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. Waldorf and Statler

    To track terrorists, don't follow the money; just go to a desert country and leave your car parked for a few minutes. They'll show up within' no time.

    May 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayensi

      But, what if they're Bedouins wanting to catch a ride?

      May 17, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • darmok

      the world should form a brown skinned urdu speaking non muslim group to terrorise the terrorists – mossad style. They should be something like "Flushkar-e-toiletba" – that's right, guerilla and hidden attacks for cowards

      May 28, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Auto

    Unfortunately, in order to ensure rights such as life, liberty, and the persuit of happiness, we must be willing to give up other rights such as privacy. By following the money trail, they arn't trying to get at your personal info. They're simply trying to protect the other liberties that so many people enjoy by hunting down those trying to deny that.

    You have to be willing to give a little, in order to receive.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dan

    seems like we only track the money after a plot has taken place or we hear from a different source that something is going on. I'm sure there are millions of dollars flowing in from Saudis Egyptians and Iranians. We are already getting hit with chinese made weapons traced back to Iran in Afghanistan, why can't we just follow the money there?

    May 14, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mohammad A Dar

    seems like we only track the money after a plot has taken place or we hear from a different source that something is going on. I'm sure there are millions of dollars flowing in from Saudis Egyptians and Iranians. We are already getting hit with chinese made weapons traced back to Iran in Afghanistan, why can't we just follow the money there?
    Posted by: dan--------You borrowed it from OSAMA, This was his reason for 9/11. American Money and weapons kill the Muslims in Philistine. So he has a right to attack USA. Tell me what is the difference between his and your point of view, other than your desire.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. TalibanMoneyGuysInYourNeighborhood

    its the drug users in the west and in the US that are funding Taliban. Kill a few thousands drug users in each western country, and you will solve the Taliban funding problems...

    May 14, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cordopolitin

    FOLLOW THE MONEY, Human FLESH is the second largest contribution to the GDP of NARCOMEX behind (meth made with raw materials from China, Coke from the FARC in Columbia, Opium from the Taliban, MJ from the 70% of farms that produce in Mexico (Mex stats) NarcoMEX a 50-100 billion international industry something like Philip Morris but much WORSE. Such power they have as to strike a deal with Homeland Security (HS does not bother to look for most Drugs unless it is a ridiculous in your face find, the underworld helps solve some of the TERROR problems. However we now understand that this “DEAL” was short sighted and did not take into account the historical lessons from the Opium wars 1-2.

    We are now in opium war 3 and have the Terror problem compounded by EU wanting to levrage the information..

    May 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. happiee

    this one's tricky... as romantic as it sounds to share financial transactions data to track down terror, It's going to be hard to get this working...

    May 14, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |

    (Supposed) sleeper cell/ Former inmate 75369-053

    May 14, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mohammad A Dar

    To track terrorists, don't follow the money; just go to a desert country and leave your car parked for a few minutes. They'll show up within' no time.
    Posted by: Waldorf and Statler--------------Do you mean Arizona or New york City. You do not have to park and leave. They will meet you at the intersection.

    May 14, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. sammieb51

    Isn't this what Kerry said in 2004 - that fighting terrorism needed to involve law enforcement and one tactic was to follow the money and everyone shoved him off the stage as 'soft on terrorism' in lieu of Bush whose motto was walk loudly and carry a SOFT stick.

    May 14, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. max

    the trail starts with all of us who use PETROLE (OPEC)...........

    May 14, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John

    To follow the problems within the world you follow the mney. Like Rothschild. Then you will see the main problems within our society. Our world is controled by 7-15 people. we are just part of the scam and scare tatic of terrorism. Patrotism is used as a brain wash control to the nation of united states, EU and other countries. WHen will the united states just leave the middle east alone and all other problems within the world? You all need to stop judgeing stereotypes such as Muslims, gays, repbluicans and other social groups. We are not connecting as a human race by doing this. When will you all understand that we all are the same thing. Two eyes, one mouth, two arms and two legs. More money the more powerful you are. Plus the catholic church.

    May 14, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. barbadine

    me got! i'aint sorry iyont sorry isn't it just a shame all zis money between the terrorist, the drug and so on and so on, why is it that the stupid one is always running after cash money to pay their taxes or whatever!

    May 14, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. harry pottah

    Ah....look at those Muslims leading to the destruction of other Muslims..I bet they're lying hypocrites.

    May 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. John

    How do you sappose that we live in a land that is free. It's a complete lie. I still have to make a certain amount of money to live at all. How is that free? and I'm taxed! I've been taxed since the civilzation existed. That's freedom?

    May 14, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
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