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. Ravenwolf

    This is who is behind everything........

    May 15, 2010 at 8:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. love

    The best part is that the drug users are the US.......junkies who is the looser then?.White community is deep on drugs.

    May 15, 2010 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. mike182

    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.

    Posted by: Mohammad A Dar

    I think we've heard enough of your stupid banter. If there's one thing the world has realized, it's that muslims are hypocrits. You pretend to preach peace when your religion preaches hate. The best way to deal with you barbarians is to send all of you back to the desert armpit you came from and not let you leave. Stay in your own countries and ruin them. Teach your stupid children about religion and hate instead of math, science, and the fundamentals for having a civilized society. NO ONE wants you morons in their country. You're a problematic parasite. Keep forcing the world to itch and we're eventually going to find a final cure. As the world slowly weens itself off of your oil, you'll become poorer and poorer. Nations full of stupid, ignorant morons with no infrastructure; only sand. You keep your children under educated so they will follow your violent teachings and your women oppressed. We don't care if you like America or not. Hate us all you want from your sand hut. You step foot on American soil and preach your crap, you deserve what you get. If there's one thing you've achieved, it's that you made the most prejudicial white and black Americans hate you more than they dislike eachother.

    May 15, 2010 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  4. living person

    "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?"

    I find it kinda striking that we "the tax payers" have to pay for something useless that the Government comes up with..they find new things..puts it into law and we have no voice in it..$30,000 toiletbowl..Taxpayers will pay for it..and we wonder why this "Free" country is in a recession..They need to wake up in Washington..lower Taxes on buisnesses to bring them back...If you want to put America back to work..STOP sending our stuff overseas for some else to do.. DUH!!!! sometimes i wish i was the man in charge of this country..if it is needed in the will be made in the USA!!

    May 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ayreen Khan

    Tracking the source of money of the banned groups is a very good and effective counter terrorism strategy. Those who hampers the tranquil world and harms people by their misdeed are terrorists. So it is not justified to point out only the Muslims as terrorists. No one should forget how these Talibans came in being. They were a creation of the West to counter Russia who were given training of war, using weapons, create agitation and how to counter the influence of a power who wants to control them. After the collapse of Russia they were left with such knowledge which led them conquering the power within their own countries. Now Islam never teaches of shedding blood and killing innocent people. No religion in this earth teaches this. Religion preaches only and only the good things of mankind. Whoever causes harm to the mankind have no religion. So pointing finger only towards the Muslims are very unjustified. Rather the steps needs to be taken to combat the mischievous acts done by those Frankensteins who were the creation of the US. Rather preaching who did what and how what happened people should have clear understandings of the past, the history and the dirty politics of power seekers and move ahead solving all the pit points.

    May 15, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. umLA

    Congress gives billions to pakistan every year. What they doin with that? can we ask them for accountablity

    May 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mohammed suerte bennani

    true, not easy but the point is to identifies gurus
    ECHECS, so a "non-fiction novel", Sheikh, a main character, practice autoflagellation.
    May I reassure you ? I’ve got no scar on my back ... so far for now !
    Back Cover :
    On the night of May 16, 2003, five attacks with explosives were committed in Casablanca, which killed forty-three persons and a hundred wounded.
    For the first time in its history, the economic and business center of Morocco was the target of terrorist acts, by people of Morocco, Islamists at least ...
    ECHECS is a fiction, where the author seeks to understand the genesis of such a tragedy :
    From opposing the established order, to recruiting and creating armed groups, instructing suicide bombers, launching them, and striking targets.
    And always, symbolism in all these acts.
    From the inexorable shift of innocuous crimes to the most abject barbarism.
    The author takes us inside the thoughts, the pain fragilities hatred griefs of these candidates to death.
    The hero is a poor guy. The author didn’t gave him a name, but the helplessness le malheureux throughout the book.
    Sheikh, self-proclaimed commander of the believers, is the chief of the nebula, disgusting, Machiavellian, a guru who practice auto-flagellation, as if to punish himself for his own ignominy.
    The muezzin, who calls for prayer at dawn, is his captain, gathering believers around him.
    Amid this world of men, the author reveal to us women.
    Some are just followers; others are fresh, free, giving hope to the reader.
    Hunt is on !

    Mohammed Suerte Bennani
    ISBN 978 1 61658 396 59000

    May 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. SS

    Do not follow up. Stop all funds to Pakistan.

    May 15, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SS

    Do not follow money. Stop all funds to Pakistan.

    May 15, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. SS

    What happened to the Paki Taliban that the US considers good Taliban? Looks like they also want to kill Americans. What a surprise!!

    May 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Only Way

    1) All OT prophets agreed that Isaac was the son Abraham almost sacrificed but Mohammed say it was Ishmael. Who is saying the truth here, Mohammed or 10s of OT prophets?

    2) Does Allah have a double standard? Why did Mohammed marry more than 20 including a 9 year old Aisha and his own daughter-in-law (adopted son) while Allah allowed only 4?

    May 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mohammad A Dar

    think we've heard enough of your stupid banter. If there's one thing the world has realized, it's that muslims are hypocrits. You pretend to preach peace when your religion preaches hate. The best way to deal with you barbarians is to send all of you back to the desert armpit you came from and not let you leave. Stay in--------–I always have love and peace for a good person, I mean the one truthful, not the one, slave of his desires, what you desire for Muslims is not practical, because you and your partners in criminality are circled by the truth full Muslims and your words in frustration speak volumes of your sense of defeat. sooner you accept the facts ,is better for you. Accept the truth. Be a human, not a slave and there will be peace among us. Other wise live with a lie and frustration, sooner or later you will realize the truth or vanish in defeat.

    May 15, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Nice

    Moh-MAD Dar Highly recommended to Convert back to the religion of ur ancestors. Islam the barbaric religion has made u into an idiot. We can see from all the stupid comments that u have been brainwashed by ur local madarassa in Pakistan.

    May 15, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Nice

    Arabs lost the 1967 war and lost the land. I am not saying this is the right thing but History is full of conquests & conquerors. Good did not necessarily win over evil. Proof that God does not exist. If u want the land where Jews have lived for thousands of years before the arabs came, then return all the land that Arabs & Muslims had invaded and conquered & converted.
    U cannot have it both ways, where muslims conquered & converted u want to keep it under Muslim control and where u loose u resort to terrorism.
    U maybe smoking some Taliban crack from Pakistan thinkin that we r frustated.

    May 15, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayensi

      Conquests and invasions of other territories are signs of GREED and POWER-HUNGER. This does not mean "proof" that there is no God. There are just too many greedy and power-hungry people on this earth.

      May 17, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. J

    wow, some of these posts. . .

    May 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
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