language closely resembles modern Turkish.
Image 1 – Website header for the East Turkestan Bulletin
During the late 1980s, Uyghur separatists in China founded the Turkistan Islamic Party, which has since carried out dozens of attacks against Chinese interests while forging links with international jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The party is known to recruit child soldiers from Syria and is designated as a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States.
Image 2 – Uyghur children partake in training camp activities
Photos from the article depict the training camp’s children in various stages of martial and religious education. The author describes the camp’s calls for donations both to support the continued development of the party’s madrassas and to provide humanitarian relief. Specifically, the camp appears to be soliciting donors both to act as “surrogate parents” and to help fundraise a goal of USD$120,000 for madrassa graduates orphaned in Syria. According to the article, Türkistan İslam Derneği (the Turkistan Islamic Foundation) is soliciting donations for medicine and first aid equipment. It is crucial to note that jihadist groups have utilized nonprofit organizations and requests for humanitarian donations as a front to cover up terrorism financing and money laundering schemes.
Three Institutions Exploited
To catalyze fundraising efforts, the aforementioned article includes the training camp’s account information at three Turkish institutions: two large, regional banks involved in both commercial and investment services and the Turkish Postal Service. Upon further investigation, it appears that rebel groups are exploiting and laundering money through these organizations to finance jihadists’ involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Image 3 – Account numbers provided for three institutions; sensitive information blurred
The Turkish Postal Service account number listed is particularly noteworthy because the country’s post has previously been exploited by jihadist groups to finance terrorism activities. In November 2010, Flashpoint analysts reported on jihadists using bank accounts operated by Turkey’s Post to launder donations via Western Union to Pakistani camps associated with Cemaat-Ul-Islam, a Turkic jihadist group.
These types of incidents are notably more common among Turkish institutions simply due to the country’s geography. Not only does Turkey’s size, infrastructure, and location make it an ideal crossroads for people and commerce, its borders with Syria and Iran have rendered Turkey more vulnerable to the externalities resulting from these nearby countries’ conflicts. To combat the issues of money laundering and terrorism financing, over the past decade the Turkish government has implemented a series of legislative regulations that increase sanctions against both individuals and organizations involved in these such schemes.
While efforts to stymie terrorism financing are growing increasingly widespread, recent developments have showcased just how adaptable, comprehensive, and complex jihadist groups’ fundraising strategies can be. Given the potentially severe implications of money laundering — ranging from institutional noncompliance to the broader destabilization and distrust of financial markets — it is imperative to scrutinize the online operations of jihadist groups closely to better understand their fundraising strategies. Without relevant data and intelligence to reveal and provide context around terrorism financing schemes such as this one, organizations worldwide risk falling victim to the far-reaching financial and security consequences of money laundering.