Millions in Cryptocurrency Seized from Terrorist Groups

August 15, 2020 • Shannon Flynn


The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Thursday, August 13 that it had stopped three online campaigns funding terrorist organizations. In dismantling these fundraising efforts, the DOJ also seized millions of dollars in cryptocurrency. The department says that this is the largest seizure of cryptocurrency tied to terrorism in the government’s history.

On top of the roughly $2 million in crypto, authorities also seized more than 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites and four Facebook pages. These three campaigns, meant to fund Al Qaeda, ISIS and al-Qassam, all used social media and crypto to raise money. How this played out in each case differed, though.

The al-Qassam campaign used its social media pages to call for Bitcoin donations from supporters. Their website even offered video instructions on how to send these donations. Both the website and the social media posts claimed that these transactions would be anonymous.

ISIS and Al Qaeda both took a less direct approach, disguising their calls for donations. Al Qaeda sent requests for Bitcoin donations through social media like Telegram, often claiming to be a charity. Similarly, ISIS used a fake face mask website to hide their transactions.

A False Sense of Security

In all of these cases, the terrorist groups relied on the anonymity of crypto to remain hidden. As you can read on Bitcoin’s website, though, Bitcoin is not anonymous, even if some people think it is. Because of the transparent nature of the blockchain, anyone can see what transactions came from what Bitcoin address.

Bitcoin transactions don’t show people’s names, but they do show Bitcoin addresses. Joining forces with the IRS and Homeland Security, the FBI was able to track these addresses to Bitcoin accounts. They then seized hundreds of these, putting an end to their terrorism funding.

The ISIS and Al Qaeda campaigns used more money laundering and layering techniques to hide their transactions. Still, authorities were able to get through and seize their assets.

Terrorism In the Age of Technology

These three fundraising campaigns indicate how criminals, like most people today, are embracing technology. In this digital age, security can be a more complicated task than it used to be. Businesses today often have to handle a mix of requirements, balancing security with comfort and convenience.

Cryptocurrency demonstrates this balance, as it balances privacy with safety. Crypto users can expect privacy, but blockchain technology isn’t completely anonymous. As these investigations show, that lack of true anonymity works as a safety feature, even as a measure of national security.

For tech developers, maintaining this balance can be a challenging undertaking. Bitcoin was able to do so in this instance, as it’s secure, but not so private that it enables criminal activity.

Security In a Digital World

As the world becomes more digitized, security measures will have to adapt. With terrorist groups using things like social media and cryptocurrency, it’s clear that old defenses may not be adequate anymore. Even crime has gone digital, so crime-fighting strategies need to evolve as well.

Technology may give these groups more reach than ever before, but it can help counter-terrorism too. The transparency of the blockchain enabled authorities to put a substantial dent in terrorist funding. The idea of terrorism in an online world may be frightening, but as this case shows, tech won’t be enough to keep criminals from justice.