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  • Writer's pictureCDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades' Money Route Operating Using Virtual Currency

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are the military arm of the Hamas terror organization, and according to various estimates, the organization employs about 40,000 activists headed by Muhammad Daf.

The organization is based on six operational divisions, divided by their geographical location, and two logistics divisions in the northern and southern Gaza Strip, responsible for logistics and training. The organization's headquarters are located below Shifa Hospital, in a well-developed underground facility.

The organization operates several elite units, including the a-Nuhaba unit, with about 5,000 operatives. The unit's primary missions are commando attacks in Israeli territory through the underground tunnel's infrastructure, focusing on attacking and destroying Israeli outposts. The other elite unit is the naval commando unit, which mission is to attack Israeli vessels, the Ashdod and Ashkelon's seaports, and attack the Israeli gas rigs' infrastructure.

In addition, the organization has an air arm, which operates drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), capable of long-range flight and carrying ammunition. The organization uses the UAVs to gather intelligence and accurately attack strategic targets deep in Israeli territory in suicide missions.

Izz a-Adin al-Qassam Brigades also operate the rockets unit, responsible for producing and launching rockets towards Israeli cities and infrastructure facilities. On the eve of Operation "The Guardian of the Walls," the rocket unit stood with more than 15,000 rockets of various models.

Operating the military units of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and building their force require enormous budgetary resources. These budgets are necessary to finance manpower, self-development efforts, production, procurement of equipment, weapons, ammunition, and more.

These vast budgets, which are required to finance the force build-up, training, and the day-to-day activities of the battalions, are obtained from various sources, including Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency - UNRWA.

It is estimated that about 60 percent of Hamas' budgets are based on these countries and organizations.

For example, Qatar transfers more than $ 360 million a year to Hamas under Israeli auspices. These budgets are intended for the well-being of Gaza residents, but Hamas cuts about half of them in favor of funding its political and military activities. UNRWA also transfers about $ 600 million a year to Gaza residents, from whom Hamas also derives a significant share to finance its military operations.

About 40 percent of Hamas' annual budget comes from taxes levied on Gaza residents and the Palestinian Authority, which transfers about $ 1 billion a year to Hamas to fund its rule, fund public employees, purchase medicines, and support prisoners' families. Part of this budget passes to the Izz a-Adin al-Qassam Brigades.

But the budgets received from the various countries and organizations are not enough for the Brigades, and they are constantly looking for additional funding sources.

Examples of such sources are international charities, such as WORLD VISION and SAVE THE CHILDREN, which raise money in disguise. Other organizations include the Malaysian organization, PCOM (The Palestinian Cultural Organization Malaysia), and the British Association, "The Arab Organization for Human Rights in the United Kingdom." Hamas raises huge budgets through these associations, most of which are intended for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades force build-up.

Other sources of funding are from donations collected from Hamas' supporters in the West Bank and in Israel. The Lebanese Hezbollah terror organization also supports the Brigades, economically and militarily. The brigade operatives regularly arrive in Lebanon, where they train, equip and return to operate in the Gaza Strip.

In the last three years, the organization's revenues have declined significantly due to a trend of donations directed by Muslim communities to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, from the effects of the COVID-19 on the global economy, but mainly because of the reduction of Hezbollah and Iran's funds.

In 2012, Israel began working to thwart bank accounts and money transfers to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran with a joint team of the Israeli intelligence community, headed by then-Mossad chief General Meir Dagan. The joint team, known as the "Harpoon," began operating under a unified headquarters (the headquarters for economic warfare) and moved to the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense after Yossi Cohen took office as head of the Mossad.

Israeli counterterrorism activities have led Hamas to settle in Turkey under Erdogan's protection and umbrella. With Turkish passports provided by Erdogan's courtesy Hamas started to operate a complex network of bank accounts, mainly in Turkey, allowing Hamas to receive, launder and transfer donations to Gaza and the Hamas operatives.

These donations are also used to "lubricate" the activist apparatus, which has become increasingly wealthy. The money-laundering mechanism of Hamas with the assistance of the Turkish government is carried out mainly through the purchase of innocent goods and equipment to be sold in the Gaza strip. The goods are transported by the Turkish merchant ships in containers through Israeli ports directly to the Gaza Strip and sold there. The revenues from the sales of the goods go directly to Hamas.

Hamas has also found additional ways to transfer funds to the Gaza Strip to strengthen its power. As early as 2019, Hamas realized the potential inherent in the use of virtual currencies, mainly by Bitcoin.

In late 2020, the US Treasury Secretary (formerly) announced that IRS-CI cybercrime unit investigators along with FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigators had been able to locate and track hundreds of bitcoin wallets used by Hamas and other terrorist organizations to raise funds.

Hamas donors' bitcoin wallets were identified by locating social media and Darknet campaigns, calling on Hamas's followers and supporters to donate using the virtual currencies. The social media pages provide potential donors with instructions on transferring virtual coins without being discovered and how to obscure the money trail.

The use of virtual currencies allows Hamas, despite the seizure of some by US law enforcement agencies, to accept donations, purchase equipment, transfer funds to the Gaza Strip, and fund the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades activities.

It was recently learned that the Brigades began to act independently to obtain funding for their operations outside the Hamas political bureau, using virtual currencies.

After the last fighting campaign (May 2021), and even during it, the Brigades began an international campaign to finance their force rebuilding and renew the rockets stockpile, unmanned aerial vehicles, and additional armaments to prepare for the next round of fighting against Israel.

The fundraising campaign, aided by the organization's propaganda activities, will be based not only on the organization's emissaries operating in the countries that support it but also on collecting virtual coins that cannot be traced and through which many funds can be laundered. Hamas has apparently learned the lesson, from the US law enforcement operation, of not posting on social media.

Israel and the United States will be required to develop advanced technological capabilities to thwart virtual money transfers to shut down Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades' funds.

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