May 14th, 2010
12:57 PM ET

Security Brief: To track terrorists follow the money - if you can

U.S. officials have learned to track terrorists the best way is to follow the money trail. The problem is it isn't always that easy.

Editor's note: This is the final post of a three-part blog series on terrorist finances. In Part 1 we examined al Qaeda’s challenging financial situation. In Part 2 we examined at the Taliban’s money trail and in the final Part 3 of the series we look at international cooperation (or sometimes the lack-thereof) in tracking terrorist financing. Bookmark our Security Brief section to track the latest on national security issues.

“I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money.” So said Deep Throat, in the movie “All The President’s Men.”

It’s a lesson the U.S. government has taken to heart in pursuit of international terrorists. But it’s not always easy to “follow the money” when critical information is off-limits on another continent.

Somewhere in Europe there are huge computer servers that process about 11 million financial “messages” involving trillions of dollars every day. They belong to an organization called SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), which acts as a secure link for the global financial community to exchange information about the movement of money. But this arcane business has become the subject of an unseemly squabble between Europe and the United States over tracking the financing of terrorism.

Until last year, SWIFT had operations in the United States, allowing the U.S. government to obtain data that would help in terrorism investigations through the Treasury’s Terrorist Financing Tracking Program (TFTP.) U.S. officials say this program has been an essential tool in tracking terrorism – supplying more than 1500 reports to counterterrorism investigators in Europe.

But when the U.S. sought continued access to SWIFT data this year, through a new agreement with the European Commission, the European Parliament had a fit. Members claimed the practice violated privacy laws in the European Union and that investigators might go on open-ended “fishing expeditions.” They were also angry that the European Commission had not consulted the Parliament about the arrangement. So in February, the Parliament refused to agree to a new data-sharing accord.

This may sound like pretty dry stuff, but it’s so important to the U.S. that no lesser figures than Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder have appealed for the agreement’s reinstatement, and pledged to address privacy concerns.

"We believe that the TFTP is essential to our security as well as yours,” Biden told the European Parliament last week. "It has provided critical leads to counter-terrorist investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, disrupting plots and saving lives," he said.

This week, after intense lobbying from Washington, talks on a new deal with the EU got underway.

U.S. official sources – who cannot speak on the record about particular cases - point to several investigations where the TFTP has been vital, in part because of access to SWIFT data.

  • In Indonesia, a 55 year-old Saudi citizen, Al Khelaiw Ali Abdullah, went on trial in February accused of channeling funds from the Middle East to a group associated al Qaeda. The money was allegedly used to finance the bombing of two Jakarta hotels last year, according to prosecutors. Abdullah says he is innocent.
  • In 2007, a conspiracy by German members of the Islamic Jihad Union to attack US military installations there was uncovered in part because of the financial transactions of one suspect. He later confessed and is now in jail.
  • The case against David Headley, who this year admitted helping to plan attacks in India and Denmark, was developed in part because of financial data uncovered that related to high ranking members of Lashkar e Taiba, the Pakistani-based group that carried out the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Headley, a Pakistani-American living in Chicago, admitted to contacts with senior LeT figures.

US officials say TFTP information helped the investigation of the Madrid bombings in 2004, and the U.K.-based plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic in 2006.

The new negotiations will tackle the fine balance between investigating suspects’ financial dealings and civil liberties.

For its part, the US has pointed to safeguards in the TFTP involving the privacy of individuals’ data and a right of redress, the length of time data is preserved, as well as external auditing of the way the program is used.

Last month the U.S. Treasury Department hosted a group of European Parliament members to try to assuage their anxieties.

One official acknowledges these are unprecedented concessions, as they potentially involve methods and sources in active U.S. terror investigations.

"It’s a real concern,” says one official. "We’ve been conscious in negotiations not to compromise national security and [the] intelligence apparatus.”

But so vital is access to SWIFT that the U.S. is prepared to make far-reaching concessions on information-sharing.

Officials on both sides are stressing the urgency of reaching a deal and hope to conclude talks before the end of June. But even then the new agreement must go to the European Parliament.

