Egypt strengthens terror financing crackdown

Some militant organisations active in the country receive funds from international or regional sponsors.
Sunday 29/04/2018
A file picture of a Zad store, established by a Muslim Brotherhood tycoon and later seized by Egyptian authorities in 2014. (Reuters)
Wings clipped. A file picture of a Zad store, established by a Muslim Brotherhood tycoon and later seized by Egyptian authorities in 2014. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt has increased its crackdown on the financing of terrorist organisations by formulating a law that allows the government to seize funds and assets of terrorist groups.

The law, which has been approved by a parliament committee and endorsed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, represents a major step to help Cairo in its fight against terrorists.

“The law fills a legal gap that persisted for years, namely about the legality of official action to seize the money and assets of terrorist organisations,” said MP Mohamed Masoud. “Egypt is a state and it must put its war against terrorism within a legal framework, which makes the new law acquire extreme importance.”

Egypt has been locked in a brutal war against terrorism for several years. Cairo has been trying to eradicate a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) from the Sinai Peninsula. Groups affiliated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have also targeted military and police in Egypt.

Following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013 and an ensuing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo formed a judicial committee to seize the organisation’s assets. The Muslim Brotherhood was formally designated as a terrorist organisation by Egypt in December 2013.

The committee listed dozens of companies registered in the names of Brotherhood affiliates and hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts of Muslim Brotherhood charities and affiliated entities.

Questions were raised about the legality of the committee’s work in the absence of a law that gave the government an explicit mandate to seize funds of terrorist organisations.

The new law would establish a committee of seven judges responsible for executing court rulings on organisations or individuals designated as “terrorist” and authorising the seizure of assets.

Terrorism financing is a major issue in Egypt. Some militant organisations active in the country receive funds from international or regional sponsors, observers said.

“Apart from this, some of the local terrorist organisations have a lot of money,” said Sameh Eid, an expert on Islamist and terrorist groups. “The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has huge amounts of money it uses in supporting its militias.”

Last December, a judicial committee that had been formed to list properties owned by the Brotherhood estimated the organisation’s wealth at $3.5 billion. The list of properties included dozens of companies, hospitals, schools, charities and businesses. Apart from its local wealth, the Brotherhood received funding from regional sponsors, such as Qatar, experts said.

Former Russian Ambassador to Doha Vladimir Titorenko told the Russian news channel RT that Egyptian-Qatari scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi encouraged the Qatari leadership to send money to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt so it could destabilise the country and maintain its war against its regime.

Many Muslim Brotherhood figures, such as Qaradawi, sought refuge in Qatar, despite facing charges in Egyptian court.

Supporters of the new bill stress that it is not about targeting the Muslim Brotherhood specifically, but part of a broader initiative to target terrorism financing in Egypt and internationally.

Paris recently hosted an international conference on terrorism financing to seek ways of putting an end to this financing. Before the meeting, France’s intelligence and counterterrorism national coordinator Pierre de Bousquet de Florian said ISIS had as much as $3 billion in secret bank accounts.

De Florian said French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue of Qatar’s support to some organisations with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who promised to address the issue by October this year.

Egypt, however, remains suspicious of Doha’s intentions in the region and is keen to take unilateral action to deal with the issue. The new law, observers said, will help Cairo crack down on a variety of financial channels for terrorist organisations operating in the country.

The challenge of tracing funds used in terrorism financing remains, with the hope that the new legislation will allow police to more efficiently uncover terrorism financing networks.

Terrorist organisations, experts said, often have business activities they use as fronts for their operations.

“Most of the time these business activities are run by people who are not linked to terrorist groups,” said Khalid Okasha, a security expert and a member of Egypt’s Anti-Terrorism Council, an advisory body of the Egyptian presidency. “This is why discovering links between these activities or these persons on one hand and terrorist groups on the other is never easy.”