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. Dove

    Follow the money alright. Follow where all the money from the citizens of the US Tax dollars goes into "Black" Budget spending on projects with ZERO congressional oversight. Blog that.

    May 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. visitor2012

    .hmmm.. then United States and Britain are the largest terrorist organization in the World.

    May 14, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayensi

      How can you say that? U.S. is the major contributor to all NEEDY nations. The problem is, everyone in this universe EXPECTS the U.S. to provide them the financial, economic, and security assistance. The other problem is, we, EXPECT our country, U.S,. to protect us from terrorism (aside from bankruptcy, economic disaster, etc) but U.S. is lacking the support of its own citizens. So then, how do you expect the EU Parliament to support the U.S.? I am tired of reading comments like yours which are negative and defaming. Instead, why not provide useful input than bad mouthing the U.S.? I suggest you go to Saudi Arabia or Russia so you can appreciate America.

      May 17, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mohammad A Dar

    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...---------–Do some thing better, Do what mozedung did. Exterminate all the drug abusers in the west and America with in 24 hours, but do not forget Indian drug abusers, It is part of their religion, it will take care of Talabans finances and over population in India. One action will take care of two problems.

    May 14, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mohammad A Dar

    Ah....look at those Muslims leading to the destruction of other Muslims..I bet they're lying hypocrites.
    Posted by: harry pottah----------–Stupids do not under stand it, The one behind them is the same one , before them, the non Muslim, follower of the devil. Hope they get it, and stop killing each other and go after the son of devil, the non Muslim. The Pagan.

    May 14, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Muslima Al Saud

      Mohammad A Dar, you are an idiot and NOT remotely Muslim. As a Muslim woman living in Saudi Arabia, I can tell you you are a shameful, hate-filled EMBARRASMENT of Islam, and have no REMOTE clue as to the message of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Calling people names because they aren't Muslim, like "pagan", wishing their death–what insane, extremeist Iman having you been parroting? You are another brainless, brainwahsed hate mongerer. It's imbeciles like you that make other countries think that all Muslims are as loony as fruitcakes. You are the same fool who thinks they are still Muslim if they blow themselves up in an act of violence against others (aka terrorism)-which means they commit suicide and murder–and call themselves a martyr also!! And to advocate killing people in buildings and call it payback–what a sick, twisted monster you are.

      Martyrs are killed by others, they DO NOT kill themselves. The terrorists at 9/11 werent' martyrs, they were MURDERERS AND SUICIDAL AND ARE NOT GOING TO SEE PARADISE. You need to go back and re-read the Quran and get the MESSAGE of Islam-which ISN'T hate, and ISN'T reviling differences. If it was, then why can a Muslim man marry a Christina, Jew or Muslim woman? If Jews and Christians were pagans, God wouldn't have given Muslims permission to marry them, dummy. And it most assuredly isn't congratulating ANYONE on murdering ANYONE else.

      You are a fake Muslim. And dumber than dirt. You bring shame on all the Muslims that believe in peace and love, and keep people hating Islam. YOU.

      November 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  5. 1024

    Then they should arrest all those rich politicians that are stealing the money of the poor, those are the real terrorist.

    May 14, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. bailoutsos

    And to track home grown crooks, follow the money to Congress.

    May 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. bailoutsos

    Joseph Kennedy was a bootlegger, Maria Shriver's grandad.

    May 14, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayensi


      May 17, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Amy

    Everything is here friends, please
    enjoy viewing bar

    May 14, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. roland

    I feel as if the feds are working slower than ever in this. It's 2010 and we're now finding this out? Since 9/11 we've known this and now it's too late (times sq bombing). I say all muslims in america need to be watched more closely and their financial statements audited at any time if they are under scrutiny by the feds

    May 14, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Linda

    I have made some analysis, and u can chekc them here in my web, I lived in Iraq for 4 years, not joke:

    Thak you all!

    May 15, 2010 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  11. molo

    Will europe get the same access to see what transactions have taken place in the US?

    May 15, 2010 at 5:58 am | Report abuse |
  12. Eddie2010

    The spin on this article is unbelievable. Yes, author, other countries have different laws. And they must be respected even if you don't like them. This does not make them terrorist states, or enablers of terrorism. In fact, perhaps an honest look at US foreign policy over the past 70 years would show you right were the root of terrorism lies.

    May 15, 2010 at 6:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. Josef

    Anyone found a virus that kills opium poppies? Release it in Afganistan..... end of cash cow for alqaida.

    May 15, 2010 at 7:05 am | Report abuse |
  14. frank david jhonothon

    global world with global problems !i would suggest to spy on every single human being
    older than 2 years old if we have the technology and time to do it!!god bless the good work
    of fear!!

    May 15, 2010 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  15. Ravenwolf

    To follow the funding of the terrorists just look to the illuminati! They are behind EVERYTHING! You poor sheep believing that there isn't a group behind it all, including the quakes in Haiti and Chili, the starving of the people of Africa and all other "natural disasters" that aren't quite as natural as they want you to believe!

    May 15, 2010 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
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