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Darshan-Leitner: Legitimate Targets: Terror Financing and Support in the 21st Century

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November 13, 2017

No sooner had many Western governments naively and prematurely celebrated the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East had a terrorist claiming an alliance with the Caliphate perpetrated another heinous strike on the streets of New York.

The so-called “lone-wolf attacks” utilizing low-tech methods such as vehicle-rammings and kitchen knife stabbings have left law enforcement and intelligence agencies scrambling to effectively confront the transforming new face of terrorism. As the extremist groups and their financial patrons continue to adopt, assimilate, and experiment with novel strategies and tactics, democratic states need to change their approaches and innovate, identifying new top-tier targets at a fast pace along with them.

On the morning of August 24, 2014, an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter launched a single Hellfire antitank missile at a silver sedan racing along a thoroughfare in the Gaza Strip, turning the vehicle into a twisted mess of smoldering metal. Four men were inside the vehicle: the driver, two bodyguards and Mohammed el-Ghoul, an unassuming middle-aged man with a thin frame and a spotty beard who was the target of the strike.

Mohammed el-Ghoul, a white-collar employee, was the head of payroll for Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that had been engaged in close-quarter combat with Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip for much of the month. El-Ghoul was hurriedly making his way toward the front lines, where he was to disseminate long overdue salaries to Hamas terrorists battling the Israel Defense Forces. The sedan he was traveling in had four suitcases in the trunk carrying over $13 million.

Most of the money was destroyed in the missile strike. Once the smoke cleared, however, the skies turned green as singed hundred dollar bills cascaded onto the dusty streets of Gaza City like strips of confetti in a Wall Street ticker-tape parade.

When the payroll was destroyed, Hamas fighters lost the will to fight. The terrorists and their families had not been complaining that they had not been paid during the many weeks of the fighting; their families no longer had any money even for basic household goods. Hamas’ leadership had repeatedly promised that imminent economic relief was on the way, but now this unanticipated strike was the last straw. The summer war in Gaza ended 48 hours later.

There was a time that Israel would have sidestepped a man like el-Ghoul, a bean counter apparatchik who managed the books and the doling out of paystubs. But there was a revolutionary new way of thinking inside the ranks of Israel’s intelligence and security services that actively targeted the men who financed bloodshed with the same determination that was dedicated to the terror chieftains who dispatched an army of suicide bombers to indiscriminately kill men, women, and children, inside Israel’s cities.

There were no longer any white collar jobs in terror networks. This new counterterrorist doctrine — one that followed the money, targeted the money, and killed the money — became a pillar in Israel’s war against terror. The man behind this unprecedented paradigm was Meir Dagan, a larger-than-life commando officer and general who had dedicated his entire life to serving his country on operations deep behind enemy lines. He came to the realization that something innovative was needed to augment both the conventional and even nonconventional means by which Israel battled the terrorist armies that threatened its existence. Dagan viewed money that flowed into the hands of Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah as oxygen — oxygen that enabled the bloodshed to breathe and transpire. Dagan wanted to suffocate the financial streams, to choke them off, and to render them incapable. In 1996, as head of the Prime Minister’s Counterterrorism Bureau, he created a counterterrorism financial warfare task force to mobilize Israel’s rival security and government agencies to focus on terror money. It was a start-up in the field of national security, designed to disrupt and obstruct the terror organization’s ability to receive and transfer funds internationally, by any means possible. Like every novel approach, it initially had its many skeptics, doubters, and critics. When, in 2002, Dagan was appointed the head of the Mossad, however, his task force became operational. It was codenamed Harpoon.

Harpoon’s focus was to use every resource available to the head of an intelligence service — spies, soldiers, satellites, and software — to undermine the fortunes amassed by the armies of terror. The money flowed like an endless stream, coming from charities around the world (especially in the United States), criminal enterprises, and state sponsors like the Islamic Republic of Iran. Dagan’s agents and operatives broke all the rules, but not the law. They concocted the most devious of plots to swindle hundreds of millions of dollars from terrorist leader Yasser Arafat’s coffers — money the Palestinian Authority chairman had extorted from naively donated Western humanitarian aid and invested in acts of violence. Against Hamas, Harpoon raided banks that held its funds and upended the money lenders, while aggressively targeting the bag men.

Against Hezbollah, Harpoon saw to it that Lebanese financial institutions holding hundreds of millions of dollars in terror funds were targeted by hackers with malware and viruses, before eventually being leveled in Israeli airstrikes. Harpoon disrupted a global Hezbollah cocaine trafficking network that spanned the United States, South America, West Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Elaborate schemes, some using traditional espionage tradecraft and other involving high-tech cyber capabilities and con-men, were used to make vast sums of money disappear from the Iranian proxy’s war chest.

