July 26, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Shifting Terrorist Threat to the Global Financial Sector

As of late-July 2012, terrorists of varying stripes remain intent on attacking the global financial sector. As the heart of capitalism, it is an attractive target for Islamic extremists, left-wing radicals, political anarchists, and nationalist terrorist groups. In recent years, however, the nature of the threat to the sector has evolved. Terrorists are now seeking to exploit more nuanced security vulnerabilities using conventional weapons and improvised explosive devices. These tactics are difficult for intelligence services to disrupt and therefore pose a real danger to both staff and operations.


A Resurgent Left-Wing Terrorism Threat

Driven by the financial crisis and government austerity measures, left-wing terrorist groups are increasingly active across Europe. Such organizations routinely blame capitalism for past and present social, economic and political ills. Their targets are typically banks, corporations, politicians, and infrastructure. Most indications suggest that this threat is not only likely to increase, but also to spread across the region as the global economic crisis shows no sign of abating.

The greatest current left-wing terrorist threat is occurring in Greece. Over recent years, the most active groups there have been Revolutionary Struggle, Sect of Revolutionaries, and Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei. The targets of their attacks have included the offices of banks such as JP Morgan and Citibank along with the Athens Stock Exchange. More recently — amid violent protests and arson attacks over the austerity program — there is evidence that new left-wing groups have emerged. In late June, for example, anarchists drove a car packed with explosives into the Microsoft building in Athens, with the International Revolutionary Front, a little known anarchist group, claiming responsibility for the attack. In a communique, the group said it targeted Microsoft because it is "carrying capitalism on its shoulders." The Greek authorities have also linked the International Revolutionary Front to attacks against McDonalds and Starbucks, which suggests it poses a comparable threat to the financial sector.

Left-wing terrorism is also spreading to other European countries. The Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), a conglomerate of left-wing groups with a shared ideology, has claimed many of the attacks outside Greece. The extent of FAI's operational coordination and leadership is opaque, but factions operating under its banner have claimed attacks against senior commercial figures. In December 2011, an Italian branch of FAI claimed responsibility for posting a letter bomb which was addressed to the chief executive of Deutsche Bank. On May 11th, another FAI faction claimed responsibility for shooting and wounding the CEO of Finmeccanica, the Italian state-run nuclear engineering company. In May, FAI terrorists posted on the 325.nostate anarchist website their intention to conduct "low level warfare" across the United Kingdom prior to the Olympic Games. The statement warned that this would include attacks against "finance, judicial, communications, military and transport infrastructure."  Indeed, recent arrests suggest that the left-wing terrorist threat could extend into Germany and Switzerland as well. Presently, however, there are few indications that this trend in left-wing terrorism will extend to the financial sector in the United States.


Al-Qaeda and the Financial Sector

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that struck at the center of Western capitalism, al-Qaeda has demonstrated an enduring intention to target the financial sector. In a 2011 article of Inspire, the English language magazine published by al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group called for attacks against financial services. Further, Abu Suleiman Al- Nasser, a prominent Jihadist blogger, has emphatically encouraged aspiring terrorists to target "financial sites and the program sites of financial institutions, stock markets and money markets." Meanwhile, evidence reportedly uncovered from convicted al-Qaeda terrorists revealed that al-Qaeda's leaders had composed detailed plots to specifically target large banks and other financial institutions.

Following a sustained U.S. counterterrorism campaign, al-Qaeda central's main hub in Pakistan has been severely disrupted. This has led to a change in the al-Qaeda network's tactics for attacks in the West, which now focus on smaller, more targeted operations as shown by the shooting carried out by U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood and Faisal Shahzad's attempted car bombing in Times Square. This tactical change extends to the threat posed to the financial sector. In May 2011, several jihadist forums posted the names of prominent commercial figures — including the names of senior bank officials — within a list of assassination targets. Soon after this, Adam Gadahn, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman, called for "lone wolf" attacks in the U.S. Meanwhile, AQAP has also demonstrated its capability to design innovative bombs which could be effectively employed to target Western financial institutions.   Another conceivable attack scenario would involve a Fedayeen-style assault. The most well-known example of this occurring in an urban space is the November 2008 Mumbai assault, when Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists armed with firearms and explosives attacked multiple targets across Mumbai, killing more than 170 people. There is evidence that al-Qaeda has sought to replicate this tactic in the West. In October 2010, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert to Europe based on intelligence that al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists planned to conduct Fedayeen-style attacks, possibly in France, Germany and UK. In the event of such an attack, targeting individuals within the highly symbolic financial sector would once again be a plausible scenario.


Dissident Terrorists Pose a Continued Threat

During the early 1990s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army carried out a campaign of attacks across London's financial district. The current dissident threat to the financial sector in the UK is now predominantly from the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA). RIRA's attacks have been characterized by small bombings and armed assaults, mainly targeting security forces. But they have also staged attacks against banks in Northern Ireland, claiming they "are an integral part of our strategy of targeting the financial infrastructure that supports the British government's capitalist colonial system." On a number of occasions, RIRA has threatened attacks against both bankers and banks on the mainland. It has yet to follow through on its warnings, and it is not clear if the group actually possesses the capability to do so. Nonetheless, in 2010, the British Home Secretary raised the terrorism threat level to "substantial" following a RIRA warning that it would attack the financial sector.


Old Tactics, New Threat

Over the past decade, the terrorism threat to the financial sector has evolved. There is currently a growing threat from left-wing terrorist groups, particularly in Greece, Italy, Germany and the UK.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda no longer possesses the capability to conduct spectacular attacks similar to 9/11 and there are indicators to suggest it is more likely to pursue its attempts to attack the financial sector through conventional weapon assaults or improvised explosive devices. Current threats could disrupt banking operations and potentially threaten key personnel. With the threat to the financial sector shifting, it is critical that internal security procedures rapidly adapt in concert with that evolving threat.

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