WASHINGTON — The United States government said on Thursday that it seized about $2 million in Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency from accounts that had sent or received funds in alleged financing schemes for three foreign terrorist organizations: Al Qaeda, ISIS and Hamas’ paramilitary arm, the Al Qassam Brigades.
Law enforcement officials said they had obtained court orders to seize about 300 cryptocurrency wallets held by banklike institutions. They also blacklisted privately held accounts containing several million additional dollars of virtual currency, which will make it more difficult for the people holding those funds to use financial institutions to cash them out.
The multiagency effort — several investigations were bundled together for a joint announcement — were the first significant civil forfeiture actions to seize cryptocurrency as part of counterterrorism financing investigations, said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
“Today’s actions deprive Hamas, Al Qaeda and ISIS of millions of dollars they solicited to buy weapons and train terrorists,” Mr. Demers said in a call with reporters. “By raising cryptocurrency on social media, these terrorists tried to bring terrorist financing into the current age. But these actions show that law enforcement remains a step ahead of them.”
Other law enforcement officials said that the investigations began with open solicitations by the terrorist groups on social media because they believed that the use of blockchain technology to transfer virtual currency would be anonymous, and so there was no need to take typical steps to conceal their identity and intent, such as by pretending to be raising funds for charitable relief. Several of the campaigns that came under scrutiny by federal authorities were detailed last year by The New York Times.
Seeking to send a deterrent message, Mr. Demers and other officials stressed that the government, including criminal investigators at the Internal Revenue Service, have developed tools and techniques that can identify people involved in so-called blockchain transactions that should give pause to would-be financiers of terrorism or other crimes.
As part of one of the investigations, officials said, the government took control of a website used for soliciting terrorist funds and operated it for 30 days, compiling information about the accounts making the donations and collecting the funds the donors believed they were sending to a militant group.
Investigations into the identities of the donors continue, they said.
The government also announced that it had taken control of four website addresses like Facemaskcenter.com and four Facebook pages that officials described as part of a scheme by a Turkish man they accused of being an ISIS facilitator, Murat Cakar. Officials said he tried to raise money for ISIS by fraudulently claiming he had large amounts of personal protective equipment, like N95 masks, to sell amid the shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.