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ISIL's Al-Rawi Network
The future of ISIL's finance network?
ISIL provinces in Africa have received start-up funding from ISIL core, and in some cases, might be receiving ongoing funding. The networks supplying these funds remain unidentified, but one possible candidate is well-known to intelligence agencies: the al-Rawi network. The network is made up of financial facilitators located across Europe, Asia, and Africa that transfer ISIL funds.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) controlled significant territory in Syria and Iraq between 2013 and 2019, and used that territory as a main source of funds and revenue. The group raised funds from a variety of activities including taxation, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, oil theft and sales, trafficking in antiquities, and much more.
Today, ISIL controls pockets of territory in Iraq and Syria, and relies on its accumulated wealth to sustain its organization, and probably to fund other terrorist groups (its “Provinces”) in Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique, the DRC, Afghanistan, and the Sahara.
ISIL’s residual wealth remains something of a mystery. During its heyday, the group was reportedly bringing in tens of millions of dollars a month (although I remain skeptical about some of the higher estimates, which I continue to believe downplayed the costs associated with maintaining the group’s operations in Iraq and Syria).
How much, and where, that money is remains a key intelligence question.
ISIL’s ability to move money internationally is largely unconstrained. The group relies on networks of financial facilitators located in different regions of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to move money. One such network is the al-Rawi network. The inner workings of this network provides insight into the kinds of operations ISIL engages in to move funds; parts of this network might still be in play for the group today.
The al-Rawi network is a network of financial facilitators for ISIL operating in Iraq, Turkey, Belgium, Kenya, Russia, and China, all of which are used to transfer ISIL funds. The network is primarily a family business. The leader of the network, Mushtaq Al-Rawi, was responsible for resuscitating a prominent money laundering network that was active during Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The network uses cutouts (proxies), layering, and cash smuggling to obfuscate the source of ISIL money. Individuals in the network have accepted ISIL cash (hundreds of thousands of dollars in regular transactions totalling millions), converted those funds into gold, and then sold the gold and reverted the proceeds back to cash for ISIL (a somewhat common money-laundering scheme).
(Sidebar: if you are buying hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions, worth of gold, you probably have a line on one or more gold dealers, or this is part of your network…)
Much of the networks remains in place, despite US designations, arrests (dotted lines), and deaths (solid lines).
As of December 2018, Mushtaq Al-Rawi was living in Belgium. He owns money exchange businesses in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Sudan, and the Gulf. He is also believed to operate an ISIL hawala (Al-Ard Al-Jadidah Money Exchange Company) in Samsun, Turkey.
Mushtaq al-Rawi used various commercial establishments in Iraq, hawalas in Iraq and Turkey, individuals in the Gulf, and an unidentified West Bank-based charity to generate, launder, and move cash into Iraq and Syria on behalf of ISIL. He also owned at least three QiCard businesses in al-Qa’im and Ramadi (Iraq), as well as in Sumsun, Turkey, and is believed to have administered payroll for ISIL members.
QiCard, established in 2007, is a joint venture between the private sector (Iraqi Electronic Payments Systems) and the Government Sector (Rafidain Bank). The company issues biometric identification cards for citizens and provides electronic financial services in Iraq. The al-Rawi network registered several businesses with the Government of Iraq to acquire QiCard machines, and ISIL provided funds to purchase and license five machines. These machines were used to launder funds for ISIL inside and outside of Iraq.
Afaq Dubai was moving money for ISIL and was part of the group’s al-Rawi network, although the nature of Afaq’s relationship with the network and network members is unclear. The two operators of Afaq are believed to be ISIL financiers.
Elements of the network that are still likely operating include Sham Express, which was founded in 2020 by Brukan al-Khatuni; al-Khatuni’s sons coordinated with ISIL financial official to facilitate transfer of over $500,000 in June 2021. Brukan al-Khatuni assumed an important role in the network in 2018 in managing ISIS financing in Turkiye, and transferred millions of dollars from ISIL that year.
As of 2021, the Iraq-based al-Rawi network of ISIL facilitators continued to function in both conflict zones and in nearby states, and residual elements of this network (including new business names) likely continues to operate globally. This type of network is extremely valuable for a terrorist organization, as they have people in positions of control who can obscure any records, change names, and generally provide cover for transactions.
These types of illicit networks use a variety of financial tradecraft to build resilience against disruption activities like arrests and designations. The al-Rawi network pre-dates the arrival of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and likely has significant redundancies in its system. Given that the al-Rawi network is known to operate in Africa, this network is a possible source of funds for the various ISIL provinces on the continent.
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