In September 2014, an élite corps of business leaders including Jeff Bezos of Amazon and David Koch of Koch Industries promoted the first-of-its-kind Virtual Currency Workshop for the benefit of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The sponsoring NGO - Business Executives for National Security - brought the legal counsel for the Bitcoin Foundation to SOCOM headquarters at Ft. MacDill in Florida to brief the U.S. military about terrorist exploitation of “cryptocurrencies” - like Bitcoins - that have grown menacingly ubiquitous across the internet and freely allow terrorists to acquire explosives and caches of expensive weapons. It is telling that business leaders selected SOCOM because our boots-on-the-ground military is increasingly involved trying to choke off funding that keeps insurgents supplied with IEDs and other deadly materiel often aimed at the U.S. military.
Bitcoins are just the latest terrorist finance challenge facing the military. Ever since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban after 9/11, responsibility for interdicting money flows that feed insurgencies has fallen to DOD entities like the Defense Intelligence Agency, as well as front line intelligence and elite operational units of various services. In a statement prepared by a West Point internal think tank from that period, the author captured the evolution in DoD counterterrorism thinking:
"[T]racking the movement of funds among individuals in terrorist groups and their supporters provides verifiable indications of associations, relationships, and networks. Understanding these financial linkages provides an extremely useful, tangible complement to the connections that are developed from human, signal, open source, and other forms of intelligence."
The implications of growing U.S. military concern over terrorist finance are clear: all forms of financial support to terrorism threaten U.S. military goals and thus represent legitimate intelligence concerns. Among the broader institutional responses were the following service specific actions: (1) the U.S. Army’s African Command (AFRICOM) announced creation of the U.S. Africa Center for Security Studies which concentrates heavily on financial support to Muslim terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and al Shabaab as well as al Qaeda and ISIL; (2) the Naval Postgraduate School identified a faculty member with a recent PhD. from MIT, who has focused on terrorist finance in East African war and insurgency contexts; (3) the Strategic Studies Institute, the internal “think tank” of of the U.S. Army War College, featured landmark publication on institutional weaknesses leading to insurgency needs to initiate their own fundraising initiatives; and (4) the National Defense University at Ft. McNair features a publication series on the importance of terrorist finance in counterterrorism (CT) military campaigns, beginning with the role of Hezbollah.
The above innovations notwithstanding, perhaps the most promising development is the inclusion of terrorist finance as a discrete topic addressed by the U.S. Army Training and Indoctrination Command (TRADOC) at its Ft. Eustis headquarters. With that step combined with others noted above, U.S. military focus on the financial support of terrorism has been elevated to a core component of an integrated CT strategy. Hopefully we will see evidence of this focus on integrative tactics in the near term operational results, especially against ISIL and other priority targets.