Tag Archives: hawala markets

The Money Changers

Gaziantep Turkey, image from wikipedia

More than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes and financial sanctions haven’t stopped Islamic State from ordering supplies for its fighters, importing food for its subjects or making quick profits in currency arbitrage.  This is because of men such as Abu Omar, one of the militant group’s de facto bankers. The Iraqi businessman is part of a network of financiers stretching across northern and central Iraq who for decades have provided money transfers and trade finance for the many local merchants who shun conventional banks….

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser said these businesses—there are more than 1,600 in Iraq alone—serve as a worrisome portal for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to connect with the world outside its declared caliphate…..People pay cash in one office and a recipient draws the equivalent funds at a distant locale, a Middle Eastern practice known as hawala that predates the modern banking system.  Three Iraqi money-exchange operators say they pay Shiite militias, who are at war with Islamic State, to guard cash shipments that travel the road from Baghdad across their front lines to militant-controlled territory in Anbar province. Iraqi Kurdish fighters, also at war with Islamic State, are bribed to grant passage of cash shipments across their front lines into militant-held areas around Mosul. Both Shiite and Kurdish commanders negotiate flat fees from $1,000 to $10,000, the money changers said.

Islamic State imposes a 2% tax on cash shipments entering its territory, which buys the smuggler protection on the final leg to the exchange houses….

The Cash Routes:  One begins in the narrow streets behind Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and, via Iraqi Kurdish towns, reaches Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control. Another connects Jordan’s capital of Amman with Baghdad and Islamic State-controlled parts of Iraq’s Anbar province. A third links the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey with Syrian regions around Raqqa, the administrative capital of Islamic State…

The US financial containment effort is one element of a campaign that includes U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State oil wells. There have also been strikes on vaults in downtown Mosul, which U.S. officials suspect store cash to pay fighters….The Central Bank of Iraq named 142 currency-exchange houses in December that the U.S. suspected of moving funds for Islamic State. The central bank banned them from its twice-monthly dollar auctions, hoping to keep U.S. bank notes from the terror group, which, like much of Iraq, operates as a cash economy….

Before Islamic State seized Mosul, the city of nearly two million people had 40 banks and around 120 licensed money changers and remittance facilities, according to Iraq’s central bank and money changers.Only banks and remittance facilities are licensed to transfer money domestically or abroad. But money changers have long flouted these rules and provided such services in Mosul, the economic powerhouse of northern Iraq.  Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul in June 2014, followed by other cities in Iraq and eastern Syria, swiftly shut down local banks. The terror group looted bank vaults of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to U.S. estimates.  The U.S. and regional governments took immediate steps to sever bank branches in Islamic State territory from the international banking network, declaring off-limits transactions with the identification code of seized branches.That left money changers as the sole providers for a region covering several million people. A currency office owner from Anbar province said in late summer of 2014 his offices were handling $500,000 a week in money transfers in and out of Islamic State. Fees for such services were 10%, he said. Before the Islamic State takeover, fees were between 3% and 5%….

ISIS  in 2015 banned exchange houses from approving the transfer of funds outside of Islamic State without a receipt showing the client had paid a 10% religious tax, known as “zakat.”..

For years, participants in the twice-monthly dollar auction by the central bank included money-exchange houses that would buy dollars at the official rate and sell them for a profit on the street. The rate difference in the past year was as much as 7 percentage points….

The Central Bank of Iraq has an account at the Fed, funded largely by oil reserves, and regularly withdraws large shipments of new $100 bills from a Fed facility in Rutherford, N.J. They travel by chartered plane to Baghdad.The Fed last summer (2015) temporarily shut off deliveries over concerns the notes were going to Islamic State through the exchange houses. A cash crisis loomed until shipments resumed in August, 2015 when Iraq agreed to turn over more records.

Many exchange companies based in Islamic State territory—or their correspondent offices elsewhere in Iraq—participated in the auctions until mid-December 2015, when the U.S. pressured Iraq to ban dozens of companies believed to be working with the terror group.Money changers who still participate in the currency auction doubt the effectiveness of the black list. Iraq has no mechanism to ensure that the owners of banned companies don’t get around the restrictions by simply opening new firms or by hidden ownership stakes in other exchange firms.“Iraq doesn’t have investigators or auditors,” said Abu Omar, the money-exchange owner. “Iraq has officials who expect bribes.”

Excerpts from Local Cash Network Fuels Islamic State Finances, Wall Street Journal , Feb. 25, 2016

Financial Sanctions Against Iran and the Afghan Loophole

With American and European sanctions spurring a currency crisis in Iran, officials say a growing number of Iranians are packing trucks with devalued rials and heading to the freewheeling currency market next door in American-occupied Afghanistan, to trade for dollars.  The rial has lost more than half its value against the dollar, and cross-border bank transfers and currency exchanges have become difficult, as sanctions have slashed Iran’s vital oil revenue and cut the country off from international financial markets. Iranian businesses and individuals are desperate to avoid further losses, by converting their money and moving it out for safekeeping. At the same time, the government is trying to find alternate ways to bring in hard currency.

