Assistant Attorney General John Demers told CBS News on Thursday that the Islamic State has a “sophisticated online operation” for selling fake personal protective equipment, primarily phony N-95 masks, and using the money for terrorist endeavors.
Demers said ISIS repurposed some of its online propaganda network to create “phony websites to get money to fund terrorism, when you thought you were paying for a mask that you needed.”
CBS quoted another senior Justice Department (DOJ) official who said the ISIS coronavirus racket is “just a slice” of terrorist activity related to the pandemic.
“Investigators from the Justice Department, FBI, Homeland Security, and the IRS also found that terrorists from al-Qaeda and Hamas used social media and cryptocurrency to raise money for weapons and operations,” CBS reported.
The DOJ announced Thursday that it seized over 300 cryptocurrency accounts linked to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas and confiscated millions of dollars in the largest virtual currency terrorism bust to date. Fully half of those accounts were employed to raise funds for the al-Qassam Brigades, the “military wing” of Hamas.
“It should not surprise anyone that our enemies use modern technology, social media platforms, and cryptocurrency to facilitate their evil and violent agendas,” said Attorney General William Barr.
Two Turkish nationals, Mehmet Akti and Husamettin Karatas, were charged with helping the terrorist groups convert their bitcoin hauls into hard currency. The bitcoin operations had hundreds of donors, who have not been identified, although court filings indicated at least six of them either live in the United States or used accounts based in the U.S. DOJ said criminal search warrants have been executed against these suspects.
“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,” pledged Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael R. Sherwin.
Another Turkish national who came up during the investigation was Murat Cakar, an Islamic State supporter who serves as one of the terrorist group’s chief hackers and created a website for selling fake medical masks, among other fundraising activities.
The website, FaceMaskCenter.com, claimed it was a major company established in 1996 by “sanitary experts” that had hundreds of thousands of FDA-approved masks and other protective gear in stock and ready for immediate delivery.
In truth, the FaceMaskCenter.com website was created in Turkey in late February 2020. Cakar allegedly used Facebook to attempt arranging huge mask sales to customers who planned on delivering them to nursing homes and hospitals. DOJ said the seizure of Cakar’s website and Facebook pages “has averted the further victimization of those seeking COVID-19 protective gear, and disrupted the continued funding of ISIS.”
According to court documents filed against Akti and Karatas, the Hamas fundraising operation began on Twitter in 2019 with tweets urging users to “donate to the Palestinian resistance via bitcoin.” The terrorist group provided instructional videos for making donations with bitcoin and promised donors they would remain anonymous.