USA v. Mehmet Akti & Husamettin Karatas
Washington, DC, DC
Hamas, al-Qaida, ISIS
The Justice Department announced in May 2020 the dismantling of three terrorist financing cyber-enabled campaigns, involving the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). These actions represent the government's largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency in the terrorism context. These three terror finance campaigns all relied on sophisticated cyber-tools, including the solicitation of cryptocurrency donations from around the world. The action demonstrates how different terrorist groups have similarly adapted their terror finance activities to the cyber age. Each group used cryptocurrency and social media to garner attention and raise funds for their terror campaigns. Pursuant to judicially-authorized warrants, U.S. authorities seized millions of dollars, over 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites, and four Facebook pages all related to the criminal enterprise.
The first action involves the al-Qassam Brigades and its online cryptocurrency fundraising efforts. In the beginning of 2019, the al-Qassam Brigades posted a call on its social media page for bitcoin donations to fund its campaign of terror. The al-Qassam Brigades then moved this request to its official websites, alqassam.net, alqassam.ps, and qassam.ps.The al-Qassam Brigades boasted that bitcoin donations were untraceable and would be used for violent causes. Their websites offered video instruction on how to anonymously make donations, in part by using unique bitcoin addresses generated for each individual donor. However, such donations were not anonymous. Working together, IRS, HSI, and FBI agents tracked and seized all 150 cryptocurrency accounts that laundered funds to and from the al-Qassam Brigades' accounts. Simultaneously, law enforcement executed criminal search warrants relating to United States-based subjects who donated to the terrorist campaign. With judicial authorization, law enforcement seized the infrastructure of the al-Qassam Brigades websites and subsequently covertly operated alqassam.net. During that covert operation, the website received funds from persons seeking to provide material support to the terrorist organization, however, they instead donated the funds bitcoin wallets controlled by the United States.
The second cyber-enabled terror finance campaign involves a scheme by al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups, largely based out of Syria. As the forfeiture complaint details, these terrorist organizations operated a bitcoin money laundering network using Telegram channels and other social media platforms to solicit cryptocurrency donations to further their terrorist goals. In some instances, they purported to act as charities when, in fact, they were openly and explicitly soliciting funds for violent terrorist attacks. Undercover HSI agents communicated with the administrator of Reminder for Syria, a related charity that was seeking to finance terrorism via bitcoin donations. The administrator stated that he hoped for the destruction of the United States, discussed the price for funding surface-to air missles, and warned about possible criminal consequences from carrying out a jihad in the United States.
The final complaint combines the Department's initiatives of combatting COVID-19 related fraud with combatting terrorism financing. The complaint highlights a scheme by Murat Cakar, an ISIS facilitator who is responsible for managing select ISIS hacking operations, to sell fake personal protective equipment via FaceMaskCenter.com. The website claimed to sell FDA approved N95 respirator masks, when in fact the items were not FDA approved. Site administrators claimed to have near unlimited supplies of the masks, in spite of such items being officially-designated as scarce. The site administrators offered to sell these items to customers across the globe, including a customer in the United States who sought to purchase N95 masks and other protective equipment for hospitals, nursing homes, and fire departments. The unsealed forfeiture complaint seized Cakar's website as well as four related Facebook pages used to facilitate the scheme. With this third action, the United States has averted the further victimization of those seeking COVID-19 protective gear, and disrupted the continued funding of ISIS.