After the Paris Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and the foiled plot to attack a Texas copycat Hebdo contest, a leading intelligence operation ran the killers’ names through its special money laundering database. The surprising result: the Paris and Texas terrorists were in the database as having sent or received small money transfers prior to their violent strikes. While this finding has not been made public, its potential points to a powerful—but little used—technique for detecting lone wolf terrorists or similar extremists operating in cells tiny enough that its plotters hope to escape detection. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo killers, their theory was proven wrong: they were identified, but sadly after the fact, when the prevention window had closed.
The reality is that all terrorists need cash for the bare minimums of food and lodging. Firepower and bomb making components increase the totals. Often unemployed by choice, third party benefactors become essential to feed, house, and otherwise sustain them. Investigation of the 9/11 terrorists validated that the central planners relied mainly on bank wire transfers to send rent, apartment, hotel and other subsistence funds to the plotters. After 9/11, intelligence agencies underscore terrorist preferences for more under-the-radar money transmitters—often a counter at a mom and pop convenience store known for keeping habitually bad customer records.
What apparently remains is for state and local police, with special drug and border task forces and accompanying intelligence databases, to query the range of information sources to detect possible patterns of suspicious fund transfers of just the kind favored by low profile terrorists like the Hebdo assassins. For example, one Southwest Border task force representing the four U.S. border states maintains a growing database of cross border money remittances obtained by subpoena from select money service businesses in participating states. Queries are structured to look for anomalies, like passport IDs of senders or receivers from problematic locales (e.g. Yemen or towns in the Tri Border Region)—but who use money remitters in predominately Hispanic neighborhoods. Other indicators—specifics of which remain classified by law enforcement—could include high frequency of transfers or amounts well beyond location averages, in areas with a majority of migrant or day laborers paid on Fridays.
Substantial numbers of “hits” validate that drug dealers, human traffickers, arms purveyors, and other suspected transnational criminals—all use these money service businesses to execute their transactions. It comes from a history of cross border transfers, documented from intelligence, that Hezbollah and Hamas operatives in the “Tri Border Region” of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, forward money to their US operatives. Law enforcement agencies have believed for years that drug traffickers in the Tri Border Region have allied themselves with Muslim extremists to finance and smuggle narcotics, providing considerable currency for a variety of terrorist purposes.
True, the probability of finding a budding lone terrorist or a small cell may be low in any one police chief’s jurisdiction. However, the potential for saving lives and driving down fear in our communities calls for wider experimentation of this "Charlie Hebdo option."