By Niresh Eliatamby –
Nearly two weeks ago, the Police Spokesman announced that CID sleuths had uncovered a staggering LKR 7 billion in assets belonging to the National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), the group responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks. It included LKR 140 million in cash. Since then, more and more assets and cash have been discovered.
Therein lies the real story of the rise of the NTJ, its links to ISIL and other groups, the manner in which these dastardly attacks were planned, and the entire timeline of the NTJ’s history.
Therein may also lie the story of the possible cover up that many perceive, rightly or wrongly, is being carried out to whitewash various politicians and businessmen who may have had links to the bombers, and to protect the vast interests of the corrupt political class of Sri Lanka.
For a terrorist movement to operate as brazenly as the NTJ did for so many years, without interference from the authorities, would not be possible without it being protected by powerful politicians, and perhaps law enforcement and military officials.
Terrorism is an expensive venture
Terrorist movements do not run on religious fanaticism. They require vast amounts of money and other assets such as vehicles and properties. They need money for international travel, computer hardware, recruitment, training, and much more. The purchasing of weapons and explosives is child’s play in many countries today, but merchants in the black market weapons industry who are willing to sell to terrorists don’t take credit cards, cheques or even bitcoins. They require cold hard cash and a lot of it.
There is an assumption that NTJ received funding from the so-called Islamic State, which would explain the origin of these vast funds. It is highly unlikely that such assets were paid for through any type of domestic funding.
Let’s hope there won’t be a cover up
Since the announcement of the LKR 7 billion on 6th May, we have heard little about how a small group such as the NTJ managed to amass such wealth, and it is of vital importance that a full investigation be carried out in this regard. Perhaps the silence on this issue is because detective and intelligence sleuths are working hard behind the scenes to uncover the full story. We hope that is what is going on.
It is imperative that Sri Lanka’s media keep close watch on the progress of investigations into the NTJ’s assets – LKR 7 billion or more. If the NTJ had been given political patronage – by politicians of any party – there may very well be a paper trail of fund transfers between such politicians and NTJ or its members. Such revelations might very well be swept under the carpet. Sri Lanka is indeed famous for doing so. Remember the Central Bank Bond Scam?
Such a money trail would provide conclusive proof of collusion between politicians and terrorists. We will trust that the CID is hot on the money trail.
Black Money rules the world
A veteran Marxist I once interviewed explained why he and his comrades detested both religion and capitalism. Most contemporary religious leaders, he said, pretend to guide the world, unlike the founders of their religions who sacrificed much to show humanity the correct path. In reality, it is black money and crony capitalism that rule the world and allow a small group of unscrupulous villains to control the rest of humanity. These villains include some royal houses, dictators, military governments, some politicians, drug barons, weapons manufacturers, shady billionaire businessmen and the current leaders of many radical religious sects. For example, if you follow the money trail of a cult such as ISIL or a Colombian cocaine cartel or an African despot, you will find that it leads to many influential people, governments and organisations around the world.
The truth is in the money trail
Following the money is the method that the best taxmen use in order to trap tax dodging individuals and institutions. If you purchase a property or vehicle worth tens of millions of rupees, then you need to be able to answer the question of how, where and when you acquired that amount of money. You may be a politician who obtained the money in cash from a bribe. But making a large purchase always leaves a distinct paper trail. Cheques, bank statements, credit card payments, wire transfers, property deeds, vehicle registration papers, identity cards… all these are a goldmine of information for forensic sleuths.
The world is awash in black money, of course. But black money almost always surfaces at some point when it needs to be converted into white money in order to purchase something substantial. A drug lord from Colombia who desires to buy a private jet for himself cannot simply walk into the offices of Boeing with a lorry-load of cash. Payments for property and vehicles usually come through banks, and banks are supposed to ask questions about where the money came from.
In many cases of money laundering by drug barons, computer hackers and terrorists, banks themselves are complicit. Many global banks have been found guilty of looking the other way while enormous funds pass through their accounts; and many bankers have ended up in jail. If indeed NTJ received funds from Islamic State or other foreign funders, it is highly likely that the funds were transferred through the banking system itself. It is simply not possible to smuggle in billions in the pockets of travellers, risking detection by Customs at several airports. Much simpler and safer to transfer such funds, giving bogus reasons for the money, through a bank that is known to turn a blind eye to money laundering. If the money came through a bank to NTJ, then we can expect some bankers to be arrested soon.
Sri Lanka is a global hub for money laundering
Quite alarmingly, Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world that has a solid reputation as a centre for global money laundering, which means that it is very easy for international drug money and terrorism funding to be turned into white money here. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) the global body that combats money laundering, has just two countries on its ‘Black List’ – North Korea and Iran. But Sri Lanka is one of just twelve nations on the ‘Grey List’, which includes countries such as Syria and Yemen! However, the IMF recently stated that it is hopeful that Sri Lanka would soon be removed from the Grey List, once certain reforms are completed in the financial services sector.
Remember the Panama Papers?
You don’t need an enormous amount of knowledge in order to follow the money. An accountant or a banker could do it. So could trained detectives and forensic journalists. Remember the Panama Papers – 11.5 million documents of financial information of more than 200 wealthy persons around the world (including 12 national leaders), which ended up in the hands of a German journalist and were examined by a team of 107 journalists from 80 media organisations over an entire year? Its revelations led to the resignation of the Prime Minister of Iceland; the resignation of the Justice Minister of Armenia; the former French Budget Minister being expelled from his party; the resignation of the Spanish Minister of Industries; and many others being publicly humiliated by the exposes. A number of banks also faced heavy criticism and official investigations for their role in the money laundering. Most famously, evidence in the Panama Papers resulted in the Supreme Court of Pakistan declaring Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ineligible to hold a public post due to his extraordinarily high level of corruption.
Follow the money
Follow the money, as the old Marxist said, and we shall learn the real story about NTJ and the Easter Sunday disaster.
*Niresh Eliatamby was for many years an investigative journalist, who also spent nearly two decades covering Sri Lanka’s civil war