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Doctoral research by Mara Wesseling has shown that the data analyses being performed as part of the European fight against terrorism financing are of little use for preventing terrorism. Wesseling will receive her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on 3 September.

EuropeanUnion-Flickr-CreativeCommons-© European Union 2013 - European Parliament.

Immediately following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the European Union created the EU Action Plan for Combating Terrorism, which included action against terrorism financing as a ‘core component’. Politicians, policymakers and legal experts stress the importance of combating terrorism financing, as they see money as a crucial element in the propagation of terrorism. Specific programmes have been set up to address the problem.

‘My research shows that it cannot yet be demonstrated whether these programmes have had much success with regard to tracking down suspected terrorists or preventing terrorist attacks. In light of the meagre and sometimes debatable results of both programmes, the question arises whether the social and political changes instituted as part of the data-analysis-driven fight against terrorism are (still) desirable or justified,’ Wesseling says.

Terrorist Finance Tracking Program

In her research, Wesseling analysed the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP – better known as the SWIFT programme in the wake of the ‘SWIFT affair’) and the Third European AML/CFT directive. These two programmes constitute the most significant initiatives in the European fight against the financing of terrorism.

It has been shown that risk analyses carried out by banks as part of the Third European AML/CFT directive have revealed virtually no patterns that point to terrorism financing. Wesseling goes on to say that the preventive power of the TFTP to detect terrorist networks at an early stage is also limited. What is more, both programmes could lead (and in practice have led) to the registration and arrest of persons who are then wrongfully depicted as terrorists. Furthermore, she adds that there is a relationship between the TFTP and the imprisonment of alleged terrorists, including those at Guantanamo Bay.

The growing power of banks

One of the consequences is the growing power given to banks and other private agents to execute national security tasks and conduct the initial filtering of data, without being subject to any proper democratic monitoring. Wesseling believes that the decision to make banks partly responsible for combating terrorism financing is not entirely without consequences. Given that the performance of security tasks is not a core banking activity, a shift in objectives is taking place, namely from combating terrorism financing to complying with anti-terrorism financing legislation.

Subjective analysis

The study also revealed that anti-terrorism financing measures based on personal data and smart software are not as objective, neutral, targeted or scientific (or mathematical) as they seem. A review of the TFTP and the Third European AML/CFT directive clearly showed that these programmes are always at least partly subjective. Risk-based and link-based analyses are partly dependent on the intuition, interpretation and self-regulation of employees at banks and security services. In her research, Wesseling demonstrates that this has consequences for customers with certain profiles (e.g. Islamic names) or behaviour (e.g. international transactions), which can result in discrimination.

Graduation details

Ms M. Wesseling: The European Fight Against Terrorism Financing: Professional Fields and New Governing Practices. Thesis supervisors: Prof. M. de Goede and Prof. M.J. Wintle.

Time and venue

The doctoral thesis defence ceremony will be held on 3 September at 12:00. Venue: Agnietenkapel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231, Amsterdam.