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. Mohammad A Dar

    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.
    Posted by: Nice----------–Try to breath out of the gutter, you call old religion. I have no desire to join it, which I never was. Human breath the fresh air and insects live in the filth. Try one day to be free from the filth you swim in, probably you will never like to go backr. Be a free man, Not a Hind, The slave, The son of a Langoor.

    May 15, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mohammad A Dar

    What happened to the Paki Taliban that the US considers good Taliban? Looks like they also want to kill Americans. What a surprise!!------------They were doing fine, till the Hind, The slave, son of a longoor came in between.

    May 15, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mohammad A Dar

    Ah....look at those Muslims leading to the destruction of other Muslims..I bet they're lying hypocrites.---------They did not recognized the Son of devil, non Muslim between them. but they are close to realize the devil.

    May 15, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mohammad A Dar

    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?
    Posted by: Only Way--------Do not think, your questions were not answered. I answered them in detail, I have no idea, why they were not posted.

    May 15, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dave B.

    As long as western leaders compete to serve their Arabian Masters, we can only expect deceit and duplicity as they fight their phoney wars against Islamic Terror. If we are dumb enough to believe that Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan are actually our friends, we deserve the downfall our leaders are arranging. Islamist like Bush and Obama may try to fool us into believing that terrorists are merely a radical fringe of a supposedly peaceful Islam, but anyone who has actually studied Quran or Islamic history should know that violent intolerance and Terrorism are intrinsic to their faith.
    If we wish to turn from the path of defeat we now follow, we must uproot the tree of terrorism, not merely prune its leaves. So long as the oil of Arabia remains in Islamic hands. America and Europe should prepare to be sold out and defeated by their own well bribed cowardly leaders.

    May 15, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Steve C

    We need to get our priorities straight: we could easily cut off the Taliban's funding by legalizing opium and its derivatives. Legalizing marijuana in California is already causing prices there to crash:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126806429

    May 15, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Nice

    Moh-Mad claimed Allah talked to him. Wonder why allah never told him that marrying 20 women or marrying a 6 yr old is okay. Truth is Moh-Mad was a war mongering liar .
    Islam invaders conquered Sind & Punjab todays pakistan and converted the local people thru

    May 15, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. FUBilderburg

    Yeah, follow the money trail! Just like you did for 9/11... Oh wait, that lead to Pakistani Sercret Intelligence, and then it was "of little practical significance" in the 9/11 commision report.

    May 15, 2010 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Art H

    Did not the Norwegian cartoonist who drew the Mohammed cartoon get attacked multiple times recently within Norway ? That is a sign of the times that international "Jihad" has started to come home to roost even in moderate European countries. This is not even counting the attacks within Spain and the UK by such jihadi nasties with the Pakistani background.

    That should be a sign to the Europeans to not dither on such vital matters any longer and start cooperating with international agencies who are fighting a in-the-shadows battle with such shape-shifting jihadi operatives. There is no time left to lose to crush the dark vision for the world that these nasties have in mind.

    May 15, 2010 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayensi

      I guess the EU Parliament is more concerned in protecting their people's PRIVACY than their LIVES. Or they are afraid that some of them could be implicated?

      May 17, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mohammad A Dar

    Moh-Mad claimed Allah talked to him. Wonder why allah never told him that marrying 20 women or marrying a 6 yr old is okay. Truth is Moh-Mad was a war mongering liar .
    Islam invaders conquered Sind & Punjab todays pakistan and converted the local people thru-------What you say is nothing but a brain child of a Hind. The low life, proud to be a slave, namely Hindu, the slave. People converted to Islam, because they did not want to be slaves to the Pot head, human flesh eating, Agurus, Guros or Bagwans. You like to live in the gutter of Hinduism, favorite thing of the parasites is not fresh air of freedom, but the filth of a gutter. The people who wanted to be free, joined the message of freedom, Islam, Rest stayed in the gutter, like you. A parasite.

    May 15, 2010 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Nice

    Cutting Opium Funding is not going to make a big change. These terrorists in Pakistan dont need major resources to kill.Mad people will always find new ways to kill. It is the education system in Pakistan. The entire education system is based on brainwashing young people to hate US, India, Israel. Even uppper middle class people who university degrees have these terrorist inclinations.
    Plus Pakitsan tolerates the terrorist infrastructure and donates money in their mosques for all terrorist activities. Is it any surprise that any would be terrorist from any part of the world ends up getting trained in Pakistan.
    The list is long Faisal Shahzad, the London bombers, Dean Headley, najibulah zazi , Bryant vinas etc etc. Khalid Mohmed Sheik was hiding for 4 yrs after 9/11 in the safest place in the world for a terrorist (pakistan).

    May 15, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nice

    Islam a breath of fresh air yeah hehehehe. Islamic invaders in Egpyt, Bosnia, Pakistan, Kashmir, enforced Jaziya tax(penalised tax on minorities), destroyed places of worship, gave incentives to islamic preachers who converted people and used the power of sword to convert people. The religous intoerance of Isamic countries is seen by the whole world even today. Imagine the what is the rights of non muslims in 10th century.

    @ Moh_Mad People converted to Islam, because they did not want to be slaves to the Pot head, human flesh eating,

    May 15, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Nice

    @Mohmad Dar – I dont have to abuse u, U can Go to any blog and I am sure u have read about people from all over the world show their disgust for Islam. Religion of peace hahaha. I hope u r enjoying the drones and 16 hour power cuts in Pakistan.
    Have u already finished ur terrorist training or still looking for the best training center.

    May 15, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Rex

    REALLY, what is there to fear if you are not doing anything wrong?

    May 15, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mohammad A Dar

    Islam a breath of fresh air yeah hehehehe. Islamic invaders in Egpyt, Bosnia, Pakistan, Kashmir, enforced Jaziya tax(penalised tax on minorities), destroyed places of worship, gave incentives to islamic preachers who converted people and used the power of sword to convert people. The religous intoerance of Isamic countries is seen by the whole world even today. Imagine the what is the rights of non muslims in 10th century.

    @ Moh_Mad People converted to Islam, because they did not want to be slaves to the Pot head, human flesh eating,-------This is your ugly way, do not try to lay it on Muslims. All they did was got rid of parasites like you to free the humanity.It happened before, It will happen again, Not by the Muslims from other lands, but the oppressed people of your lands. Very soon. Parasites will be flushed down to the toilet like before. Whole worled is with the Muslims except the fear monger pot head drug abuser Low life Hind, slaves, Jews and brain less nu cons of America.

    May 15, 2010 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
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