The UK Home Secretary’s proscription announcement raised expectations, but those that cheered are likely to be disappointed.
In announcing the proscription of Hizbullah by the UK government on 25 February 2019, Home Secretary Sajid Javid noted that ‘we are no longer able to distinguish between [Hizbullah’s] already banned military wing and the political party’ and he had thus decided to proscribe the group in its entirety. He also asserted that his priority as Home Secretary ‘is to protect the British people’ which includes identifying and banning ‘any terrorist organisation which threatens our safety and security’. These are strong words. But what does this action mean in practice? Or is it purely, as those across the Atlantic in Washington, DC would say – and for whose gratification this action was surely partly designed – a case of ‘talking the talk’ rather than ‘walking the walk’?
The response to the proscription was predictably polarised. This author was in Israel at the time, where he basked in the warm glow of being from the UK – a rare sensation these days. However, in France, which has strong historical ties to Lebanon, the seat of Hizbullah, President Emmanuel Macron reportedly underscored the relevance of his nation’s continued distinction between the proscribed military wing and the political party represented in the Lebanese parliament. He emphasised that it is up to the people of Lebanon, not a foreign power, to determine whether a political movement is good or not. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini called the UK’s action a ‘domestic decision’ that did not change the position of the EU on distinguishing between the military and political wings of the group. And the UK’s opposition Labour Party suggested that the move was motivated more by the Conservative Party leadership ambitions of Home Secretary Sajid Javid than by actual evidence.
The logic of the proscription would seem sound. Just two weeks prior to the Home Secretary’s announcement, a briefing at RUSI had provided insight into the extensive financing activity of Hizbullah. A key element of this discussion focused on the fungibility of money – that is to say, funds gathered for one cause can equally be used for another. Determining with any certainty whether funds raised under the Hizbullah banner are for its political party or outlawed military wing is impossible.
So, what happens next, now that the UK has taken this step? The short answer seems to be ‘nothing much’. In early April, in response to a written parliamentary question from Joan Ryan MP (formerly of the Labour Party and now Change UK) asking the government what steps are being taken ‘to tackle sources of financial assistance to Hezbollah in the UK’, Ben Wallace, the Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime, provided an entirely unconvincing and unenlightening response. He merely noted the UK’s ‘strong reputation for tackling terrorist financing’; its key role ‘in international efforts to strengthen the global response to terrorist financing’; its multifaceted range of disruptive tools and capabilities in this regard; its collaboration with international partners and domestic financial institutions; and – for good measure – recalled the recognition the nation received in this field in the recent review undertaken by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global standard-setter on anti-money laundering and counterterrorist finance. But answer the question, he did not. Indeed, he neatly passed the buck for responsibility to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
For those hoping that the Home Secretary’s February announcement would preempt a strategy to ensure the UK is not a source of funding for terrorist-related Hizbullah activity, this failure to articulate anything specific will have reinforced the accusations levelled at Sajid Javid by the Labour Party.
So, what should the proscription of Hizbullah by the UK herald? What actions should supplement this overtly political statement? As leading Hizbullah expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy noted on Twitter, ‘The @ukhomeoffice can do better than this. Full designation of #Hezbollah not meant 2b just a statement but introduction of a new tool in the CT toolkit. Time to think through how to implement it for regulatory, law enforcement and intel benefit’. If the government felt that proscribing Hizbullah in its entirety was necessary to protect the British people from threats to their safety and security, it must follow that subsequent actions should already be planned. It is the powers enabled by the proscription that afford this protection, not the proscription itself. And proscribing an organisation should not be a marketing exercise aimed at ingratiating a nation with a target audience; it should be evidence-based and a platform for action.
A potential test for the UK government loomed with the annual Al Quds Day march in London on 2 June, a march that has reportedly included open displays of support for Hizbullah in the past. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, had previously noted that neither he nor the Metropolitan Police have the power to ban marches or protests – that power lies with the Home Secretary. The police did suggest prior to this year’s march that they would intervene if Hizbullah flags were flown. On the day, no action was needed.
Still, announcing the proscription of Hizbullah was the easy part; demonstrating a willingness to take measures beyond seizing flags – such as disrupting fundraising activity and freezing funds – will be far more challenging. If the Home Secretary wishes to respond to those critics that question his motivation, then a near-term display of the UK’s capabilities for tackling terrorist financing, much vaunted by his Security Minister in his parliamentary response, would be welcome.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies