Over the past decade, fanatic religious ideologists have evolved to become hybrid terrorists demonstrating exceptional versatility, innovation, opportunism, ruthlessness, and cruelty. Hybrid terrorists are a new breed of organized criminal. Merriam-Webster defines hybrid as “something that is formed by combining two or more things”. In the twentieth century, the military, intelligence forces, and law enforcement agencies each had a specialized skill-set to employ in response to respective crises involving insurgency, international terrorism, and organized crime. Military forces dealt solely with international insurgent threats to the government; intelligence forces dealt solely with international terrorism; and law enforcement agencies focused on their respective country’s organized crime entities. In the twenty-first century, greed, violence, and vengeance motivate the various groups of hybrid terrorists. Hybrid terrorists rely on organized crime such as money laundering, wire transfer fraud, drug and human trafficking, shell companies, and false identification to finance their organizational operations.
Last week’s horrific terror bombing in Manchester brings to the fore, yet again, the issue of such terrorist financing and the increasing role of forensic accountants in combating it. Two of the main tools of modern terror financing schemes are money laundering and virtual currency.
Law enforcement and government agencies in collaboration with forensic accountants play key roles in tracing the source of terrorist financing to the activities used to inflict terror on local and global citizens. Law enforcement agencies utilize investigative and predictive analytics tools to gather, dissect, and convey data to distinguish patterns leading to future terrorist events. Government agencies employ database inquiries of terrorist-related financial information to evaluate the possibilities of terrorist financing and activities. Forensic accountants review the data for patterns related to previous transactions by utilizing data analysis tools, which assist in tracking the source of the funds.
As we all know, forensic accountants use a combination of accounting knowledge combined with investigative skills in litigation support and investigative accounting settings. Several types of organizations, agencies, and companies frequently employ forensic accountants to provide investigative services. Some of these organizations are public accounting firms, law firms, law enforcement agencies, The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
Locating and halting the source of terrorist financing involves two tactics, following the money and drying up the money. Obstructing terrorist financing requires an understanding of both the original and supply source of the illicit funds. As the financing is derived from both legal and illegal funding sources, terrorists may attempt to evade detection by funneling money through legitimate businesses thus making it difficult to trace. Charitable organizations and reputable companies provide a legitimate source through which terrorists may pass money for illicit activities without drawing the attention of law enforcement agencies. Patrons of legitimate businesses are often unaware that their personal contributions may support terrorist activities. However, terrorists also obtain funds from obvious illegal sources, such as kidnapping, fraud, and drug trafficking. Terrorists often change daily routines to evade law enforcement agencies as predictable patterns create trails that are easy for skilled investigators to follow. Audit trails can be traced from the donor source to the terrorist by forensic accountants and law enforcement agencies tracking specific indicators. Audit trails reveal where the funds originate and whether the funds came from legal or illegal sources. The ACFE tells us that basic money laundering is a specific type of illegal funding source, which provides a clear audit trail.
Money laundering is the process of obtaining and funneling illicit funds to disguise the connection with the original unlawful activity. Terrorists launder money to spend the unlawfully obtained money without drawing attention to themselves and their activities. To remain undetected by regulatory authorities, the illicit funds being deposited or spent need to be washed to give the impression that the money came from a seemingly reputable source. There are types of unusual transactions that raise red flags associated with money laundering in financial institutions. The more times an unusual transaction occurs, the greater the probability it is the product of an illicit activity. Money laundering may be quite sophisticated depending on the strategies employed to avoid detection. Some identifiers indicating a possible money-laundering scheme are: lack of identification, money wired to new locations, customer closes account after wiring or transferring copious amounts of money, executed out-of-the-ordinary business transactions, executed transactions involving the customer’s own business or occupation, and executed transactions falling just below the threshold trigger requiring the financial institution to file a report.
Money laundering takes place in three stages: placement, layering, and integration. In the placement stage, the cash proceeds from criminal activity enter the financial system by deposit. During the layering stage, the funds transfer into other accounts, usually offshore financial institutions, thus creating greater distance between the source and origin of the funds and its current location. Legitimate purchases help funnel the money back into the economy during the integration stage, the final stage.
Complicating all this is for the investigator is virtual currency. Virtual currency, unlike traditional forms of money, does not leave a clear audit trail for forensic accountants to trace and investigate. Cases involving the use of virtual currency, i.e. Bitcoins and several rival currencies, create anonymity for the perpetrator and create obstacles for investigators. Bitcoins have no physical form and provide a unique opportunity for terrorists to launder money across international borders without detection by law enforcement or government agencies. Bitcoins are long strings of numbers and letters linked by mathematical encryption algorithms. A consumer uses a mobile phone or computer to create an online wallet with one or more Bitcoin addresses before commencing electronic transactions. Bitcoins may also be used to make legitimate purchases through various, established online retailers.
Current international anti-money laundering laws aid in fighting the war against terrorist financing; however, international laws require actual cash shipments between countries and criminal networks (or at the very least funds transfers between banks). International laws are not applicable to virtual currency transactions, as they do not consist of actual cash shipments. According to the website Bitcoin.org, “Bitcoin uses peer-to-peer technology to operate with no central authority or banks”.
In summary, terrorist organizations find virtual currency to be an effective method for raising illicit funds because, unlike cash transactions, cyber technology offers anonymity with less regulatory oversight. Due to the anonymity factor, Bitcoins are an innovative and convenient way for terrorists to launder money and sell illegal goods. Virtual currencies are appealing for terrorist financiers since funds can be swiftly sent across borders in a secure, cheap, and highly secretive manner. The obscurity of Bitcoin allows international funding sources to conduct exchanges without a trace of evidence. This co-mingling effect is like traditional money laundering but without the regulatory oversight. Government and law enforcement agencies must, as a result, be able to share information with public regulators when they become suspicious of terrorist financing.
Forensic accounting technology is most beneficial when used in conjunction with the analysis tools of law enforcement agencies to predict and analyze future terrorist activity. Even though some of the tools in a forensic accountant’s arsenal are useful in tracking terrorist funds, the ability to identify conceivable terrorist threats is limited. To identify the future activities of terrorist groups, forensic accountants, and law enforcement agencies should cooperate with one another by mutually incorporating the analytical tools utilized by each. Agencies and government officials should become familiar with virtual currency like Bitcoins. Because of the anonymity and lack of regulatory oversight, virtual currency offers terrorist groups a useful means to finance illicit activities on an international scale. In the face of the challenge, new governmental entities may be needed to tie together all the financial forensics efforts of the different stake holder organizations so that information sharing is not compartmentalized.