U.S. seized cryptocurrency from three terrorist groups

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The Trump administration has dismantled digital campaigns by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that used social media to obtain cryptocurrency for carrying out terrorist attacks, the Justice Department said Thursday.

The U.S. seized about $2 million and more than 300 cryptocurrency accounts used by al-Qaeda, the al-Qassam Brigades -- Hamas’s military wing -- and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- widely known as ISIS -- in what the Justice Department said was “the government’s largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency in the terrorism context.”

The action indicates the government can identify and infiltrate terrorist or criminal groups that think they’re cloaked by the anonymity offered by Bitcoin and other digital currencies.

“This case is really historic and unprecedented for several reasons,” Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, told reporters on a press call. “We’re looking at three different entities that were targeted by the government to prevent financing going to these very dangerous terrorist organizations.”

The operations tied to Islamic State sought to exploit the coronavirus pandemic by offering to sell millions of dollars in what was actually fake personal protective gear to U.S. hospitals, nursing homes and first responders, according to the Justice Department.

“Now we have all of a sudden these terrorist finance groups utilizing the Covid crisis and exploiting people’s fears to line their pockets and then utilize it for nefarious means,” said Matthew Albence, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Investigators from the FBI, ICE, the Justice Department’s National Security Division and the Internal Revenue Service used undercover operations and other tactics to infiltrate the group’s campaigns, track their activities, pierce their digital currencies and take down their accounts. Law enforcement agents even took over and operated one of the websites for 30 days.

“The action demonstrates how different terrorist groups have similarly adapted their terror-finance activities to the cyber age,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “Each group used cryptocurrency and social media to garner attention and raise funds for their terror campaigns.”

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