An ISIS clerk makes payments to families of dead jihadists using U.S. currency in early 2016. (ISIS image)

Dollars for Daesh: Analyzing the Finances of American ISIS Supporters

This report focuses on the financial component of the Islamic State-related mobilization in the U.S. between 2013, when the first arrest of an individual linked to IS took place, and August 2020. As such, it contains a study of all the 209 individuals charged for Islamic State-related offenses in the country, and shows that, save for a few exceptions, the vast majority of U.S.-based IS supporters left a remarkably small financial footprint. Whether they focused on traveling overseas to join IS, carrying out attacks domestically or providing other forms of support to the group, most American IS supporters raised small amounts of money and often through very simple tactics.

More specifically:

  • The vast majority of them simply relied on personal savings to pay the small costs required for their activities. Many of these individuals held jobs, which ranged from menial and relatively low paying to, in a few cases, relatively high-earning positions. Since most of their expenses (purchasing airplane tickets or weapons, sending small amounts to fellow IS supporters overseas) were no higher than a few thousand dollars, this could sustain them through finances they already had at their disposal.
  • Some engaged in additional fundraising activities to supplement their savings: – 49 (23.4%) engaged in legal tactics (donations, asset sales, new credit lines…) – 14 (6.7%) engaged in illegal tactics. For the most part, the ways in which American IS supporters used illegal methods to raise funds required low-levels of sophistication. A handful engaged in relatively complex financial frauds.
  • In only four cases a nexus between terrorism-related activities and violent crime (armed robbery, two cases) and drug trafficking (two cases) was identified. Very few US-based IS supporters had a criminal background, a stark contrast with dynamics observed in Europe.
  • US-based IS supporters tended to avoid using banking institutions to move funds; instead, they turned with more frequency to money or value transfer services. The use of cryptocurrencies was extremely rare.
  • Most individuals raised the funds they needed for their IS-related activities alone. Some relied on pre-existing kinship/friendship connections, others on like-minded individuals they met after radicalizing. Most financial exchanges within support networks took place within the U.S., though a few Americans found fellow IS supporters online overseas and exchanged money to facilitate each other’s travel to Syria.
  • Direct financial exchanges with foreign Islamic State operatives were rare, and in only one known case were these exchanges meant to support an attack on U.S. soil.
  • There is no indication that charitable entities were set up or used to fund IS-related activities.

The small size of the financial footprint of U.S.-based IS supporters is, in itself, good news for U.S. authorities but has a flipside. The scarcity and inconspicuous nature of the financial transactions of many U.S.-based IS supporters can represent a challenge for investigators, which often rely on financial operations to uncover terrorism-related individuals and as evidence in prosecutions against them.

Overall, the system of triggers, sustained checks, and constant communication between private and public sectors that characterizes the U.S. counter-terrorism financing system put in place in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has proven to be quite effective also during the IS-related mobilization of the last years. At the same time, the system needs to be fine-tuned to keep apace with the evolving nature of terrorist networks (which in the case of IS in America, paradoxically, means less sophistication) and technological developments such as online crowdfunding, cryptocurrencies, and deep/dark web transactions.

Read the report at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism

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