Financial War on Terror Led to Global Shift in Targeting Money
By Bill Gertz
Washington Free Beacon
November 6, 2017
government waged financial warfare on terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah,
which became a model for most states battling terrorism today, according to
members of a once secret Israeli task force called Harpoon.
operations ranged from financial operations that caused terrorist groups to lose
tens of millions from bad investments, to commando raids on banks linked to the
funding of suicide bombings, to targeted assassinations of terror group
the world that there must constantly be new angles to attack terrorist groups
and infrastructure," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, coauthor with Samuel M.
Katz of a new book, Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism's
Money Masters, to be published Tuesday.
Israeli task force realized ahead of everyone else that money was the oxygen for
the terrorist networks and you could badly damage them by choking it off,"
in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Israel, led by Gen. Meir Dagan, a commando
veteran who later headed the Mossad intelligence service for nine years,
combined old and new spy methods to squeeze the finances of terror groups like
Hamas and Hezbollah and the regimes and paymasters behind them. The operations
greatly reduced the deadly suicide and rocket attacks used by both groups
against the Jewish state.
advocated targeting terrorist financing as a top priority. He died of cancer
last year, and the book highlights the major role he played in leading Israel's
covert war against terrorists and supporters like Iran.
was first formed in the early 2000s and was a task force made up of spies,
bankers, lawyers, tax officials, and others who used new and innovative ways,
along with many traditional intelligence techniques, to attack terrorists'
task force also worked with nongovernment organizations to bring lawsuits
against Middle East banks linked to deadly terror attacks.
former Harpoon member said in an interview the task force proved to doubters
that financial counterterrorism can be a strategic weapon in the fight against
terrorism. Harpoon was one Dagan's many significant legacies, said the former
official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
of Harpoon's early operations involved a covert raid on the residence of a
Palestinian moneychanger in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2003. Operatives
obtained the Palestinian financier's laptop and records that revealed extensive
links to terror groups. The Israelis would learn that most of the well-organized
terrorist groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah had set up
intricate financing and funding systems for their operations.
West Bank operation was followed a year later by Operation Green Lantern, one of
Harpoon's most successful operations. Israeli spies and commandos raided a
Palestinian branch of the Arab Bank, one of the largest financial institutions
in the Middle East, and obtained account information on 390 accounts linked to
terror funding for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
the time, Israel was being rocked by a wave of deadly suicide bombings. The Arab
Bank would eventually be linked by Israeli intelligence to a dozen suicide
bombings and terrorist attacks.
financial intelligence exposed a money trail from Iran to Hezbollah, the
Lebanese-based terrorist group that was used to fund a series of suicide bus
bombings in Jerusalem.
wanted terrorists to look for money instead of targets," the authors wrote.
"Dagan didn't give a damn about the international outcry; he knew that
American outrage would dissipate."
George W. Bush administration at first opposed the financial attacks, fearing it
would destabilize the Palestinian and Lebanese economies. Eventually, however,
both the Bush and Obama administrations adopted their own aggressive methods to
target and stop terrorist funding streams.
Hezbollah, financial warfare played a major role in Israel's 2006 summer war in
southern Lebanon. Harpoon identified an unspecified number of banks that were
being used to fund Hezbollah's forces. The banks were hit with 500-pound bombs
dropped by Israeli air force F-16s and F-15s in secret raids.
raids proved very effective tools for putting the bank buildings into ruins and
destroying an estimated $100 million in currency, along with damaging banking
computers. "Two weeks after the IAF's targeting of the banks, Hezbollah
sued for a cease-fire. They had run out of cash," Darshan-Leitner and Katz
the many disclosures of Israeli intelligence activities in the book, which the
authors say were reviewed by Israeli security services prior to publication,
Harpoon undercover operation caused Palestine Liberation Organization chief
Yasser Arafat to lose $100 million in an Israeli-directed investment scheme. The
PLO chief who died in 2004 was found to have embezzled some $326 million from
Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, responsible for killing scores of Americans,
was blown up in a secret operation in 2008 using a bomb planted in the headrest
of a vehicle bomb in Damascus, Syria.
