Book Review Series: "Speculative Security-The Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies" by Marieke de Goede

Reviewed by: Afoma Ofodile  Genre: Finance, Security, Terrorism

About the Author: Marieke de Goede is Professor of Politics, with a focus on 'Europe in a Global Order,' at the Department of Politics of the University of Amsterdam.  Previously, she worked as Senior Lecturer at the Department of European Studies of the University of Amsterdam. She received her doctorate in International Politics from the University of Newcastle in 2001. She previously held the Vera List Fellowship at the Graduate Faculty of the New School University in New York (1997-1998) and a post-doctoral Fellowship of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (2001-2003).


The onslaught of terrorist attacks has forced governments across the world to change the way they approach security by targeting terrorism financing. This entails security agencies preempting future attacks by following the money trails of potential terrorist perpetrators. Goede refers to this approach as the “finance-security assemblage” (28), which consists of a landscape of laws, institutions, and private initiatives collectively employed to achieve this aim. The objective is not just to cut off the money flows but to open up the spaces in which preemptive intervention can occur, that is, to enable the broadening of the time and space of security.

The financial domain has become one of the War on Terror’s main avenues for preventing future attacks. Speculative Security identifies spaces in which this preemptive practice is used and how this approach often brings about its own insecurities. The underlying theme however is of money – the power it wields, the trails it leaves behind, and the clues it gives that aid in preventing future attacks. Financial information allows law enforcement “look sideways” to confirm associations between individuals and activities linked to suspicious transactions and “look forward” by identifying warnings signs of terrorist activity (xxv).

Speculative Security also depicts how the practices of asset freezing and blacklisting may have far-reaching impacts like depriving an individual of his presumption of innocence, denial of due process, and taking away his opportunity of social participation. Goede ends with a note of warning about the insecurities inherent in this assemblage and calls for a new type of politics that acts as a check on these speculative practices.


The preemptive nature of targeting terrorism financing creates “spaces” characterized by a saturation of rules and experts that collectively act in an unpredictable manner, and within which targeted  security actions take place (xxix ). The book focuses on three “spaces”; first, suspicious financial transactions that occur amidst day-to-day banking; second, informal kinship-based money remittance channels; and third, charitable donations to suspect organizations. Geode explores how financial intervention and preemptive practices are employed and how they in turn create insecurities.

The first “space” (57), discussed in Chapter 3, focuses on how the features of a normal financial transaction is determined. Financial transactions like mortgage payments are considered a part of normal modern life and anything outside of these normal activities are potentially suspect. What do suspicious transactions look like? What kinds of financial ties amount to a suspicious relationship? These answers are not readily available because of the lack of historical data explaining what a typical terrorist account profile looks like. As a result, speculation is used to make sense of available financial intelligence. This approach has led to a shift in reporting obligations from banks to other financial institutions like insurance companies, and brokerage firms. The advantage of this shift is that the mobile and fluid nature of the criteria employed to determine what is suspect ensures that these models remain conscious of changing criminal behaviors and schemes and can adapt. The downside is that requiring private entities to employ these subjective and fluid standards essentially allows them to speculate about what a suspicious transaction is. This leads to a de-politicization of security decisions and a lack of transparency and accountability. This has severe implications in circumstances where data is hurriedly deemed conclusive or is simply misinterpreted.

The second space of “financial deviance” (95) explored in Chapter 4 exists in the realm of informal remittance channels such as the hawala. Unlike the first space which emphasizes a pre-emptive logic, this space seeks to widen the field of suspicion. Due to the untraceable nature of money, the most important policy objective after the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been to formalize these informal remittance channels and bring them within the realm of Western regulation. An example of such a informal system is the hawala which has traditionally been used to transfer money in the Muslim world. Through this system, money is paid to an agent who instructs a remote agent to pay the final recipient. A way to control these financial flows is by ensuring that the origin, source and purpose of monies being transferred can be identified and determined. This makes transactions more credible which in turn enhances the sense of security. However, adopting these new practices has an impact on the very nature of the social and cultural networks that depend on this medium. Imposing strict regulations in this area can potentially increase costs for users, and further exclude individuals who have been forced by the regular formal channels to make use of these means. It may also increase the risk that these informal channels will be forced further underground and outside the reach of governance. Despite all this, the hope is that informal economies will be eradicated and global remittance flows made transparent and thus available for speculation to prevent terrorist attacks.

