U.S.-based ISIS Cell Fundraising on the Dark Web, New Evidence Suggests

New revelation is part of wider trend of jihadists seeking refuge in the 'dark web' to avoid detection by authorities.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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An image grab taken from a propaganda video portraying ISIS members executing Sryian military personnel, released on November 16, 2014.
An image grab taken from a propaganda video portraying ISIS members executing Sryian military personnel, released on November 16, 2014.Credit: AFP
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

LONDON — A Tel Aviv analyst working for a Singapore-based cyber intelligence company says he has uncovered concrete evidence that a terror cell, purporting to be related to Islamic State and operating in the Americas, is soliciting for Bitcoins as part of its fundraising efforts.

There has long been evidence that terrorist cells use the Web — including the highly anonymous network found within the "dark web" which is not indexed or even seen by standard search engines — for both recruiting and fundraising purposes. Concerns have also been voiced that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, might begin using Bitcoin — the underground digital web currency that allows for anonymous transactions.

But this is the first time, says analyst Ido Wulkan, 25, that evidence is being made public linking what claims to be a specific Islamic State cell to Bitcoin fundraising in the dark web. This could be a one-off fundraising effort, admits Wulkan, or even — possibly although very unlikely, he says — a hoax or a joke. But it could also be pointing to a larger, more worrying trend. The information gathered has been passed on to various authorities tracking Islamic State activities.

“Due to the increasing efforts of social media websites to close ISIS-related accounts it was estimated that global jihad activists would seek refuge in the dark web,” says Wulkan, who is a senior web-intelligence analyst at S2T, a Singapore company that develops big data and cyber intelligence solutions for governments and big corporations.

Wulkan was scouring the deep web for a client — using S2T’s GoldenSpear data discovery system — as part of a project “having to do with international jihad,” he says, declining to give more details. The purported ISIS funding website was tracked down through a referral on a Turkish closed forum and is linked to other, known, jihadist sites,says Wulkan and others at S2T.

Once in the site, Wulkan found the following message from the group’s fundraiser, a man identified only as Abu-Mustafa: “Many of us live within the United States, and some are prominent with the community on both coasts,” writes Abu–Mustafa. “We are currently working with recent reverts to Islam and generally training brothers to struggle to establish a new Islamic front both in the U.S. and around the world.”

Abu-Mustafa goes on to talk about the scarcity of resources, such as money and facilities, which are available to young Muslims in the United States and South America who want to struggle against “their enemies.”

“Donations may be made through various means both monetary and physical,” explains Abu-Mustafa, “...though anything besides economic support through Bitcoin must be approved by the board and taken with much caution due to the security apparatus’ recent crackdown on any and all Islamic change fronts here in the United States.”

The revelation of this deep web site comes after the publication last July of a pro-ISIS blog titled “Bitcoin and the Charity of Violent Physical Struggle.” In it, a man identified as Taqi’ul-Deen al-Munthir argued that in order for Islamic State to fund its terror operations it needed to go outside the Western financial system.

“One cannot send a bank transfer to a mujahid [jihad fighter] or suspected mujahid without the kafir [infidel] governments ruling today immediately being aware,” he wrote on the blog, which received much media attention.

Al-Munthir called on ISIS supporters to encrypt their financial transactions by means of the so-called "Dark Wallet" — making it harder for state agencies fighting terrorism to track the transactions.

“This allows our brothers stuck outside of the ardh Dawlatul-Islam [Islamic State] to avoid government taxes along with secretly fund [sic] the Mujahideen with no legal danger upon them,” reads the post.

Al-Munthir also extolled the ‘Silk Road” — an online market place running mostly on Bitcoin and accessible, as are all sites on the dark web, only through a Tor network (a software protocol that reroutes traffic through hundreds of servers and computers to conceal identities). Both Silk Road and Silk Road 2.0 were eventually shut down by the FBI.

Despite this red flag indicating ISIS’s interest in Bitcoin, says Wulkan, there was no information made public as to whether ISIS cells had actually set up accounts into which Bitcoin could be transferred — until now.

“There was smoke, and now we have found the fire,” says Wulkan.

According to the London-based Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter extremist think tank, finding such evidence of Bitcoin fundraising on the dark web should not surprise anyone. “Attempts to block extremist material online will always fail.” they wrote in a recent position paper about the British government’s attempts to shutter extremist activity on the web. “The terrorist material reappears on the Internet as quickly as it is banished and the policy risks driving fanatics on to the “dark web” where they are even harder to track.”

According to Wulkan and others at S2T, Abu-Mustafa’s group left a Bitcoin account number showing that it managed to raise five Bitcoin, worth approximately, at the time, $1,000 dollars. The account, says Wulkan, has since been seized and shut down by the FBI.

But even if Islamic State fundraising for Bitcoins on the dark web is a phenomenon one might expect to see more of, observers note that, at present, it still represents only the tiniest drop in the bucket for the terror group. Available intelligence suggests Islamic State is managing to raise hundreds of millions of dollars — mainly through illicit activities such as kidnapping, extortion and straight out theft. This summer, Islamic State reportedly stole over $425 million dollars worth of Iraqi dinars from Mosul’s central bank, making it one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, terror groups in the world.

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