Terrorism is cheap: get used to it.

How much money do you carry in your wallet?  If you are Canadian not much.  We are apparently the world’s most frequent users of debit, followed by the Swedes.  So I guess not much then.

Before the dawn of debit, though, I would wager that most people carried $60-100 on them at any given time.  This of course is all relative – I recall getting by with $20 way back when, but then again I am old.

The more important question is what can you do with what you have in your pocket?  Actually, quite a bit, including carrying out a terrorist attack if you so inclined.  Let’s hope most of my readers are not!

As a side note you would have to be a pretty stupid terrorist to use a credit card to buy the materials for a terrorist attack. Unless your plan was a suicide plot in which case you don’t care if you are traced after the fact because of your money trail.  You’ll be dead after all and well beyond caring of getting caught.

A decade or so ago a buddy of mine who worked in the CSIS Toronto office tried an experiment.  This was during  the investigation of the so-called ‘Toronto 18’ terrorist cell, still to date this country’s largest plot.  He decided to try to see what he could acquire with what he had on him and for $20-30 or so he was able to go to a Canadian Tire (NB for American readers Canadian Tire is an institution in this land and does not only sell tires: it is akin to a Home Depot or a Lowes) and pick up enough raw materials to make a small bomb.  For $20 to $30 Canadian ($15-25 US or 12-20 Euros).  Not bad eh?

What this underscored was the reality that terrorism is not expensive.  This was brought to the fore again when it was reported that all the successful attacks in the UK in 2017 – five in all – cost a total of 5000 UKP ($6500US or $7000 Canadian).  In other words not a lot of money.

This has serious implications for our collective efforts to interdict terrorist financing.  Governments around the world are trying to identify sources of income for terrorist groups and interdict the flow of money internationally.  This is of course a good idea and a valuable tool in the counterterrorism toolbox.  The less money they have after all, the less carnage and destruction they can wield.

The problem is, as we have seen, that terrorism is cheap.  Even if we were to stop all cross-border flows we would not stop all terrorism.   We would put a dent in the ability of terrorist groups to send each other funds but we would not prevent small-scale attacks from occurring.

Following on this, many if not most of the recent attacks are low-tech, low cost.  When we see people opting for driving vehicles into crowds: how much does that cost and how complicated can that be?  If I already own a car – or better yet steal one – then the cost of terrorist attract is essentially zero (ok, ok, I may have to put $5 gas in the tank).

As a result we have to be realistic when it comes to our ability to drain the money flow for terrorism.  It is simply impossible to say that the best terrorist financing interdiction programs are sufficient.  Again, this is not to suggest that we don’t engage in them – it’s just that those behind them and those that implement them have to be honest with what they can achieve in the end.

All this is part and parcel of what we call counter terrorism.  We need our security agencies to find and neutralise plots.  We need government and societal support. We need to ‘follow the money’.  But we also need to be realistic.  Pretending otherwise is self-deception.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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