Follow the money: Hunting terrorists and their state sponsors

As I looked out the balcony of my Jerusalem apartment, I heard a loud thud. Almost immediately I saw ambulances driving at breakneck speed, and fear spread through my limbs. It was sometime in the late 1990s, and Hamas suicide bombings were taking place almost daily. Then I waited. My girlfriend came home looking dazed and shaken. She’d been in Mahane Yehuda, where the bomb went off. She described men and women putting on their “death jackets” – paramedics and shop owners who had experienced this type of horror many times before and were trying to save as many people as possible and pick up the pieces of the dead. She sobbed uncontrollably in my arms for what seemed like an eternity.

I hadn’t thought of that traumatic day for a long time until I read Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters (Hachette Books, 2017), by
Nitzana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel Katz. As they described the many bombings, military operations and targeted assassinations from the second intifada, those memories haunted me. I finally understood why to this day I so rarely take public transportation anywhere in the world and why I avoid crowded places.

Years after the Mahane Yehuda bombing, I worked at the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Defense tracking illicit money. Harpoon describes many of the operations we worked on to try and choke off the financial superhighways terrorists, money launderers and criminals use to raise and move their dirty money. As I read, those memories came back to me as well. Non-fiction books don’t generally read like novels – but I couldn’t put this one down.

Israel has fought many wars, and the battle against money laundering and terrorism finance is perhaps one of its most significant challenges. Darshan-Leitner and Katz provide the first-ever account – previously classified – of how Israel brought together its government services, including intelligence units, police and diplomats, to create a task force to combat blood money.

In the early 90s, Israel nabbed Mohammed al-Hamid Khalil Salah, a Palestinian living in Chicago. After arriving at Ben Guion Airport, a nervous Salah went to the East Jerusalem YMCA. The Shin Bet was suspicious and an entry team positioned itself outside his hotel room, picked the lock and burst in. A police bomb unit was summoned to open his suitcases in case they were rigged with explosives. What the law enforcement officials found stunned them into silence – a huge amount of American dollars.

Israel’s security apparatus later discovered that Salah was much more than a bag man, delivering bundles of cash like a common courier; he was, in fact, a key node in the finance unit of Hamas’ transnational terrorist finance organization. This case forced Israel to start tracking Palestinian charities that were ostensibly collecting nickels and dimes for orphans and widows, but were actually raising huge amounts to fund bullets, bombs and suicide bombers. The light had finally gone off for Israel’s security apparatus: money could be a powerful tool to disrupt terror.

As a result of that realization, in 2001, former Mossad head Meir Dagan formed a task force, code-named Harpoon, to follow money movements around the world. Harpoon describes some of the conventional and unconventional tactics the task force employed to disrupt the flow of money.

As the books’ authors describe, since Harpoon’s founding, an army of accountants, forensic specialists, bankers and policymakers has worked to detect and curb the formal and informal methods terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizballah employ to abuse the international financial sector.

In spy thriller-like fashion, Harpoon covers Israel’s 2010 assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas military wing commander and top financier. Al-Mabhouh spent a chunk of his career commanding the highly secretive squad whose sole mission was to kidnap and murder Israeli soldiers, and he was eventually selected by Iran and Hizballah to channel massive sums into the Palestinian Islamic factory of death. “He was part accountant, part purchasing agent, part arbitrator, part facilitator and part banker,” recalled a former member of Harpoon. “Money went into one of his hands, and death came out the other.”

A year before he met his destiny, Israel inserted a Trojan horse on his laptop and monitored all of his movements. He traveled to Dubai, ostensibly a neutral city, since the UAE has made it clear to Middle Eastern adversaries that they may not use its territory for waging war. That, however, reportedly didn’t stop an Israeli hit squad from assassinating al-Mabhouh in his hotel room, leaving the room locked from the inside – something no expert has been able to explain.

In the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Dagan argued in favor of bombing banks in Lebanon which, based on Harpoon’s work, were known to be handling funds for terrorists. Dagan believed that targeting the Lebanese economy would cripple the Party of God, stop Hizballah from firing rockets into Israel, and send a message to the populace that their economic fate depended on reining in Hizballah. During the war, Israel bombed Beit al-Mal, Hizballah’s treasury office, and banks that served as key pipelines for Hizballah operations. These included Al Baraka Bank, Fransabank and Middle East Africa Bank – some of which I named and shamed in 2003, as Hizballah’s TV station advertised its accounts at these bank accounts and encouraged viewers to wire it funds. Close to $100 million in hard currency was reportedly incinerated in the Israeli bombings, and Israel also hit bank information centers (and their backup facilities), erasing valuable data.

Harpoon also describes working with Dagan and others in the task force to develop a new battlefield to pursue those engaged in terrorism – “lawfare.” Darshan-Leitner, the founder of Shurat HaDin, an Israeli NGO that uses the legal system to fight terrorists, has filed thousands of cases in U.S. courts against individuals, corporations and banks that have aided and abetted terrorism. This groundbreaking means of going after illicit actors has exerted financial pain on terrorists and their state sponsors, depriving them of valuable access to the international financial sector.

Terrorism is a plague that is waged by those looking to demoralize and bring down democratic regimes. Groups like Hamas, Hizballah and al-Qaeda, and state sponsors like Iran, Sudan, Syria and North Korea, threaten the international order and all of civilized society. Darshan-Leitner’s work at Shurat Hadin and the work of Harpoon have played a critical role in going after terrorism and its sponsors. Responsible international policymakers can use Harpoon as a blueprint to creatively and successfully pursue terrorism finance. Israel has learned that one of the most effective ways to curb illicit actors is to hit them where it hurts: their pocketbook.