On Nov. 26 in a federal court in New York, 27-year-old Zoobia Shahnaz pleaded guilty to financially supporting the Islamic State terrorist group with a scheme that employed money laundering and bank fraud, along with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, according to prosecutors. She was tripped up when law enforcement officials detected overseas wire transfers designed to avoid financial-reporting requirements.
Cryptocurrency has come to terrorism, with an array of terrorist organizations exploiting the anonymity afforded by blockchain technology for fundraising and finances, yet U.S. counterterrorism officials appear to have been slow to grasp the extent the problem.
Certainly the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 recognized that "vigorous efforts to track terrorist financing must remain front and center in U.S. counterterrorism efforts," in part because "information about terrorist money helps us to understand their networks, search them out, and disrupt their operations." But that was long before cryptocurrency emerged as a method for moving money while evading detection.
The National Strategy for Counterterrorism released by the White House in October - the first such report since 2011 - could have been expected to address the role of cryptocurrency in terrorist financing, but it didn't.
The new national strategy noted that terrorists employ encrypted communications, and it vowed to "deny terrorists the ability to raise funds" and "plot attacks, travel, and abuse the global financial system." But in a gaping omission, the national strategy failed to link encryption and terrorist funding.
With the Islamic State's physical caliphate in shambles, revenue from oil and taxes have disappeared, but cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, Dash, Ethereum, Monero, Verge and Zcash, with others in development, constitute an alternative funding source for the terrorists. Transactions are swift and anonymous, and disrupting them is difficult. In addition to more-established terrorist organizations, an emerging cadre of terrorist groups and their affiliates, such as Al-Sadaqah, Malhama Tactical and the Ibn Taymiyyah Media Center, have begun using cryptocurrency. Communications about transactions often take place on encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram, favored by terrorist groups because they are easy to use and offer a secure venue for planning and recruiting - and for advising Western supporters about how to use cryptocurrency.
Telegram's encrypted text and voice messaging have gained worldwide popularity since its launch in 2013 by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov. The service passed 100 million active monthly users two years ago, with its secrecy also inevitably attracting criminal and terrorist organizations. By far, these groups rely on bitcoin for financial activity on Telegram, but now Durov appears set to launch Telegram's own cryptocurrency after obtaining $1.8 billion in funding.
The prospect has alarmed Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., ranking member of the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. On Oct. 25, they wrote to Durov expressing concern that the launch of a Telegram cryptocurrency "will make it even easier for terrorists to fundraise without disruption." The congressmen asked Durov to provide a "plan of action" to "create safeguards to prevent terrorist groups from using the platform as a secure fundraising tool." Poe's office says Durov hasn't replied.
Other alarms about terrorists' use of cryptocurrency have been sounded in recent months. In September, the House approved a bill introduced by Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., calling for the establishment of an independent financial technology task force to research terrorists' use of new financial technologies and specifically to combat the use of cryptocurrency by terrorists. (The bill awaits Senate action.)
The intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force, which combats money laundering and terrorism financing, noted in an Oct. 19 statement that the Islamic State and al-Qaida are using cryptocurrencies and called on governments worldwide to establish rules for their use.
More leadership from those working worldwide against terrorist fundraising is urgently needed. It should not take a major terrorist attack, planned on an encrypted apps and financed with cryptocurrency, to get their attention.
Steven Stalinsky is the executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.