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Al Qaeda Terrorist Financing and

Technologies to Track the Finance Network

Irina Sakharova
The University of Texas at Dallas

ABSTRACT: In this paper, we have analyzed terrorist various aspects of terrorist financing. Section 3 describes
financing. In particular, we have examined the financing information technologies. In particular, it focuses on data
of the AI Qaeda finance network and determined how mining, security and social network technologies for
information technologies may be used to extract analyzing the terrorist finance network and examining the
information from this network. actions to take. The paper is concluded in Section 4. A
detailed overview of the various aspects of terrorist financing
Keywords - AI Qaeda, Financial Network, Information is given in a recent technical report [1].
Management, Terrorism



Terrorism can be traced back to the origins of mankind. 2.1 Importance of cutting terrorist financing

Whenever people formed groups,one group competed against We will direct every resource at our command - every means
the other resulting in violence and terrorism. As stated in [1], of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of
terrorism is the systematic use of terror especially as a means law enforcement, every financial influence, and every
of coercion. It is also stated that at present, the international necessary weapon of war - to the destruction and to the
community has been unable to formulate a universally agreed, defeat of the global terror network ... We will starve terrorists
legally binding,criminal law definition of terrorism. Common of funding. .[2].

definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which -President George W Bush, 24 September 2001
are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for an
It is beyond a doubt that disrupting terrorist fmancing is
ideological goal, and deliberately target or disregard the
necessary. As President George W. Bush stated in his speech
safety of non-combatants (civilians).
on September 24,2001, financial recourses are considered to

There are different types of terrorism. One is single issue be "the lifeblood of terrorist operations today" [2]. The
highest-level u.S. government officials publicly declared that
terrorism where anti-abortion groups or animal rights groups
the fight against al Qaeda fmancing was as critical as the
inflict fear and engage in violence. Another is terrorism due
fight against al Qaeda itself [3]. One of the key goals of
to political violence where one ethnic group fights against
defeating terrorism is to fight the financial structure of
another. A third is right and left wing terrorism and the fourth
terrorist organizations by detecting, disrupting and disabling
is terrorism due to the differences in religious beliefs. In each their financial networks.
type of terrorism, the terrorists create fear and cause harm to
The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the
promote their beliefs and ideologies. Some of the terrorist
International Convention for the Suppression of the
groups are random groups, while some are organized and
Financing of Terrorism in 1999, however, only a few
have a central structure,while still some others are organizers
countries had become parties to the convention before
and have a decentralized structure. September 11 [4]. The U.S. ratified the convention only in
2002 with the beginning of the campaign to "starve the
Our goal is to apply information technologies to combat
terrorists of funding". Since the beginning of the War on
terrorism. However, one size does not fit all. In order to
Terror in 2001, numerous initiatives and policies at the
effectively apply technologies,we need to understand the way
national, regional and international levels supplemented the
terrorists function, their structure, fmancial networks, beliefs,
convention. A series of new international laws that have
ideologies and tactics. If the group is predictable, then we
criminalized the financing of terrorist activities was
need certain types of technologies. If the group is
introduced by many countries.
unpredictable, then we need adaptable techniques to detect
their activities. In this report we have analyzed the financial 2.2 Description of the AI Qaeda's financial network
network of terrorists. In particular, we have studied the
There is no other terrorist organization that has built such a
financial network of al Qaeda and examined how information
sophisticated, complex, robust and adaptive-to-change global
technologies may be applied to disrupt this network. This
financial network like al Qaeda's. It is based on a system that
paper consists of two major sections. Section 2 describes the

