Terrorists Have Been Using Bitcoin For Four Years, So What's The Surprise?

March 26, 2018

The following is an op-ed by MEMRI Executive Director Steven Stalinsky that was originally published in The Hill on March 8, 2018.[1]

As the value of Bitcoin has reached new highs, there has been a major increase in attention to it, including news articles and TV specials - along with concern from governments worldwide that terrorist groups are using digital wallets to send and receive funds in Bitcoin, the decentralized peer-to-peer cryptocurrency created in 2009.

With ISIS's physical caliphate crumbling along with its own once-heralded economy made up of its own currency and banks, utilizing Bitcoin as a backup financial plan is now in play.

In recent months, French, Italian, and U.K. legislators have sought more regulations on Bitcoin because of potential terrorist usage. In the U.S., there have been bipartisan Congressional hearings and legislation. In May, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) said, when she introduced H.R.2433, the Homeland Security Assessment of Terrorists' Use of Virtual Currencies Act, that "with groups like ISIS becoming more technologically sophisticated and virtual currencies becoming more accessible, the table is set for this threat to grow significantly... We need to confront this threat immediately." In January, Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) introduced H.R.4752, the Financial Technology Innovation and Defense Act, to establish a task force combat terrorist use of cryptocurrency.

While these are positive developments, terrorist groups were experimenting with Bitcoin as early as 2014. One of the earliest examples was that year by the notorious Syrian Electronic Army which used Bitcoin to raise money to pay for helping to distribute its self-designed software.[2]

Also in 2014, a Dark Web site, "Fund The Islamic Struggle Anonymously," was encouraging supporters to donate in Bitcoin to fight the U.S.[3]

Other early cases of terrorist groups' use of Bitcoin include: in 2015, reports that the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris were funded in Bitcoin by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); in 2016, reports that Bitcoin, including a wallet containing $3 million in Bitcoin, could have been used in the November Paris attacks that year; and the ongoing fundraising campaign "Jahezona" ("Equip Us"), launched in July 2015 by the ISIS-linked Ibn Taymiyya Center, that accepts donations in Bitcoin for purchasing weapons for the fight against "the Jews."

Also, "Fund the Islamic Struggle Without Leaving a Trace," a pro-ISIS forum, began posting links in June 2015 to a Dark Web page that provides a Bitcoin address through which funds can apparently be sent to ISIS.

Some of the ISIS supporters in the West using Bitcoin who thought they were shielded by its anonymity have been apprehended. In 2015, 17-year-old Virginian Ali Shukri Amin pleaded guilty to using Twitter to teach ISIS members how to use Bitcoin. On July 7, 2014, Amin (@AmreekiWitness) tweeted a link to an article he wrote and posted on his blog, titled "Bitcoin and the Charity of Jihad," explaining how Bitcoin works and how to use the anonymity-providing "Dark Wallet." Muslims, he wrote, should use Bitcoin to support jihad because it has "no points of weakness" and is untraceable by "kafir government." More recently, in December 2017, 27-year-old Long Island resident Zoobia Shahnaz was charged with money laundering and bank fraud; authorities say she stole and transferred around $85,000 to support ISIS, with some $62,700 of it in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Highlighting jihadis' growing interest in Bitcoin, last month the pro-Al-Qaeda English-language magazine Al-Haqiqa devoted an entire article to using Bitcoin, and examined the shari'a permissibility of using it and other cryptocurrencies to fund jihad. It noted: "We see lots of potential for the use of cryptocurrencies for our purposes."

Also highlighting how terrorist groups are using Bitcoin is the case of the Isdarat website, a hub for ISIS content; on November 30, Telegram users linked to it and explained how to donate to it in Bitcoin. Two weeks later, a reader replied that the funds donated in this way had bought computers for jihadis.

The most important organization to openly use Bitcoin is the Syria-based anti-Assad Al-Sadaqah organization, which promotes itself as "an independent charity organization that is benefiting and providing the Mujahidin in Syria with weapons, financial aid, and other projects relating to Jihad." Its ongoing fundraising campaign in Bitcoin on social media is aimed at Americans and other Westerners - and a growing number of them are donating, disseminating its posts, and chatting about how to donate. The campaign shares its Bitcoin wallet number on its Telegram channel, which it opened on November 8. A recent appeal noted, "If anyone has a Bitcoin ATM in your area of country, then you can send money 100% anonymously."

While there has been a justified growing chorus of concern from Western government officials about terrorist use of Bitcoin, this concern comes late. As with other online platforms that have allowed terrorists to act freely on them, the longer Bitcoin allows this, the more terrorists will flock to it. Addressing this issue is long overdue.

Steven Stalinsky is the executive director of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and the author of American Traitor: The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda's U.S. Born Leader Adam Gadahn.

[1] Thehill.com, March 8, 2018. [2] See MEMRI CJL, Syrian Electronic Army Soliciting Bitcoin Donations For Linux Distribution, October 24, 2014. [3] See MEMRI JTTM, The 'Dark Web' And Jihad: A Preliminary Review Of Jihadis' Perspective On The Underside Of The World Wide Web, May 21, 2014.

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