Is Money a Legitimate Target?

Last month, the United States targeted a “cash distribution site” where millions of dollars belonging to ISIS had reportedly been stored. The target was considered so valuable that it would have justified a high number of civilian casualties (rumors say that the magic number was 50). Yet, the determination of whether money is civilian or military in nature, assuming this test is even relevant, is not as straightforward as it seems.

The nature of money makes it difficult to ascertain its origin or purpose. Perhaps for this reason, the law of armed conflict does not assign a status — civilian or military — to money. However, the well-established rule that civilians cannot be targeted based solely on the ground that they pay taxes to the state suggests that money does not turn people (or objects) into legitimate targets.

The strike against ISIS’s money marks a departure from this traditional interpretation. We have little information about the target itself — one possibility is that it was the Diwan Bayt al-Mal, ISIS’s finances and currency authority —or the legal rationale behind the strike, but we may speculate on what it might have been.

Unless the building itself was the target, which does not seem to be the case, the strike supposes that money may constitute a legitimate target; i.e., that money could be either civilian or military in nature. Whether or not money constitutes a legitimate target would depend, I assume, on its projected use. Funds destined for the military effort would be regarded as a legitimate target, but funds earmarked for the wellbeing of the civilian population would not.

While it is virtually impossible to isolate funds destined for the military effort from the broader pool of resources in a state apparatus, the situation might be different in a terrorist organization. Money held by a terrorist group arguably fulfills only a single purpose: allowing the commission of atrocious, barbaric acts against innocent civilians. That the cash is destined for a clearly designated purpose — one that the law condemns — might, under this rationale, justify its targeting. If the cash constitutes a legitimate target, it might justify civilian deaths, provided the foreseeable damage to civilian life and civilian infrastructure is not excessive in comparison to the military advantage anticipated from the strike. The more money is at stake, the higher number of civilian casualties would be deemed lawful.

Assuming this reflects the thinking behind the strike, where does ISIS fit in? One could argue that ISIS money was destined to finance the most atrocious acts and was obtained from illegal activity. But ISIS is a complex entity that, alongside its brutal and ruthless activity, also administers territory and governs people. Some of that money, given ISIS’s sophisticated bureaucracy and involvement with the civilian population it controls, was likely destined for the civilian population either through subsidies, social work, judicial services, or school funding. While we do not like equating ISIS’s governance to that of a state, its modus operandi has increasingly come close to the Weberian model of the state. I doubt we would accept an interpretation of the law that would regard states’ cash as a legitimate target because the funds are used to finance the military effort. We would likely object that the money also finances a plethora of other non-war related projects.

Whether or not we accept the (admittedly speculative) rationale that guided the strike, the targeting of money deserves a lot more attention than it received in the strike’s aftermath — precisely because ISIS operates and uses money much like a state. Had it been carried out against a smaller, contained, and not terribly powerful terrorist group, it would probably not raise as many questions.

Money plays a complex role in terrorism — one that does not call for simple answers. Domestic and international regulations have yet to account for the growing role of “supportive” institutions that operate thanks to funds obtained via terrorist activities (e.g., ransoms paid for hostages) or that generate revenues for terrorist groups (such as charities). Until January 10, the fight against terror financing had been left to international treaties, cooperation, domestic controls, and legislation. It has now entered the realm of targeting. 

About the Author(s)

Daphné Richemond-Barak

Assistant Professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism