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

    May 15th, 2010
    10:10 pm ET

    @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.------There is no body hanging a sword on your head, it is the fear of punishment of your crime, making you cry wolf. No matter how much noise you make, it will not free you and your criminal associates from the punishment of the La. The Truth, The MUSLIMS.

    May 15, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Human

    What we have here is Mohammad A Dar typifying the common and ardent belief of muslim extremists. I do not think that all muslims share his views and hate Hindus and Jews. There are extremists such as Mohammad A Dar, the Taliban and Al Queda that abuse religion and brainwash their own citizens into hatred of others.

    Consider this... when was the last time Hindu terrorists came to the west and carried out acts of terror? That's right. Never!

    Extreme muslims are intolerant of all other religions and that is not what Islam is about. If everyone in the world was muslim, then they'd still be fighting each other... Sunnis and Shias. I wish end to religious intolerance. All of us have a right to believe in what we want. Respect each other and take responsibility to take care of our planet. For the sake of future generations.

    May 16, 2010 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  3. Zullu

    Its unfortunate that every discussion turns into hate comments towards religion....money tracking is a very effective way to handle the situation.....and by the way not every muslim thinks the same way.....the problem in the pakistan is primarily in the Tribal areas along the afghan border which are semi autonomous areas from centuries and have a loose border with afghanistan....the problem here is the after affects of cold war which US WAS ALSO PART of.....after US objective was acheived they left the area immediately and left all these US TRAINED AND FUNDED people to be handeled by local people which are the todays TERRORISTS....Pak army operation is going on and in around 6 months most of the areas will be under control after which the North waziristan operation will most probably start.......so around 1 year that area should theoratically be under control....the most important thing here is WINNING THE HEART of local people by developement/Education etc and avoiding civilian casualities ( A recent report suggested that the ratio of civilian killed in drone attacks is 100 civilian compared to 2/3 terrorists ) which is pretty bad.......ALSO we have given the most sacrifices in this WAR...we have lost our brothers/sisters/families and soldiers which should be RESPECTED....if some lunatics are carrying there own ideology...it has nothing to do with PAKISTAN or ISLAM !!

    May 16, 2010 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. american

    guys

    i just changed my dog name.. i named him muhammad .. he is better than other one.. who teach terror...

    May 16, 2010 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  5. santozokay

    If you trace back all the money used for Jigathi terror, sure it will have two aspect. ( 1) Sponsor (2) Handler. Sponsor mostly from Gulf countries, (Most of the donors believe that their money is for the good cause, may be for Charity and to build worship place) Handlers mostly of Pakistan origin or Yemen origin. The entire scenario changed during Russia's occupation in Afghanistan. CIA blend the religion with military. Pakistan Army learned a lot from CIA, how to earn Dollars , how to divert the religious money for non religious activities, how to fool their civilians in the name of religion, how to use the religious forces to terrify their neighbours and their own people leaders. It is a cancer. Time to cure or ammbutate

    May 16, 2010 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  6. Dan

    How about the money trail for the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army)? You'll find out that majority of their finances came from, you guessed it AMERICANS!

    May 16, 2010 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Wayensi

      Are you one of the contributors?

      May 17, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mohammad A Dar

    May 16th, 2010
    1:51 am ET

    What we have here is Mohammad A Dar typifying the common and ardent belief of muslim extremists. I do not think that all muslims share his views and hate ------–Look at your and Your Hindu and Jewish posting. you Hindus and Jews have been attacking Muslims and Islam, since 9/11. To protect the filth, you call religion. All I have done is answered you back, and put a mirror on front of you. If you do not like your ugly face, change your way and stop attacking Muslims and Islam and stick with the issue. If Jews and Hindus were not committing crimes against Muslims, there would not have been retributions in kind. Your criminality has nothing to do with 9/11. So stay out of it, Keep ypur criminality for your self and let United States solve it's own problems. If you do not like to see the filthiness of, what you call you religion ,stay in limit and do not attack Muslims and Islam. Things will move in the right direction or face the truth.

    May 16, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Chris

    Tracking the money is probably the best way. I would also really like the Government in cases of conviction for bribery by US companies to publish the names and amounts received by those they bribed abroad.
    Seems like you only hear about the guys who offer the money and never the guys who receive it.

    Chris

    May 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. andy

    Track terrorists? Just go to Pakistan.

    May 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. The guy in the desert

    Everyone needs to realize that religion, of all things, is the leader in war deaths and outrage deaths throughout history. What rules religion? Money. Whether we track the money or not, the plots will persist, and the crimes will be committed. I sit in a forlorn desert with people who cannot stop killing each other, and who make no money. what drives them to kill? Religion, not money. Money buys the weapons, but religion pulls the trigger. We could argue this till we go blue in the face. Nothing will stop anyone who is absolutelty determined to cause some sort of catastrophe. Not even money.

    May 16, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mohammad A Dar

    Track terrorists? Just go to Pakistan. Track criminals, just Go to India and Israel.

    May 16, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Just Asking

    Why do holy warriors like the Taliban and al Qaeda need bourgeois symbols of western greed like money? Doesn't their favorite non-existent deity provide everything for them?

    May 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Steven

    The moment the US realises they are NOT the leader of the free world then they can also realise that information and trust has to go two ways and not a one-way towards the US. By the way, Would the Americans mind if the EU is digging around in the banking information of US-citizens? Will every US citizen have no problem that EU agents have access to your account info? Bet you do mind about that.

    May 16, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Stan Woods

    This is where US aid to PAKISTAN is going,
    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Kashmir-terrorists-get-pay-hike/articleshow/5938412.cms

    May 16, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mohammad A Dar

    This is where US aid to PAKISTAN is going,---------America does not give Pakistan any aid. America is behind paying her bills for the operations. It is India and Israel begging for American Aid.

    May 16, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
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