978-1-61284-4577-0085-9/11/$26.00 2011 IEEE 20

was built by Bin Laden to provide support to the mujahideen functions and providing fmancial support to operations.
fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet war in the late Specific operations were assigned to carefully selected cells,
1980s. It uses different sources of funding and a variety of headed by senior al Qaeda operatives who reported personally
methods of storing and transferring funds. "The most to bin Laden.
important source of al Qaeda's money, however, is its
For instance, Indonesia's civilian intelligence service has
continuous fundraising efforts. AI Qaeda's global fundraising
linked Hambali, whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin, with
network is built upon a foundation of charities,
the 2002 Bali attack. He is believed to have been in control of
nongovernmental organizations, mosques, websites,
the operation, as well as the financial conduit. Financial
intermediaries, facilitators, banks and other financial
operations worldwide were managed by regional managers.
institutions" [5].
For example,Muhammad Jamal Khalifa,bin Laden's brother
Although al Qaeda's financial network has certainly been in-law, was responsible for worldwide investments in
weakened by the War on Terror, it certainly has not been Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines [8]. He
destroyed. While new fmancial sector regulations made it also was in charge of fmancial support for the Operation
more difficult for terrorist groups to move funds around the Bojinka [9] plot, the large-scale terrorist attack by Ramzi
world, al Qaeda's financiers have quickly adapted to the new Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to blow up twelve
environment. Terrorists have been forced to move their airliners over the Pacific planned to take place in January
organizations outside the formal financial system. Even 1995.
before 9/11, al Qaeda and its cells used the global financial
As the U.S. military's Operation Enduring Freedom in
system to move the funds very cautiously in a manner that
Afghanistan was launched on October 7,2001 in response to
does not arouse suspicion. In response to the new anti
the September 11,2001 attacks on the U.S.,al Qaeda has lost
terrorism financing policies,they became even more cautious.
its "safe heaven" for planning terrorist attacks, as well as the
Most likely, instead of moving funds through the financial
majority of its senior leadership, and been forced to
system, terrorist groups are using other channels of
decentralize. However,experts fear that al Qaeda is structured
transferring funds and other means of storing wealth such as
in such a way that it can operate without a centralized
trade in commodities like gold and diamonds, bulk cash
smuggling and underground banking systems such as hawala.
Ongoing counterterrorism operations have isolated al Qaeda's
2.3 Organizational structure. Control over finances
leadership. AI Qaeda's command cadre has been on the run
within al Qaeda
and they are more preoccupied to evade being captured or
Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda was a centralized organization with killed. Communication, coordinating of complex operations,
headquarters located in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was in as well as raising and transferring funds between center and
firm control over the organization - he approved all al cells have become extremely hard and risky for terrorists due
Qaeda's operations often selecting targets and operatives. to isolated leadership. However,new operatives are emerging
Some terrorist experts compare the al Qaeda structure to a to replace old leaders. These emerging leaders can be viewed
business enterprise. Peter Bergin thinks that al Qaeda as a proof that al Qaeda can adapt to new circumstances and
resembles Saudi Binladin Group, the giant construction regain its leadership. They are no longer old school veterans
company founded by Osama's father [6], where bin Laden of the 1980's Afghan war, but they are assuming greater
acted as Director who formulated general policies in responsibilities and autonomy. They are less able to
consultation with his shura or advisory council which communicate with each other and they are spread around the
represents a circle of bin Laden's close associates. These top world. Al Qaeda has not been destroyed but has been
advisors make executive decisions for the group. Immediately dispersed around the world, making it harder for law
below the shura council and reporting to it are six enforcement officials to capture group's members and track
committees: "Sharia" and Political Committee responsible for their activities.
issuing fatwas; Military Committee responsible for proposing
Al Qaeda went through a transformation, from a territorially
targets and planning of attacks; Security Committee
based group with hierarchical organization to a more
responsible for physical protection, intelligence collection;
decentralized, ideological movement relying on either self
and Information Committee responsible for propaganda [7].
sufficient cells or affiliated groups to carry out its attacks. The
There are two committees in this structure that are related to
2003 suicide attacks in Casablanca and Istanbul were carried
finance: Finance and Foreign Purchases Committees that
out by attackers from different groups but all of them were
consisted of professional bankers, accountants and financiers
linked to al Qaeda [10].
[8]. The Finance Committee was responsible for fundraising
and budget planning issues, such as support for training Prior the September 11, cells were encouraged to be self
camps, living expenses, travel, housing costs, salaries, etc. sufficient for all their expenses apart from operational
The purpose of Foreign Purchase Committee was to acquire expenses. Al Qaeda's headquarters raised funds for training,
weapons, explosives, and technical equipment from abroad. propaganda and operational expenses. Cells were expected to
However, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks raise money to cover living expenses. As al Qaeda has
stated that this structure served as a means for coordinating become decentralized, its fmancial network has also become