“Both sides agree on the imperative of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement as soon as possible to plug the current vacuum, but the European Parliament cannot be complicit in any agreement that goes against our own laws," the member leading the Parliament’s response, Dutch MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said.

In the meantime, U.S. officials would not agree with the adage “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

They are concerned that important leads on current terror investigations just may be lost while negotiations to restore access to SWIFT data drag on.

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Filed under: Security Brief • Terrorism
soundoff (92 Responses)
  1. freepalestine

    to track zionist follow the money.

    May 16, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. asus3000

    Goldman Sachs did more harm to America than any would-be terrorist with a backpack. And Goldman Sachs was Obama's biggest contributor..

    Follow the money indeed...

    May 16, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. km

    Mr Tim Lister, keep up the good work searching for the source of the money. Whether its poitics, war , terrorism ,the source of the money always finds the absolute truth. My bet is Saudi Cash. Only solution destroy the source and stop the killing of innocents.

    May 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  4. bob

    Why dont we just buy all the opium out from under the taliban?

    May 16, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Damião Carlos

    Honestly we don't know what happening with world. I don't support the violence, ignorance and the name of a holy war innocent people are killed day after day... thank you for visit my website blog and spreading around the world.

    May 16, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mohammad A Dar

    Mr Tim Lister, keep up the good work searching for the source of the money. Whether its poitics, war , terrorism ,the source of the money always finds the absolute truth. My bet is Saudi Cash. Only solution destroy the source and stop the killing of innocents.
    Posted by: km--------------– You hit it right on the mark, This is the reason, World trade centers were attacked. Bank's, the financial hub. the source of American Arrogance. So for Six trillion dollars and many thousand lives lost and counting. A brilliant proven strategy.

    May 16, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. km

    Mohammad – the reason world trade center was attacked was by satan himself, he funded it. he directed it, he did it. why ? to kill innocents

    May 16, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Smith in Oregon

    The US Justice Dept. under the green-light of the horrific Bush-Cheney administration pushed and forced the massive invasive series of laws known as 'The Patriot Act' upon Democratic lawmakers and in turn down the throats of all Americans.

    Prominently in that 10 year US Justice Dept. wish list was to curb money exchangers outside of the federal banking system. In particular the Hawala money transfers who keep relatively no paper work on their clients and keep virtually none if any records on their transactions. And after stripping ALL Americans of a great many American Freedoms and Liberty's by the invasive and highly restrictive 'Patriot Act', America finds 9 years later that it made virtually no difference with Hawala Dealers in America and around the world.

    Another extremely ironic chapter on the recent horrific Republican Bush-Cheney era is that during Bush jr's time in office and since his invasion of Afghanistan, his alliance with the Karzai CLAN resulted in mass Opium-Poppy fields being planted to the maximum in all 34 Afghanistan provinces. This unleashed a virtual tidal wave of Heroin which flooded the entire world, generating hundreds of Billions of untraceable dollars. AND many of those untraceable dollars most certainly has flowed to the CIA hand-picked Karzai CLAN who are alleged to be the major exporters of Opium and Heroin out of Afghanistan.

    NOW, during President Obama's term in office, Opium-Poppy fields have been reduced to now existing in only 5 Afghanistan provinces.

    This WEEK, it was publicly disclosed that a FUNGUS which attacks the roots of the Opium-Poppy plants drying up the seed pod before Opium can be cultivated has invaded all of the surviving Opium-Poppy fields.

    Isn't it EXTREMELY IRONIC that after nearly a full DECADE of full tilt growth of Opium-Heroin exports generating Hundreds of Billions of untraceable dollars to its now rapid and sudden decline, that NOW US Treasury Agents are sent to Afghanistan to inquire about terrorist money trails?

    Folks, the MAJOR CIA and Taliban untraceable cash machine in the Opium-Heroin business is drying up and suddenly US Treasury Agents travel to Afghanistan to 'look into money operations'??

    May 16, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mohammad A Dar

    Mohammad – the reason world trade center was attacked was by satan himself, he funded it. he directed it, he did it. why ? to kill innocents
    Posted by: km----------------I think so was attack on Iraq, Afghanistan and murder of one million Muslims by the USA and Israel. Right, What goes around. comes around.

    May 16, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
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