Spanx founder Sara Blakely once said, “Embrace what you don’t know, especially in the beginning, because what you don’t know can become your greatest asset.
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‘Key persons of interest on the radar’
More appropriately, Tuesday’s debate on a package of legislation including for the Financial Intelligence Unit could have been dubbed the “Big Fish” bill. That may be Government’s hopes for the legislation, as well as National Security Minister Gary Griffith’s after he introduced the term during debate, indicating it will target not only money laundering and attempting to curb terrorism funding, but also clamp down on issues such as illegal quarrying and others that may route T&T funds the wrong way.
It was, however, a walk-in from there, for PNM senator Faris Al-Rawi to pillory Government on certain “Big Fish” who he claimed was supplying aggregate for the Point Fortin highway, as well as on funds from government programmes being channelled in the wrong direction.
Finance Minister Larry Howai’s statements on innovation in the bill such as the Seized Assets Fund—to be used for the public good including community development projects—may spark concern how Government will ensure such funds do not go the way of other community assistance brainwaves such as the ill-fated Life Sport programme.
That programme is only one example of the failure of various agencies, not limited to sports and security sectors. PNM senators were candid in assessment of the FIU’s performance—only four people before the court, two convicted, and seized assets of a meagre $1.4 million.
Al-Rawi said yesterday despite the FIU legislation in effect since 2000 and provision for the FIU in 2009, government hasn’t got a handle on money laundering since “teeth” for the system would have come via the Revenue Authority which the former government had proposed. He said that involved an FBI-type process to track all monies paid out or received in T&T.
The importance of the FIU’s responsibilities was underscored not only in Senate debate but that day’s revelation of the beheading of US journalist James Foley by the Al-Qaeda successor outfit, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). The group demanded US$132 million in ransom for Foley plus assorted radical fundamentalists being held by the US.
Foley, who worked for the GlobalPost agency, was abducted in 2012. Miami-born journalist Stephen Sotioff is still being held by ISIL under similar threat of slaughter. Middle East-based Isil, on the scene since 2013 and said to involve 400 British members, has rivalled the African-based Boko Haram for extremist tactics.
Local intelligence sources said Isil as a rising threat in the islamic fundamentalist firmament has been engaging the attention of local authorities. This, since T&T is not only an arms and drugs transshipment point, but also a known “hiding place” due to its plural society into which elements blend.
Experts said information-sharing concerning the global war on terrorism strives for seamlessness where key agencies in the US and UK are concerned and proactive planning and co-ordination is in train on islamic fundamentalism and any utilisation of righteousness of religion. “Key persons of interest have engaged the attention of our authorities based on these on-going relations,” they added.
They said the FIU coupled with other key local agencies has been intensifying efforts in probing the movement of money and illegal schemes concerning payments that could be considered underground channelling or patterned on the Hawala system—money transfers via a network of Middle Eastern, African or Indian brokers outside normal financial standards—that may or may not be used for funding Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Other formats involve recruitment of underprivileged youths in systems that provide for them such as in Life Sport (both cover and funding conduit.) Local forces are also on alert for copy-catting arising from international developments. They noted mailbox—explosions plaguing T&T ten years ago at the same time as UK and European bombings.
Candid on the strength of the threat of such a group like Isil to T&T, they added it’s not an international threat alone. Among myriad factors it was noted, one has to consider increases in movement of people into T&T intensifying with conflicts in recent years across the Middle East, Africa and Europe.