WASHINGTON -- The operations of al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) took a major hit last week after US authorities carried out the largest ever seizure of terrorist-linked cryptocurrency accounts.
The terror finance campaigns all relied on sophisticated cyber-tools, including the solicitation of cryptocurrency donations from around the world.
US authorities seized millions of dollars, over 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites, and four Facebook pages all related to the criminal enterprise, a US Justice Department statement said August 13.
"It should not surprise anyone that our enemies use modern technology, social media platforms and cryptocurrency to facilitate their evil and violent agendas," said US Attorney General William P. Barr.
"Terrorist networks have adapted to technology, conducting complex financial transactions in the digital world, including through cryptocurrencies," said US Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. "Today's actions demonstrate our ongoing commitment to holding malign actors accountable for their crimes."
The funding scheme by ISIS centred around the efforts of Murat Cakar, an ISIS facilitator who is responsible for managing select ISIS hacking operations, to sell fake personal protective equipment (PPE) via FaceMaskCenter.com (now seized). The phony PPE supposedly offered protection against the novel coronavirus.
The website claimed to have an unlimited number of government-approved N95 respirator masks for sale. The site administrators offered to sell these items to customers across the globe, including those purchasing N95 masks and other PPE for hospitals, nursing homes and fire departments.
Authorities seized Cakar's website as well as four related Facebook pages used to facilitate the scheme.
Al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups, largely based out of Syria, were operating a bitcoin money laundering network using Telegram channels and other social media platforms. The groups solicited cryptocurrency donations to advance their terrorist goals. In some instances, they purported to act as charities when, in fact, they were openly and explicitly soliciting funds for terrorist violence.
Undercover agents communicated with the administrator of Reminder for Syria, a related charity that was seeking to finance terrorism via bitcoin donations. The administrator stated that he hoped for the destruction of the United States, discussed the price for funding surface-to air missiles, and warned about possible criminal consequences from carrying out a "jihad" in the United States.
Al-Qaeda and the affiliated terrorist groups together created these posts and used complicated obfuscation techniques, uncovered by law enforcement, to layer their transactions in an attempt to conceal their activities.
US authorities took down 155 virtual currency assets tied to this terrorist campaign.
The actions by US authorities also took down the operations of the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing. Their websites offered video instructions on how to anonymously make donations, in part by using a unique bitcoin address generated for each individual donor.