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Lone-Actor and Small Cell Terrorist Attacks: A New Front in Counter-Terrorist Finance?

Tom Keatinge and Florence Keen
Occasional Papers, 24 January 2017
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, AML/CTF, Lone-Actor Terrorism, France, UK, Terrorism, Europe
As the threat from lone-actor and small cell terrorism evolves, this paper examines the financing of both disrupted and successful plots since 2000 in Great Britain, France and Australia. These plots often require minimal amounts of funding, making proactive identification through financial means challenging. Nonetheless, this paper highlights a number of key themes that warrant further investigation, showing the potentially disruptive role that financial intelligence can play.

Efforts to disrupt the funding of Daesh have taken up a significant amount of the time and resources of policymakers, law enforcement and the military. These efforts have also involved mobilising the private sector, particularly banks, oil companies and antiquities dealers. However, little attention has been paid to understanding and addressing the financing associated with the plots (whether successful, failed or disrupted) of lone actors and small cells that have acted beyond Daesh-controlled territory.

This paper seeks to provide insight into the financing connected with a sample of 63 lone-actor and small cell terrorist plots in Great Britain and France since 2000, including those that are religiously inspired, right wing, nationalist, and single issue. The aim is to inform thinking and raise awareness among those charged with tackling this threat. The report also draws on a similar study by Australia’s financial intelligence unit, AUSTRAC, thereby providing an overview of lone-actor and small cell terrorist finance from the perspective of three countries, each with individual and distinct experiences.

What is clear from both studies is that the simplicity and spontaneity of these attacks, particularly those attempted by a lone assailant as opposed to a dyad or triad, means that assailants are often able to make use of their own funding resources, offering limited opportunities for traditional counter-terrorist financing (CTF) approaches to reveal financial indications of plans prior to their execution. Despite this challenge, the research conducted for this paper has highlighted a number of key themes that it is hoped can contribute to the approaches taken by law enforcement and security authorities as they adapt their CTF response to the evolving threat posed by such terrorists:

  • While there has been an undoubted need to focus on disrupting the significant financing accrued by Daesh over the past two years, a comprehensive CTF strategy should not lose sight of the fact that lone actors and small cells operating at home present a considerably more immediate threat to citizens than Daesh, given that the latter mainly operates in Iraq and Syria. 
  • Although it has traditionally been the case in many countries that terrorist financing has been addressed separately from broader financial crime, the increasing intersection of lone actors and small cells with low-level criminality suggests that this separation needs to be reconsidered. Investigations need to at least acknowledge this emerging connection and create dedicated inter-agency links to combat it.
  • Attacks undertaken with knives have certainly resulted in casualties; however, the use of firearms (particularly automatic weapons) has resulted in casualties on a far greater scale. As such, increased focus should be placed on identifying and disrupting financial flows related to the trade in illicit firearms.
  • Information about the financial tools employed by lone actors and small cells must be more widely disseminated to raise awareness among those agencies and actors – in both the public and private sectors – who are less familiar with terrorist financing techniques. These might include certain types of retailer, payday lenders and student loan companies, as well as online payment systems that may increasingly be the target of terrorist-related fraud. Closer monitoring of the welfare system is also advised, in light of cases identified where benefits were used to fund terrorist plots.
  • The financial patterns of lone actors and small cell operators are often indistinguishable from legitimate financial behaviour, and proactive identification of these individuals through financial reporting remains challenging. National financial intelligence units must therefore act as a critical bridge between national security and law enforcement agencies (that identify subjects of interest via non-financial means) and the private sector, to allow financial institutions to conduct more targeted monitoring.

Author

Tom Keatinge
Director, Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, RUSI

Tom Keatinge is the Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI, where his research focuses on matters at... read more

Florence Keen
Research Analyst

Florence is a Research Analyst at RUSI within the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies. She joined RUSI in October 2015 after... read more

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