The third space of financial deviance discussed in Chapter 5, is charitable donations to suspect organizations (125). The zakat is an Islamic practice which requires the donation of part of one’s wealth to charity. The intention is to create a more just society by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. This practice is considered suspicious because Islamic teachings require that the money be spent on the recently converted and those in the way of God otherwise known as jihad. The worry is that these monies may be diverted towards the financing of terrorism. Patrons of these charitable organizations bring them under scrutiny through their links and associations. The implication of the financial targeting of these organizations is that it limits the freedoms of association and speech and requires little evidence to justify security action. Furthermore, the demand for documentation and procedure in order to legitimize charity organizations and bring them within the scope of monitoring may disadvantage small organizations that lack the means to adopt these procedures. The outcome of this is speculative in the sense that it does not really produce the security society wants or needs. This is because charitable work is rendered practically impossible in the new regulatory environment and there is the risk that antagonizing innocent participants in these organizations might lead to a feeling of hostility.


Speculative Security uses practical examples to describe the negative implications of employing preemptive practices to combat potential terrorist attacks. However, it does not describe the extent to which these practices may have been successful. If underground systems like the hawala were as closely regulated as international banking channels now are, perhaps large-scale terrorist attacks could have been prevented. Is employing these preemptive practices all bad? The book also does not indicate how many potential attacks have been stopped by employing these practices; it is possible that the number is more than security authorities take credit for or are aware of because of the preemptive nature of the measures employed. The difficulty in calculating the successes of these anticipatory measures should make it difficult to dismiss as only producing insecurities.

The author suggests that targeting based on speculation may breed its own violence and insecurities. Goede highlights how the new approach blurs the chain of causality by punishing before the act is committed, reduces evidentiary standards and is very unpredictable (190-197). However, we live in a world with new kinds of threats that are no match to traditional warfare tactics and that require the employment of new methods. The insecurities that these new approaches breed are regrettable but necessary in light of the potential attacks that nations now face at the hands of terrorists. The reach of terrorist organizations are global and the speed with which operations can be planned and executed aided by technology is worrisome. Perhaps it is time to employ these anticipatory and preemptive practices and cast the investigative nets as wide as possible and bring these spaces under scrutiny.

The author also states that one of the dangers of speculative security is that it involves a shift in political responsibility and democratic accountability to “midlevel bureaucrats, compliance officers and risk managers” who report suspicions to government agencies on the basis of “smelling a rat” (74). To describe the empowerment of these individuals as the de-politicization and creation of unaccountable spaces of decision-making seems inaccurate. This is because the space in which they operate, albeit beyond the law, is characterized by rules and procedures which make up a system that is far from lawless or arbitrary. This system operates by carefully applying scrutiny and expertise to ensure that potential acts of terrorism are stopped. Also, these “petty sovereigns” (88) ultimately answer to, are empowered by and derive the authority to exercise their discretion from democratically elected officials who are responsible to the citizenry.

Speculative Security shows how the post 9/11 pursuit of terrorist monies has fostered a finance-security assemblage that governs through preemption. The  objective is not to just cut off money flows but enable the preemptive intervention in spaces of everyday life including traditional banking, informal remittance channels and charitable donations previously not under scrutiny by security agencies. It enables the expansion of the time and space of security. These new approaches may breed insecurities. However, when looked at closely, it becomes clear that though they create insecurities, they are necessary in the face of current challenges.