When Salman Abedi was buying material to build the bomb he would use to attack the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017, his cousin bought him some of the chemicals from Amazon. In the lead-up to his attack at a New Zealand mosque, Brenton Tarrant bought firearms and ammunition online. And when ISIS needed drones for bombings, they purchased drones and shipped them to Syria from a number of different online retailers. Terrorist use of online retailers to procure material for their attacks is not new, but it is increasingly common, and presents both challenges and opportunities for detecting how terrorists use funds, and what for. Online purchases can be a missed opportunity for suspicion to be detected, and can form part of terrorist financial tradecraft that obscures the totality of their level of preparation for an attack. On the other hand, online procurement activities increase the players with important financial intelligence. Exploiting this financial intelligence will require a fine balance between information sharing, regulation and public-private partnerships.
Terrorists buying goods online may reduce opportunities for members of the public to detect and report suspicious activity, an important tool for foiling plots. For instance, a terrorist plot in the United Kingdom was thwarted in part because of a shop keeper who was suspicious of fertilizer purchases by an individual. Academic studies have also demonstrated that terrorists “leak” their intent to those around them. Security and intelligence agencies have also studied this phenomenon, and people with important information can include bystanders like shop-keepers. Without this in-person interaction, the opportunity for individuals to observe suspicious behavior is reduced, potentially also reducing the likelihood of reporting. But online purchases also open up other potential avenues for detection, such as automated reporting through the use of algorithms designed to detect the purchase of particular goods.