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How an Israeli intelligence unit and a mother of six bankrupted terrorists


Drones and special forces are pretty effective at taking out terrorists, but when it comes to destroying terrorist organizations, you need to target the money.

Israeli's Mossad intelligence agency learned this lesson during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising which lasted from September 2000 to February 2005. Terrorist attacks were a regular occurrence during the peak of the uprising, leading to more than 1,000 Israeli deaths and more than 3,000 Palestinians killed, some of whom were killed by other Palestinians. Israeli leaders knew something had to be done, so Mossad chief Meir Dagan directed his agency to start attacking the root of terrorism: the funding itself.

"He initiated this unit, Harpoon, and they had a directive to follow the money, target the money, kill the money," Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, Israel's premier lawyer specializing in terrorism finance, told me in an interview. "Starting from bombing banks from the air, going after money men, assassinations, not necessarily against terrorists, but those who brought in the money."

Meir Degan, former head of Mossad and founder of Harpoon

But it wasn't always so cloak and dagger in practice. Darshan-Leitner's new book, "Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against International Terrorism's Money Masters," explains how the unit targeted terror finance with a variety of weapons, including cyber-tools, shell corporations, and legal prosecutions against banks.

Darshan-Leitner's non-profit, Shurat Hadin, was one of the legal groups that helped on the prosecution side, sometimes with the help of Harpoon agents. It was a natural partnership, Shurat Hadin wanted judgments for terror victims' families; the Mossad wanted to shut those groups down. Darshan-Leitner met with Mossad headquarters in 2000, what followed were regular meetings during which Harpoon agents would give her tips. Shurat Hadin's website claims to have won over $1 billion in judgments against various terror organizations since its founding in 2002.

In one particularly clever example, Darshan-Leitner explained how Harpoon agents drained the coffers of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by convincing him and his associates to put their money in a fake investment company. Arafat was suspected of taking from the Palestinian Authority's funding to line his own pockets and sponsor terrorism, but Harpoon's fake company helped ensure approximately $100 million of that money was lost forever.

Harpoon's had some major success early on, according to Darshan-Leitner, as attacks went down by 60 percent due to a lack of resources.

It did not take long for other world powers to notice the success of Israel's experiment. The U.S. followed an almost identical playbook when it began operations against the Islamic State in 2014. Air strikes initially targeted conventional weapons to stave off the terror group's advance, but it was not long until it began to target oil fields and cash depots in order to put a financial squeeze on the group.

The U.S.-led coalition even conducted an air strike against Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, ISIS's financial minister, dealing a huge blow to the group's treasury. Al-Qadali was responsible for ISIS's bank accounts and financial distribution network. Much of what he knew died with him and the group was never the same.

Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, ISIS's former financial minister

"People were not loyal to them any more, they could not pay money and spread [it] all over the population that they control," said Darshan-Leitner. "You don't hear about ISIS the way you heard about them two years ago."

Striking at a group's funding goes beyond stopping terror attacks, it also weakens control and support. Many groups like ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah stay in power by running services through a government, without them, loyalties start to crumble, according to Darshan-Leitner.

Today, the same tactics are applied to several U.S. adversaries across the board. American intelligence services and groups like the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control freeze accounts and sanction nefarious actors like Russia, Iran and North Korea in order to hit them where it really hurts: the pocketbook.

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