SPAIN: Spain’s intelligence agency, Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI) says it uncovers a network of at least 250 Muslim-owned businesses in Spain that are funding jihadist operations in Syria and Iraq. To send donations to the Islamic State (ISIS) or the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, the network uses the ‘hawala’ informal money transfer system. According to Spanish daily El Pais, due to its ethno-religious nature, the system avoids inspection by the authorities and moves the savings of over 150,000 Muslims, estimated at 300 million euros a year, to ISIS and Al-Nusra.
The hawala circuit is based on trust between a network of family members and those from the same country to send money to other parts of the world without leaving physical traces of it. In Spain, it is mainly used by Syrian, Tunisian, Algerian and especially Pakistani immigrants. Investigators say that there are about 300 hawala terminals and clandestine ‘offices’ in Barcelona, Tarragona, Lleida, Bilbao, Santander, Valencia and Madrid used by the network to support the ‘jihadist cause’.
It is also the channel through which payments to jihadists of Spanish nationality get to Spain from camps in northern Syria. Intelligence services estimate that there are about 100 Spanish youths – mostly of Moroccan origins – have joined ISIS, including about 15 who have been killed in suicide operations against the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad. ”With a single telephone call you can send 3,000 euros to Pakistan in only a few minutes. The so-called ‘hawaladares’ are men who keep their promise to send the remittances,” said Juan Carlos Galindo, an expert in money laundering and the funding of terrorism.
‘The mediators are tasked with getting money where it needs to go without leaving a trace. Trust is fundamental and, if anyone ends up being stopped by the police for illicit activities, they never reveal the client’s name,” he said. With its equivalent ancient origins in China, the system has spread alongside international bank circuits across the planet. At the global level, the hawala system moves over 200 billion dollars per year without undergoing any sort of checks. In China, it is known as fei-ch’ien or ‘flying money’.
The UN estimates that over 25% of bank transactions in the Middle East are not transparent. The hawala banking network in Spain has previously been used to finance attacks around the world. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the brains behind 9-11, employed several Hawala agents in Logrono and Barcelona prior to the 2001 attacks. Two Pakistanis living in the Raval area of the same city – Ali Gujar and Mohammad Afzaal – were arrested for sending money to an Al-Qaeda cell that kidnapped and killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Some 18 million euros were transferred at that time through the same call centers in only 15 months, intelligence sources told El Pais.
In 2004, the US embassy to Madrid sent a secret dispatch informing Washington that Spain was an important financial center for jihadist activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dispatch was leaked on Wikileaks. The concerned businesses are mainly made up of telephone shops, halal butchers and grocery stores, with the majority of the donations have been sent to Syria. They are able to transfer the money without any controls by using the Muslim Hawala money-transfer banking system. “The jihadists are not only recruiting terrorists here, they are also supplying money from Spain to terrorist groups,” a police official told El Pais. “The network has expanded recently and now includes some 250 Hawala companies in Spain.”