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Former CIA Analyst Says Terrorists Utilize Bitcoin to Boost Funding

Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:50 PM
Rebecca Campbell
Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:50 PM

A former counterterrorism analyst for the CIA has found that terrorists are utilizing innovative technologies to boost their funding, one of which is through the use of bitcoin.

Yaya Fanusie is the director of analysis for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance (CSIF) who previously spent seven years as both an economic and counterterrorism analyst in the CIA.

Writing on The Cipher Brief , he explained how he recently came across a troubling case of innovative terrorist fundraising.

According to Fanusie, The Ibn Taymiyya Media Center (ITMC), which is an online jihadist propaganda unit located in the Gaza Strip, has been using social media to run a fundraising campaign. Fanusie states that it is the first terrorist group to publicly use the digital currency.

At the beginning of the year, Europol revealed that no terrorist group was using bitcoin for terrorism financing.

He said:

Although the campaign has not yet raised much digital currency, this effort shows how terrorists are experimenting with new financial technology to expand funding.

Links to Islamic State

Fanusie adds that the ITMC is the media wing of the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), which the U.S. State Department considers a foreign terrorist organization.

They have also provided support to Islamic State (IS).

Using Bitcoin for Terrorist Fundraising

Even though ITMC’s online campaign began in July 2015, which initially led followers to the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, in June 2016 the option to pay in bitcoin was added.

For each fighter the campaign sought at least $2,500; however, Fanusie reports that the organization had so far received around 0.929 BTC (roughly $540) from two transactions.

Fanusie thinks that the deposits could have come from the campaign’s organizers to test out the bitcoin address.

He stated:

Although it is unclear who placed the deposits in the address, the transactions’ blockchain data suggest that those responsible are most likely proficient bitcoin users and are employing techniques to preserve anonymity.

Tracking Movements through Blockchain

While bitcoin itself is anonymous, its distributed technology ledger, the blockchain, has the advantage in that the movements on it can be tracked helping law enforcement to find vital connections.

So even if the ITMC continues to request funding through bitcoin, people may be hesitant due to the blockchain’s tracking abilities.

According to Fanusie, the open platform of blockchain means that enthusiasts of bitcoin are more likely to work with law enforcement to tackle criminal behavior and to combat the stigma behind bitcoin.

He added:

Illicit activity unchecked on the blockchain will only make financial regulators less receptive to growing financial technology (fintech) innovation and the public more skeptical about using digital currencies.

Of course, while U.S. law enforcement engages with the Blockchain Alliance, to prevent illegal activity on the blockchain, efforts by fintech-savvy individuals to help combat criminal activity is low.

Fanusie thinks, though, the digital currency advocates who are familiar with digital currency exchanges, forums, and darknet websites should initiate watchdog groups to track criminal bitcoin activities.

He concluded by saying:

Such groups could inform blockchain companies, the media, and even law enforcement of digital malfeasance that would otherwise go ignored.

Whether these proactive steps will be taken, though, remains to be seen.

Featured image from Shutterstock.