Enter Afghanistan, where dollars function as a second national currency after years of Western spending and where financial oversight is so lax that billions of dollars in cash leave the country every year. Though Afghan and Western officials say they cannot put a precise figure on the trade with Iran, they see it as a potential challenge to the sanctions, and one that the United States, as Afghanistan’s main benefactor, helped create.  The Iranians are “in essence using our own money, and they’re getting around what we’re trying to enforce,” one American official said.  It is a new iteration of an enduring problem in Afghanistan, where Western officials are already struggling to quell a storm of corruption that has undercut the war effort. In the years since the invasion, the country has become a smuggler’s dream, with a booming opium economy and pervasive government graft that is widely believed to be a factor in funneling Western aid money to the Taliban.

On its own, the rush of Iranian money to Afghanistan is unlikely to be enough to undercut the sanctions, which are the cornerstone of Western efforts to coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. But it is clear that American officials are worried. In one indication, President Obama last month quietly strengthened the sanctions by giving the Treasury Department the capacity to punish any person who buys dollars or precious metals, like gold, on behalf of the Iranian government.  “We are taking steps to make it more difficult for the government of Iran to satisfy its heightened demand for dollars — and making it clear to anyone who provides dollars to the government that they face sanctions,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Afghan money traders said they were told this month by American officials to not conduct business with Arian Bank, an Afghan bank owned by a pair of Iranian banks. The Treasury Department has maintained sanctions against the Afghan and Iranian banks in the past few years, and the traders said they had been recently told that the Afghan bank was being used by the Iranian government to move cash in and out of Afghanistan.  Western and Afghan officials, as well as traders in Afghan money markets, said that a number of Iranians had started seeking to buy dollars and euros with their rials as American and European sanctions tightened over the past year.  The purchases are part of efforts by wealthy and middle-class Iranians to protect their savings and business profits by moving them offshore. But with legitimate transfers out of Iran virtually impossible because of the sanctions, Iranians are instead converting their rials in Afghanistan, and then moving the money to banks in the Persian Gulf and beyond.  “The middle class is in a panic about what to do right now,” said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech and an expert on Iran’s economy.

More troublingly, in the eyes of Western officials, the Iranian government is seeking to bolster its reserves of dollars, euros and precious metals to stabilize its exchange rates and ensure that it can pay for imports. Iran had about $110 billion in foreign currency and precious metal reserves in 2011, and those are believed to be dwindling now.  Afghan traders have proved more than willing to trade dollars for rials, usable as a currency in many parts of western Afghanistan, at advantageous exchange rates. Hajji Najeeb Ullah Akhtary, the president of Afghanistan’s Money Exchange Union, an association of traditional money transfer and exchange businesses that are known as hawalas, said he and his members had seen a steady increase in Iranians bringing cash into Afghanistan over the past year. That comes on top of routine transfers made by Afghans living and working in Iran, including more than one million impoverished refugees, and the regular supply of rials that circulates in Afghanistan.  The cash “comes across in trucks,” he said, with transfers arranged by Afghan middlemen who take a 5 to 7 percent commission.

Iranians were converting rials into dollars in Kabul, the western border city of Herat and in the southern cities of Kandahar and Ghazni, Mr. Akhtary said. The transactions were largely conducted through hawalas, which allow people to transfer large sums of money for small fees to relatives or business associates in distant locales within minutes. The dealers in various places cover one another to make the system work, and settle up after the fact.  The markets are often ramshackle affairs that give little hint of the vast sums being moved. Kabul’s hawala market, for instance, is little more than a few dingy lanes hidden away on the banks of the Kabul River, a trickle of fetid water that winds along trash-strewed banks. But it does huge business. Outside its storefronts, men sit on the pavement behind rickety tables piled high with afghanis, Pakistani rupees, American dollars and Iranian rials, among other currencies.  One hawala dealer, Hajji Ahmed Shah Hakimi, said two routes were primarily used to bring cash in from Iran: one directly across the border with Iran and another through Pakistan.  Both he and Mr. Akhtary insisted that they were not involved in smuggling cash for Iranians or anyone else, but that other hawala traders were.

Mr. Hakimi said the sanctions on Iran were seen in Afghanistan as an American issue, and that is why some Afghans had no problem smuggling money for Iranians. Some Afghan officials echoed that view, saying the Iranian money flow was not a top concern, though the broader problem of bulk cash smuggling was.  The flow of cash in and out of Afghanistan goes largely unmonitored and unimpeded, a “country-sized” money-laundering operation, said a European forensic auditor who has tracked financial crime in Afghanistan and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In 2011, an estimated $4.6 billion, a sum equivalent to roughly a third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, was stuffed into suitcases, shrink-wrapped onto pallets or packed into boxes and flown out of Kabul’s airport on commercial airline flights, most of them headed for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, according to the central bank.  Though new rules and better enforcement have begun to cut into the cash flying out of Kabul, it is anyone’s guess how much moved out of Afghanistan overland on trucks or on twice-weekly flights to Dubai from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, said an Afghan official who tracks suspicious financial transactions and spoke on the condition of anonymity.  “Kandahar?” he said. “We have no idea what is going there.”

By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and ANNIE LOWREY, Iranian Currency Traders Find a Haven in Afghanistan, NY Times, Aug. 17, 2012

See also Financial Sanctions against Iran and the Chinese Loophole