Hezbollah financier in Lebanon, Salah Ezzedine, lost some $1 billion in an
intelligence operation that caused a major financial disruption for Hezbollah.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency worked with Harpoon to counter Hezbollah drug
trafficking in South America.
intelligence to the Treasury Department led to sanctions imposed on Hezbollah's
financing entities in 2006.
ran an agent inside a bank used by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Canadian Bank, until
the agent was uncovered by Iranian-trained counterspies.
agents conducted a hit on Hamas financier Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010
that sent a message to the terror group that its financiers were a major target.
planned but never carried out an operation to discredit former International
Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed El Baradei that would have planted money
in his bank account that appeared to come from Iran.
CIA director Michael Hayden said Dagan's Harpoon served as a model for U.S.
counterterrorism financing programs.
was a wonderful intelligence partner, incredibly creative in learning about and
dealing with threats to Israel," Hayden said. "We here in the United
States also learned the great power of financial steps to disable and dissuade
faced bureaucratic resistance to making financial counterterrorism a top
priority. Officials within both the Israeli military and intelligence
communities opposed a heavy reliance on financial warfare, preferring more
traditional spy and military means to kill terrorists and their leaders.
Poland-born Dagan overcame the opposition through both the force of his
personality and his ties to senior Israeli leaders, including the late Ariel
issue was do you follow the money or obstruct the money," the former
Israeli official said of the innovative approach.
Dagan, the Israelis succeeded in learning about the financial support networks
that are needed for nearly all terrorist operations.
example, Hamas suicide bombers were being recruited for attacks with promises of
lifelong payments to their families. Harpoon operations were able to disrupt
those payments and in so doing undermined Hamas's ability to find people willing
to blow themselves in attacks.
who worked with some Harpoon officials in a legal group in Tel Aviv called
Shurat HaDin, said Harpoon sent the message that there would be no safe,
white-collar jobs in terror groups. "If you helped finance the attacks, you
were going to become every bit as big of a target as the bomb makers and gunmen
themselves," she said in an email.
operations placed intense pressure on the international finance systems that in
turn sent the message that anyone taking part in the terror funding pipeline at
any stage and place would be targeted.
time, every western state came to adopt Harpoon's strategy in the field of
counterterrorism," Darshan-Leitner said. "It really proved to be one
of the most successful and disruptive Israeli start-ups of them all."
financial counterterrorism was highlighted in March 2016 by the U.S. special
operations raid that killed ISIS finance minister Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al
Qaduli. The Pentagon said his death was a severe blow to the terror group's
ability to conduct operations both inside and outside of Iraq and Syria.
former Harpoon team member said if Dagan were still heading Mossad his new focus
would be on applying similar innovative ways to target terrorists' use of new
social media. "People will complain about violating First Amendment rights
but this is an arena that is being used to create terrorists," he said.
agrees. For example, new means are needed to thwart the recent trend in terror
attacks, like the vehicle ramming attacks, highlighted by the deadly terrorist
ramming in New York that killed six people.
security services must become more effective at countering terror attacks using
innovative methods, novel technologies, and creative strategies like those of
the Harpoon task force, said Darshan-Leitner. "Israel's security services,
operating on the frontline constantly, were compelled to innovate new tactics
like targeting terror finances and eliminating the money men."
as the terror groups continue to adapt, to transform and to surprise, Western
intelligence agencies and law enforcement need to evolve, startle and innovate
at a fast pace right along with them."
Dagan retired in 2011, he spoke out against using military force against Iran as
a way to stop Tehran's nuclear program. As Mossad chief, however, Dagan likely
oversaw the aggressive operation that resulted in the mysterious murders of
several Iranian nuclear scientists who were assassinated in daring operations
inside Iran. The operations are presumed to be targeted Israeli covert
operations although the government has denied any links to the attacks.