U.S. Seizes Millions in Cryptocurrency from 3 Terrorist Groups

An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos on Feb. 18, 2015, allegedly shows members of the Islamic State parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

The Justice Department announced it has seized millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency intended to finance the activities of al-Qaeda, the al-Qassam Brigades and the Islamic State.

Federal officials said Thursday the $2 million seized is the United States’ largest confiscation of cryptocurrency in the context of terrorism.

“Two million dollars is a lot of equipment that they can buy, a lot of weapons, a lot of training that they can fund, a lot of tickets to fly people around the world,” Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers told reporters. “This is going to make a big difference in their operation.”

In a statement, the Justice Department said U.S. authorities obtained warrants to seize the money as well as 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites and four Facebook pages the three terror groups used as part of their cyber-enabled campaigns to generate funds.

“Terrorist networks have adapted to technology, conducting complex financial transactions in the digital world, including through cryptocurrencies,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

Federal prosecutors said the three campaigns relied upon sophisticated cyber-tools to solicit cryptocurrency and donations from around the world, demonstrating how they have adapted their financing activities.

The first action was taken against the al-Qassam Brigades, the Justice Department said, stating the militant wing of Hamas posted a call on its social media page in 2019 asking for donations, boasting that cryptocurrency transactions were untraceable. A website the group operated also posted an instructional video demonstrating how to make donations.

Such donations weren’t anonymous, prosecutors said, and agents with the Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security Investigations and the Federal Bureau of investigation tracked and seize all 150 cryptocurrency accounts that laundered funds for the terrorist group while also executing criminal search warrants for those who donated money from within the United States.

Two Turkish nationals Mehmet Akti and Husamettin Karatas were indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which unsealed charges against them Thursday for acting as money launderers.

The second terror finance campaign concerned al-Qaeda and affiliated groups mainly in Syria operating bitcoin money laundering networks through the cloud-based messaging application Telegram and other social media platforms to solicit funds.

“In some instances, they purported to act as charities when, in fact, they were openly and explicitly soliciting funds for violent terrorist attacks,” the Justice Department said. “For example, one post from a charity sought donations to equip terrorists in Syria with weapons.”

In the third campaign that was to fund IS involved a scheme by Murat Cakar, an alleged IS facilitator responsible for managing the terrorist group’s hacking operations, to sell amid the coronavirus pandemic fake personal protective equipment claiming to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration via the Internet.

The fake website FaceMaskCenter.com utilized to sell these fake products had international reach, prosecutors said, including to the United States where a customer sought to purchase masks and other protective equipment for hospitals, nursing homes and fire departments.

“These important cases reflect the resolve of the D.C. United States Attorney’s Office to target and dismantle these sophisticated cyber-terrorism and money laundering actors across the globe,” U.S. attorney Michael R. Sherwin said in a statement. “While these individuals believe they operate anonymously in the digital space, we have the skill and resolve to find, fix and prosecute these actors under the full extent of the law.”

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