Meir Dagan hated when resources, and lives, were risked to gather intelligence, only to have the information sit compartmentalized and stagnant in files and top-secret safes. He wanted to use it all, and some of those morsels of insight were used to help attorneys waging legal battles in federal courtrooms in lower Manhattan fighting Iran, Syria, North Korea, the terror organizations and even financial institutions, on behalf of the families of those killed and maimed in the suicide bombings and murderous shooting attacks. The fight that Dagan led was multidimensional and multi-tiered; follow the money, target the money, and kill the money was waged on all four continents by a small team of agents who excelled operating in the shadows.

Harpoon’s new paradigm was a success: for the most part, it was a non-lethal way to disrupt and dilute the capabilities of a terrorist army. It sent shockwaves, inflicting much damage, and shut down many of the financial pipelines these extremist organizations desperately relied upon to maintain their capabilities and the loyalty of their members.

Going after the money was slowly, but ultimately, adopted by the United States in its wars against terror — most notably in the campaign against ISIS. The U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS cash stockpiles and oil reserves. ISIS bean counters, like the Hamas paymaster in Gaza, were hit by air strikes and commando raids. They were, after all, now recognized as legitimate targets, and going after these men and these financial institutions was a major factor in the large-scale battlefield setbacks suffered by the Islamic caliphate in recent weeks.

Innovation, unfortunately, is not solely the province of those intelligence and law enforcement agencies combating the terrorists. Rogue regimes and their terrorist proxies continue relentlessly to experiment, adopt, and test new strategies and approaches to accomplish their diabolical objectives. As conventional sources of revenue are denied to the terrorist armies in their wars against Israel and the West, novel streams have been discovered to help disseminate the message of jihad, to recruit new adherents, to raise funds and to inspire attacks: social media.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have become a new global currency used by terrorists and their propagandists to dispatch men to their death and to inspire others to follow suit. Social media has inspired lone wolf attacks such as butchery and vehicular ramming attacks in Jerusalem, London, Nice, Barcelona, and most recently in New York. These California companies have allowed social media to be used as a platform that the terrorists and their supporters have implemented to disseminate images and glorious accounts of attacks that killed dozens of innocent victims.

Where would ISIS be today without its gruesome beheading videos that repeatedly went viral on YouTube? How would potential adherents and wannabe jihadis worldwide have even heard of ISIS were it not for the messages being freely spread on the social media platforms? How would teenagers around the world have been motivated to run away from their homes and make their way to the Caliphate to join ISIS without assistance from the internet folks in Palo Alto? Yet, these social media platforms seem to be a black hole in law enforcement and the counterterrorism agencies thinking. It is inconceivable that terrorists on a watch list are prevented from opening a bank account or wiring money, but these same dangerous criminals can open accounts on social media without any ramifications. How is it possible that hunted individuals like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas chieftain Ismail Haniyah are able to own accounts and freely post their extremist messages on American owned social media platforms in violation of U.S. anti-terrorism law that prohibits providing material support, services, and resources to these men?

It is clear that the terror webmasters, the men behind the Facebook pages and the Twitter posts, are the new facilitators of misery in the fundamentalist war against the west. They are the new financiers—the new propagandists, the new operational masterminds who pull the strings and push the buttons to propel wannabes into murdering martyrs. These men can no longer hide behind their keyboards and servers. Those who promote and conduct jihad via remote control, with the click of the mouse on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are no longer noncombatants.

When Meir Dagan created Harpoon, he thought beyond the envelope of traditional thinking to forge an effective solution to threats that could not be met on the conventional battlefield. His vision was true; his innovative efforts helped to end terror campaigns that claimed scores of lives. That unorthodox and maverick mindset is required once again. This time, instead of denying the terrorists access to money, they must be denied the ability to like, to share, and to turn messages of hate and violence into viral operational postings on social media urging attacks and bloodshed. There are no more clean hands behind the scenes executing the global jihad, no more white-collar employees. Whether the war is waged with the pull of a trigger or by a click of the mouse, these behind-the-scenes masterminds are, like the money handlers before them, the new legitimate targets.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is an Israeli activist and civil rights attorney. She is the president of Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law center based in Tel Aviv that has represented hundreds of terror victims in lawsuits around the world. She is the co-author of HARPOON: INSIDE THE COVERT WAR AGAINST TERRORISM’S MONEY MASTERSto be published on November 7, 2017, by Hachette Books.