(WSJ) Affidavit alleges American citizen Mohamed Elshinawy was part of a global network stretching from Britain to Bangladesh.
U.S. investigators uncovered a global financial network run by a senior Islamic State official that funneled money to an alleged ISIS operative in the U.S. through fake eBaytransactions, according to a recently unsealed FBI affidavit.
The alleged recipient of the funds was an American citizen in his early 30s who had been arrested more than a year ago in Maryland after a lengthy Federal Bureau of Investigation surveillance operation that found the first clues to the suspected network.
The government had alleged in a 2016 indictment that the American suspect, Mohamed Elshinawy, pledged allegiance to Islamic State and had pretended to sell computer printers on eBay as a cover to receive payments through PayPal, potentially to fund terror attacks.
The recently unsealed FBI affidavit, filed in federal court in Baltimore, alleges that Mr. Elshinawy was part of a global network stretching from Britain to Bangladesh that used similar schemes to fund Islamic State and was directed by a now-dead senior ISIS figure in Syria, Siful Sujan.
The U.S. has said Mr. Elshinawy told investigators he was instructed to use the money for “operational purposes” in the U.S., such as a possible terror attack. He has pleaded not guilty to supporting the terror group, and currently is in federal custody awaiting trial. His lawyer declined to comment.
The case suggests how Islamic State is trying to exploit holes in the vast online financial world to finance terror outside its borders.
The U.S. and other countries for years since 9/11 have focused on the formal international banking systems that terror networks might use to transfer money to would-be terrorists.
But some alleged perpetrators inspired by Islamic State have gotten small sums through low-level fraud such as check scams, or through financial channels where regulators have been paying less attention.
Those include social-media fundraising, student-loan withdrawals and online lending fraud, according to the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body that makes counterterror recommendations.
That is making it more challenging for law enforcement to spot and stop terror attacks and terrorism recruits. A former Treasury official equated policing terror funding in the burgeoning financial marketplace to “looking for a needle in a massive haystack.”
A spokesman for eBay Inc. said the company “has zero tolerance for criminal activities taking place on our marketplace” and said that they are working with law enforcement on the case.
A spokeswoman for PayPal HoldingsInc. said that it “invests significant time and resources in working to prevent terrorist activity on our platform….We proactively report suspicious activities and respond quickly to lawful requests to support law enforcement agencies in their investigations.”
The affidavit indicates that several other alleged operatives of the network had been arrested in Britain and Bangladesh, making it one of the most significant suspected Islamic State financial networks yet uncovered.
The operation pulled in investigators across the U.S. intelligence empire and involved coordination with several other countries, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Some of the key players in the alleged network, also used to buy military supplies, were arrested or killed in a coordinated global sweep in December 2015, according to the FBI affidavit. Mr. Sujan was killed in a drone strike on Dec. 10, 2015, according to a person familiar with the matter. At the time, Mr. Sujan was Islamic State’s director of computer operations, according to the affidavit.
The financial network, according to the FBI affidavit, operated through a British technology company founded by Mr. Sujan. His company had offices in Bangladesh, and Mr. Sujan also was setting up a branch in Turkey, according to the affidavit. It is unclear when Mr. Sujan left to join Islamic State in Syria.
The FBI affidavit was filed under seal in January in support of search warrants requested by federal prosecutors for information from U.S. technology firms on social-media and email accounts established by Mr. Elshinawy and other suspects.
The unsealing of the affidavit was brought to public attention Thursday by a researcher with George Washington University’s program on extremism.
Mr. Sujan’s company, which built websites and “obtained and configured printers,” spent $18,000 to buy, from a Canadian company, military-grade surveillance equipment that could be used for aerial targeting, according to the affidavit. It also ordered electronic bug-sweeping equipment from a U.S. company to be sent to Turkey, the affidavit said.
Mr. Elshinawy received a total of $8,700 from individuals associated with Islamic State, according to the affidavit, including five payments through PayPal from Mr. Sujan’s company.
He used the money for a laptop, a cellphone and a VPN communications network, all of which the FBI claims he used to communicate with the Islamic State network, according to the affidavit.
Mr. Elshinawy told the FBI he knew the money was meant to conduct a terrorist attack in the U.S., according the affidavit. But he said he never planned to carry out any attack. Instead, the affidavit indicated, he said he was taking the money from “thieves.”