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Following the Terrorist Money Trail

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November 20, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HARPOON: INSIDE THE COVERT WAR AGAINST TERRORISM’S MONEY MASTERS

By Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel M. Katz

Hachette Books, $27, 304 pages

Terrorist groups like ISIS raise hundreds of millions of dollars to finance their activities and attacks through illicit means. The Islamic Republic of Iran bankrolls its Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah proxies with large flows of cash. Hezbollah raises additional funds by engaging in criminal enterprises such as narco-trafficking across several continents.

Hamas, from its base in the Gaza Strip, smuggles funds to its operatives in the Palestinian territories in the West Bank. These and other terrorist groups also raise funds from their supporters in Europe and the United States, which are sent back through illicit means to their safe havens in the Middle East.

Terrorist groups’ activities, such as sustaining their organizational structures, acquiring weapons, organizing terrorist operations, as well as managing their non-terrorist activities such as managing their social-welfare and educational services, are dependent on continuous funding streams. Counterterrorism agencies, therefore, understand that their terrorist adversaries’ funding sources represent an important center-of-gravity to significantly weaken their overall warfare effectiveness.

In “Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters,” Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel Katz shed light on previously classified accounts of how Israel, facing wide-ranging terrorist attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah and others, forged its intelligence, military, police and diplomatic services into an effective task force — code-named Harpoon — to counter terror-based financing around the world.

Ms. Darshan-Leitner, who is president of Shurat HaDin, is an Israeli activist attorney and Samuel Katz is a New York City-based veteran author on countering terrorism.

The Harpoon task force was established in 2001, the authors write, shortly after the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister. Mr. Sharon had agreed to Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan’s request to transform his former unit on countering terrorist financing into “a true task force.” With Gen. Dagan appointed to command the task force, the next step was to provide it a code-name or numeric designation for bureaucratic budgetary purposes, which is how it became known as “Harpoon.”

The authors insightfully explain how a financial task force, such as Harpoon, complements the work of other operational components in combating terrorist adversaries. As they write, in the case of Israel, “Both the Shin Bet [the domestic secret security service] and military intelligence had developed a unique expertise in unraveling the human makeup of a particular terror organization, from the top political leaders down to cell commanders and the knuckle-dragging muscle they employed.

“Arabic-speaking analysts laboriously followed flow charts linking men to other men who were linked to masterminds. Family ties were examined, as were cellular phone logs and even school and mosque connections. Dagan [who eventually became head of Mossad, the external secret security service], when he sat in on the biweekly Harpoon meetings that included the delegates from the Shin Bet, the IDF, and even the Israel Prison Service, directed that forensic analysts and detailed charts be drawn up connecting the commanders of the various terrorist organizations with their sources of income.”

This methodology is used by the authors, in what are spy movie-type dramatic accounts, to describe numerous operational exploits by Harpoon’s task force against Israel’s terrorist adversaries. These consisted of “conventional” and “unconventional” tactics.

“Conventional” tactics included intercepting banking records and telephone calls of terror financiers to track and thwart their logistical movements, including stopping them at border crossings; targeting several financiers for assassination in Middle Eastern countries (such as the January 2010 assassination by an Israeli covert cell of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a top Hamas military commander and financial operative, in his hotel room in Dubai, which generated sensational media reports worldwide).

It also included directing Israeli fighter aircraft to bomb Lebanese banks that were transferring funds to Hezbollah during the July-August 2006 war.

“Unconventional” means included covertly conducting financial con games (such as entering into a fraudulent dealing with Salah Haj Ezzedine, a Hezbollah financier, to bankrupt him and embarrass his group); and unleashing invasive and destructive computer malware attacks against banking institutions holding terrorist funds.

In what is relevant to the United States, the book also discusses the new battlefield in the war against terrorist finances that involves lawyers. This includes the work of the co-author’s Shurat HaDin law firm in filing lawsuits against banking institutions that have some involvement in holding accounts with links to Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups, as a way to pressure them through obtaining financial damages to sever such linkages, thereby depriving these groups of access to international banking institutions. Many of these lawsuits, the authors explain, have been filed in the United States, whose legal system is hospitable to use as an instrument for victims of terrorist attacks to sue such banks for damages.

Also discussed are the extensive ties between Israel and the United States in countering terrorist financing, such as Israeli cooperation with the U.S. government’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, which was established after al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks, and how the U.S. is also targeting the finances of groups such as ISIS.

There is much to commend in this highly revealing account, which is one of the best books on best practices in countering terrorists’ financing.