CDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.
Polisario, Cyber-Attacks and the use of Cryptocurrency for money laundering
In July 2020, the Moroccan government accused the Polisario Front, a separatist organization in Western Sahara, of carrying out a cyber-attack against Moroccan government institutions and companies. The attack reportedly aimed at stealing sensitive information and credentials and was conducted using phishing emails.
The Moroccan government described the attack as part of a broader cyber espionage campaign and sabotage by the Polisario Front. The government claimed that the group had been using sophisticated hacking techniques to target Moroccan entities, including government ministries, banks, and media organizations.
The Polisario Front denied any involvement in the cyber-attack and accused the Moroccan government of using such accusations to discredit the group. The group's leadership released a statement saying they "categorically reject any accusations of involvement in cyber-attacks or any other form of illegal activity."
The incident highlighted the growing threat of cyber-attacks by non-state actors, including terrorist organizations and separatist groups. Such groups have increasingly turned to cyber-attacks to advance their political agendas, raise funds, and gather intelligence.
The Polisario Front has been seeking independence for Western Sahara, a territory formerly a Spanish colony and now primarily controlled by Morocco. However, the group has conflicted with the Moroccan government for decades, and the dispute over Western Sahara remains unresolved.
The Moroccan government's accusation of a Polisario Front cyber-attack came amid heightened tensions between the two sides. The government had recently accused the Polisario Front of violating a decades-old ceasefire agreement and had launched a military operation in the disputed region.
Recently, the Defense media channel published that the Polisario Front, which operates from Tindouf in Algeria, organized a large-scale illegal money laundering network based in Spain and that the movement is linked to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Through access to a report by an unnamed Western intelligence agency written by financial investigators and reports from Spain’s Guardia Civil force, The Defense was able to identify Ahmed Abderrahman as the mastermind behind the Hawala – an informal method of transferring money through brokers.
As the head of the Hawala, Abderrahman had very close ties to the leaders of the Polisario Front.
Abderrahman was found to have organized networks from Tindouf to Europe and well beyond, including in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In its report, The Defense presented exclusive examples of several bank accounts opened in Spain and Ireland connected to Abderrahman. Above all, the channel revealed close ties between the Polisario Front and Lebanon’s Shiite Islamist Hezbollah through the Hawala.
The report showed Abderrahman seated at a cafe in an unnamed European country. He met with a Lebanese businessman from al-Qard al-Hasan – the financial arm of Hezbollah – who declared his loyalty to the extremist group.
In conclusion, the Polisario Front, connected to Hezbollah and a network of money laundering using cryptocurrency, is using its cyber-attack capabilities as a significant element for intelligence gathering, creating chaos and psychological effects, as well as a revenue source, mainly from ransom attacks.
The 2020 attack on Moroccan entities is a significant incident highlighting the growing threat of cyber-attacks by non-state actors. While the group denied involvement in the attack, the incident underscored the need for governments and organizations to protect their networks and data from cyber threats. As technology and the internet continue to grow, cyber-attacks are likely to become an increasingly common tool for political and other forms of aggression.
More than that, the attack and the Polisario mode of operations show that the organization is using cryptocurrency to launder money, move, and raise money.
Therefore, Law enforcement agencies should develop tools and methods to fight money laundering using cryptocurrency.