From WhatsApp to Hawala, How the Taliban Moves Money Around

The insurgents use apps such as Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp, to solicit donations, backed by an old value transfer system.

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Nov 15 2016, 12:00pm

This image was posted in a batch with little to no context. However, the Multimedia Branch, a subagency of the Cultural Commission, manages the Taliban's online community. Rumors suggest that it runs clandestine computer labs in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, and Quetta, a Pakistani city alleged to host the Taliban's leadership.

The Taliban has been trying to fundraise on the internet longer than Afghanistan's current government has existed. In recent years, however, the insurgents have turned to internet messaging platforms secured by end-to-end encryption, such as Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp, to solicit donations.

On September 9, the Taliban posted a statement to its English Telegram channel in anticipation of an annual Islamic holiday. "As you know, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the guardian of thousands of widows and orphans and provide them sacrifice of Eid-ul-Azha," read the post, written in broken English. It implored "every fortune and sympathizer Muslim" to contact the Taliban's treasury through its Gmail account or a phone number linked to Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp.

The statement failed to mention how potential donors could send money to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Islamic state that the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001 and the name by which it still refers to itself. Taliban officials declined to comment for this article for "security reasons," referring to whatever money transmitter the insurgents might use as "a secret of the Emirate."

The Taliban has sometimes experimented with e-commerce payment systems such as PayPal. In January 2010, The Long War Journal reported that a PayPal account claiming Taliban affiliation sought donations on the insurgents' behalf—only for the Taliban to condemn the endeavor on its official websites soon after. A 2015 US Treasury report mentioned that financiers with "alleged links" to the Taliban as well as Arab and Chechen terrorist organizations were using PayPal.

Majeed Qarar, an Afghan analyst and diplomat familiar with the Taliban's operations on social media, said that the insurgents most often rely on hawala, an informal value transfer system, to collect donations. "This way," he said, "they don't have to risk transferring money online."

A screenshot of a fundraising blast send to a Telegram channel.

Hawala revolves around the honor system. The sender gives money to a shopkeeper in one country, who calls a shopkeeper in another country so that the receiver can collect an equivalent amount there through a codeword provided by the first shopkeeper. "The Taliban exchanges the codewords through Telegram and WhatsApp to escape detection," said Qarar.

International campaigns against terrorism financing have struggled with hawala for two reasons. First, its independence from the global financial system prevents anti-money laundering software from monitoring hawala transfers. Second, hawala remains popular with poor Muslims in Africa and Asia because it allows them to avoid the fees of wire transfers while sending remittances, adding another layer of complexity to distinguishing legitimate transactions from criminal ones.

"I can say with full confidence that the surveillance of the enemy has not affected our activities," the Taliban's finance minister declared during an interview with a militant website in July 2013. "Anyone in any part of the world can send his money to the Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate through these safe and sound channels." During the interview, he too asked Muslims to donate, listing the same Gmail account as the September 2016 statement but two different phone numbers.

Motherboard received no reply after submitting requests for comment in Dari, English, and Pashto to two email addresses and three phone numbers that the Taliban press service had directed donors to contact in previous announcements. Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp accounts connected to the phone number in the Telegram press release have been inactive for a month, and the Gmail account mentioned in 2013 and 2016 stopped posting on Google+ three years ago.

The insurgents have called for donations on several other occasions in 2012 and 2015, sometimes listing a Yahoo Mail address as well, which Motherboard similarly tried to contact without success.According to the book The Taliban's Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community, a charity's website urged supporters of the jihad against the Taliban's Indian- and Russian-backed opponents to donate as early as 1998.

Dr. Neil K. Aggarwal, a cultural psychologist and author of The Taliban's Virtual Emirate, noted that the Taliban also earns money through the advertisements on its websites. "Although the amount of money raised from these ads may be less than its illicit operations on the ground in Afghanistan, the ads nonetheless serve as a convenient way for consumers of their content to contribute to their cause," he said.

"It's a way for the Taliban to keep reminding people not in Afghanistan—and therefore not privy to their operations—that they are still relevant," he added.

The Taliban has spent much of its resources on outreach to Muslims across the world, including the West, where it has incited attacks. The insurgents have Telegram channels in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu. WhatsApp chatrooms in Dari and Pashto include hundreds of phone numbers from Iran, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, from which the Taliban receives most of its donations.

The Taliban has developed a glossy calendar emblazoned with the logo of its government in exile, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, for 2017. The insurgents distributed images of the product over Telegram and WhatsApp.

The Taliban's attempts at online fundraising depend on two power structures within its government in exile: the Cultural Commission, which directs propaganda and public relations, and the Economic Commission, which launders the Taliban's profits from the illegal drug trade and manages its treasury. Both these wannabe government agencies in turn report to the Quetta Shura, the leadership of the Taliban's disparate factions based along the Afghan–Pakistani border.

The response to the online fundraising from the Afghan government, which has long accused Pakistan of harboring and sponsoring the Taliban, has been ambiguous. "As far as I know, the Taliban is not an advanced group," said Dawlat Waziri, spokesperson for Afghanistan's defense ministry, in an attempt to cast doubt on the insurgents' technological capabilities. A spokesperson for the Afghan National Security Council, on the other hand, acknowledged the problem but provided few details.

"We have information from credible sources that terrorists and Taliban groups are using technology and various other applications to find resources for their inadmissible war," Tawab Ghorzang, the national security council spokesperson, told Motherboard. "Our cybersecurity teams, using technology and social applications, are working to detect them, and prevent them from attracting resources and recruiting people."

Afghanistan's American allies have taken a more proactive approach to terrorism financing, monitoring and sanctioning criminal organizations involved in Taliban money laundering. Intelligence, law enforcement, and security agencies from the CIA and the FBI to the Pentagon and the Treasury have formed task forces dedicated to halting the insurgents' fundraising.

The Taliban often obscures the faces of its fighters so that Afghan and Western intelligence agencies have difficulty identifying and tracking them over social media, lessening the risk of airstrikes.

The FBI and the Treasury declined to comment for this article. Public records, however, bring into question the effectiveness of their response. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that late Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour frequented the Persian Gulf on fundraising trips even though the Treasury had been working with Gulf countries to prevent terrorism financing there.

Little suggests that the American government has given priority to the financial implications of the Taliban's online presence with attention shifting to ISIS's internet war machine. "We're not tracking any fundraising attempts," admitted Colonel Michael T. Lawhorn, a spokesperson for the American-led coalition in Afghanistan. A Pentagon spokesperson failed to answer requests for comment.

Terrorist organizations with more resources have taken measures resembling the Taliban's. Last June, an ISIS affiliate in the Gaza Strip posted infographics listing the prices of assault rifles and other weapons alongside points of contact for email, phone, Skype, and Telegram. This year, an ISIS Telegram channel solicited donations in bitcoin, which the terrorist organization might have been using for over two years. Even its American supporters may be fundraising in the digital currency.

Though ISIS is losing battles across the Muslim world, the Taliban has in the last two years regained much of the territory that it lost in Afghanistan. Perhaps, then, the West should pay more attention to the insurgents' complementary technical advances before they learn to hide it from prying eyes.