In 2017, European security services uncovered that Islamist domestic terrorists and foreign fighters received social welfare payments totaling more than two million euros between 2012 and 2016. Among the primary reasons for the lack of governmental oversight were insufficient coordination between government authorities combined with unclear division of responsibilities, legislative loopholes, and missing control mechanisms.
ISIS generates most of its wealth in Syria from oil sales, taxation, extortion, and confiscation of property and cash. However, a smaller portion of the terror group’s revenue originates from Europe, collected through donations from ISIS-sympathizers, charity scams, and—notably—social welfare payments.
For example, Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the December 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin, used multiple identities to apply for asylum and to over-claim for social welfare benefits in Germany. It is likely that Amri received a monthly stipend of €135, housing allowances, vouchers, and other payments in kind.
According to Belgian authorities, Salah Abdeslam, the logistical mastermind of the 2015 Paris attacks, collected approximately $21,000 in unemployment benefits up until three weeks prior to the attacks. Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, suicide bombers in the coordinated Brussels March 2016 attacks, together received $34,700 in unemployment benefits between February 2014 and May 2015. It appears that the Belgian social welfare system provided these terrorists with the “livelihoods and indirect support for their terrorist activities”—including deadly attacks on European soil.
There were several reasons why European governments failed to promptly detect the terrorists’ misuse of the welfare system. Germany and Belgium struggled with fragmented bureaucracy, confusion of responsibilities, insufficient coordination, lack of information sharing, and legislative loopholes. When Amri applied for asylum in Germany, registration procedures were insufficient and aliases went unchecked. His case involved numerous police, intelligence, immigration, and welfare offices on the local and federal level because he often moved. Information sharing was proved difficult and cumbersome. Belgium similarly suffered from little coordination between security and welfare officials, as well as deficient legislation. Benefits are only suspended after a person is convicted of terrorism charges, not while he is under suspicion.
Government entities could also be working at cross-purposes. Law enforcement and intelligence services monitored suspected terrorists while governmental welfare offices granted the same individuals unemployment benefits. A cynic might argue that European governments financed both the prevention and planning of terrorist attacks.
Moreover, European welfare payments seem to have found their way into foreign fighters’ pockets. In 2016, Denmark revealed that it mistakenly paid unemployment benefits and disability pensions—worth $95,000—to 29 foreign fighters who had joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Danish citizen and U.S.-designated terrorist Basil Hassan, believed to be behind the assassination attempt on Islamic critic Lars Hedegaard in 2013, received welfare payments of more than $8,000 while fighting for ISIS in Syria. The allowances were claimed by Hassan’s friends who impersonated him at the unemployment office in Copenhagen.
In France, more than 100 foreign fighters received social welfare benefits of approximately €500,000 after joining ISIS abroad. Relatives used identity cards to claim unemployment and housing benefits, as well as income and family support on behalf of the fighters. The money was then transferred through a network of sympathizers—particularly Turkish and Lebanese intermediaries—to Syria and Iraq.
Terrorists’ ability to take advantage of the European welfare system stemmed from negligence by social welfare offices to carry out controls and verify entitlement to benefits, as well as insufficient communication between government authorities and intelligence agencies.
European governments have since made efforts to counter terrorists’ exploitation of government support services. Germany enhanced its asylum application processes to be able to swiftly detect duplicate applications and aliases within databases and avoid over-claiming of social benefits. Some politicians have advocated going further and completely terminating cash payments, while others have defended the existing system. The Belgian prime minister’s spokesman stated, “This is a democracy. We have no tools to check how people spend their benefits.” On the other hand, the Dutch government is currently discussing a rather controversial legislation that would suspend welfare payments for terrorist suspects—not just convicted terrorists—following intelligence services’ investigations and findings.
It remains to be seen how rigorously European governments will tackle this form of support for terrorism. However, improvements in controls and inter-agency communication are clearly critical to avoid the continued blatant abuse of taxpayers’ funds by terror supporters and foreign fighters, many who may soon be returning home after fighting abroad for ISIS and other groups.