On September 10, 2001, a man named Mohamed Atta visited an ATM in South Portland, Maine. From security footage, it looked like a routine transaction. But it was hardly ordinary: the money he withdrew had been transferred from accounts run by a senior al-Qaeda operative in the United Arab Emirates. The next morning, Atta steered American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Targeting terrorist finance became a priority after the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. government tried to identify moments when it could have stopped al-Qaeda’s plot. Wire transfers, newly opened bank accounts, ATM transactions, car rentals, and ticket purchases could have been flagged, potentially, had someone been closely monitoring the operatives’ financial activity.
Today, “following the money” remains a major part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Terrorists need funds to carry out attacks and maintain their organizations. U.S. officials can both frustrate potential attacks by restricting terrorists’ access to cash and learn more about how and where terrorist groups are operating by keeping an eye on their finances.
To do this, the U.S. government first expanded its own operations. Days after 9/11, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13224, which froze all assets in the United States of designated Islamist terrorist groups and associated individuals. Since 2001, more than nine hundred people and groups have been designated under this executive order. As of 2015, fifty-one federal organizations and military commands monitor terrorist finance, including a treasury agency created specifically to that end.
Bush’s executive order also expanded the powers of the treasury secretary to impose sanctions on banks around the world. Reinforced by the Patriot Act, it effectively cut off foreign banks that did not cooperate with American investigators from doing business in the United States or in U.S. dollars. The government also called on the private sector, namely, the big banks that have a global presence, to flag suspicious transactions and freeze suspected terrorist accounts.
These strategies have achieved some success, both in disrupting financial flows and in using financial intelligence to disrupt attacks. In 2007, for example, a propaganda video showed al-Qaeda’s finance chief asking for money, reminding supporters that “funding is the mainstay of jihad.” Investigators, alerted in part by large transactions disguised as earthquake relief, foiled a 2006 plot to blow up British planes traveling to the United States with liquid explosives. Nonetheless, the fight to bankrupt terrorism faces a number of challenges.
First, ideology—not profit—drives terrorism, and terrorists are flexible when it comes to where they get their money. They usually have multiple funding sources, such as profits from illegal activities, money funneled from charities, and direct donations. The wide range of examples illustrates the extent of the challenge for counterterrorism officials. In the 1980s, a charity called the Irish Northern Aid Committee, or NORAID, had a large presence in New York and Boston, and was a major source of overseas funding for the Provisional Irish Republican Army. In addition to receiving donations from people and charities based in Saudi Arabia (including the questionably named organization, Help Africa People ), al-Qaeda operated a string of legitimate businesses, including honey shops in Yemen and Pakistan, to earn revenue and move money covertly.
Terrorists often tap into local criminal enterprises, using existing networks instead of putting time and resources into creating their own. FARC, for example, profited from Colombia’s cocaine trade because it controlled land used to grow the coca plant. Unlike Colombia’s drug cartels, however, FARC depended on the illegal drug business for just a portion of its revenue stream that also included kidnapping for ransom, mining minerals, extorting energy companies, and taxing gold mines. For terrorist groups, money is simply a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.