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U.N. Security Council Takes Aim At Islamic State's Funding Sources

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.N. Security Council yesterday took aim at the funding sources for ISIS. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew chaired a meeting of finance ministers from around the world. They agreed to go after anyone who helps generate money or move money on behalf of those terrorists. We're joined now by Matthew Levitt. He was a senior official in the Treasury Department's terrorism and financial intelligence branch in the Bush administration. Currently, he's the director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome.

MATTHEW LEVITT: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So we would like to hear from you what exactly was achieved by the U.N. yesterday.

LEVITT: The most important thing is that at a finance minister level at the United Nations Security Council, world leaders got together at that high level to give political imprimatur and cover - diplomatic cover - to this niche issue of terror finance. And that's no small matter. When these finance ministers go home, and they tell the working group-level people, this is really important us, we really need to do things, that gives more push for the types of things that need to happen across the world - because no one can do this on their own - to curb the financing for the Islamic State.

MONTAGNE: One of the big complaints has been the failure of many countries to enforce sanctions against ISIS. Are there any signs of change here?

LEVITT: One of the important things that should come out of this is greater enforcement. So the Office of the Ombudsman was given an extension of a year. The U.N.'s monitoring team was given an extension of a year. Countries are supposed to be reporting in in a few months what are they doing on this issue. And so this kind of creates some momentum for countries to do things because they know the monitoring team will be looking around the world. If you don't report something, the monitoring team may report it anyway. And there's a little pressure here, a little peer pressure, for countries to do what they can.

MONTAGNE: Now, the two big international income earners for ISIS, or the Islamic State, are oil and the trade in looted antiquities. And I just want to say something about oil. I mean, they're making a lot of their money by selling oil to Bashar al-Assad, their great enemy. And he is, therefore, putting money in their pockets. I mean, what does what the U.N. has just done - how does it affect that?

LEVITT: Assad is a big part of the problem, you're right. And what this does is it goes a long way towards increasing pressure to keep the Islamic State out of the international financial system. It needs to be able to access banks and, more informally, money value-transfer systems, exchange houses, to be able to receive money back from looted antiquities. The big amount of money that it gets from taxation and extortion within Iraq isn't quite as touchable this way, but they clearly need to be able to access banks both for the oil trade, for antiquities trade, to prevent massive inflation within the territory that they control - and this is something that they're still able to do. Despite some really impressive efforts, they are able to access the international financial system. And if we can block them off from that, we can go a long way towards constricting their ability to access money.

MONTAGNE: So that would be the key - actually using the money, in a sense.

LEVITT: Correct, there's only so much they can do internally. They need to be able to get money in and send money out. The other thing is, you know, this resolution passed yesterday is not only targeting the mass of Islamic State money. It's also trying to prevent Islamic State supporters, operatives around the world from spending smaller amounts of money. If you consider an indictment in Maryland just the other day, someone's being accused of plotting an ISIS attack here in the United States, only in this case, instead of raising money domestically through crime or using his own money, as we've seen in other cases, the charges are that he received money from someone abroad. And the kind of suspicious activity reporting that we're asking banks to file and that is proving to be tremendously useful for U.S. Treasury here in the United States - that's something we're asking other countries to do as well, and then for all these countries to share that information. So the sharing of information between countries and the sharing of information between the banks, the private sector, and governments, the public sector, is another important thing that we hope will come out of yesterday's meeting.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining.

LEVITT: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Matthew Levitt is a former senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. Treasury Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.