decentralized. The September 11 attacks were the last attacks million and $50 million. However, there was little
that were planned, funded and carried out under direct information to back up these numbers [14]. In the 9111
supervision of al Qaeda's command cadre. The subsequent Commission Report, it is said that the CIA estimated that
attacks were executed by individuals and groups that are only prior to September 11, al Qaeda's annual budget was about
linked to al Qaeda ideologically [11]. $30 million per year. For many years, it was thought that
Osama bin Laden financed al Qaeda's expenses by his
A decentralized network of self-sufficient cells is more
personal wealth. He allegedly inherited a fortune with
flexible and less vulnerable to attacks. Local cells and
estimates ranging from $25 - $30 million to $250 - $300
affiliated groups need less funds; the means used to raise
million. However, as noted before it is a myth. As stated in a
money vary widely and depend on local conditions; there is
Task Force Report on Terrorist Financing, "the most
less need for fund transfers and communication between
important source of al Qaeda's money is its continuous fund
groups is minimal [12]. These groups are more autonomous in
raising efforts". The key sources of al Qaeda's funding can be
their operation and self-funded by deriving income from local
divided into three groups: Donations (through fmancial
legitimate businesses or from various criminal activities. The
facilitators or charities), legitimate businesses and criminal
small scale of their fundraising operations generally does not
raise suspicion of terrorist involvement. Besides, in case of
attack on one source of the funding, terrorists can easily shift Direct contributions from wealthy individuals and funds
to another. raised through charities and financial facilitators are primary
sources of funding for al Qaeda. One of the main pillars of
Since the beginning of the War on Terror, the U.S.
Islam is a religious duty for all Muslims to give annually
government together with the European Union and other
2.5% of their income to the charitable causes known as zakat.
members of the international community, launched a major
"In many communities, the zakat is often provided in cash to
effort to disrupt terrorist financing around the world, putting
prominent, trusted community leaders or institutions, who
into force numerous laws and regulations. Dozens of charities
then commingle and disperse donated moneys to persons and
have been closed; more than 172 countries have issued orders
charities they determine to be worthy" [15]. These practices
freezing millions of terrorist assets; more than 100 countries
are unregulated, unaudited, and generally undocumented and
worldwide have introduced new terrorist-related legislation
therefore easy to be abused by groups like al Qaeda. In
and regulations, including new laws to block money
addition to obligatory zakat, there are voluntary donations -

laundering. AI Qaeda's financial network has been disrupted

infaq and shadaqah. Many Muslim governments do not
significantly. With several important financial facilitators
collect taxes, and therefore devout Muslims, through their
being killed or arrested, the amount of funds raised has
payment of zakat and sadaqah, contribute to social welfare
decreased and risks of raising and transferring money have
[16]. Some governments, for instance in Indonesia, made
increased. In an audio message intercepted by CBS News in
zakat tax deductable to stimulate charitable donations.
2009, and sent by Mostafa Abul Yazid, the terror group's
chief financial manager is heard asking an unknown contact AI Qaeda continues to raise funds through direct donations
in Turkey for urgent financial support. "We are lacking funds from wealthy supporters and through charities. Some of the
here in the Afghan jihadi arena ... The slow action in the donors know the jihadi purposes that their donations will
operations here nowadays is due to the lack of funds, and serve. In other cases, donors believe that their money will
many Mujahideen could not carry out jihad because there's help to provide humanitarian assistance, education, and
not enough money." Senior Treasury official David Cohen medical services to those who are in need. In the case against
said al Qaeda had made several appeals for funds in 2009. He the Global Relief Foundation, which was established in
said "We assess that al-Qaeda is in its weakest financial Bridgewater, Illinois in 1992, U.S. agents obtained donors'
condition in several years and that, as a result, its influence is checks where some donors had actually written pro-jihad
waning" [13]. However, he added that if the organization had statements on their memo lines [16 ].
multiple donors who were "ready, willing and able to
Also, not all charities knowingly supported al Qaeda. Most of
contribute", the situation could be quickly changed. AI Qaeda
them were unaware that some of their officials were working
has been routinely telling followers that donating is a
for al Qaeda and diverting thousands of dollars to fund
perfectly acceptable alternative to fighting. Despite being
terrorist activities and to build al Qaeda's global network,
seriously wounded and forced to decentralize, al Qaeda still
which supported jihadist fighters in Chechnya, the Balkans,
poses a threat as it is a flexible, adaptive and patient
Kashmir, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia [16].
organization that can draw on global support around the
world. Most of the charity networks were developed in the late
1980s and early 1990s by Azzam and bin Laden's personal
2.4 AI Qaeda's portfolio and sources of "revenues"
contacts with Saudi charities and wealthy donors. These
The size of al Qaeda's portfolio as well as its annual budget is charity networks were built to support the fight against Soviet
unknown. Estimates vary widely. For example, in 2002, the troops in Afghanistan. The United States, the United
United Nations Monitoring Group referred to an estimated Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and many Muslim
figure of donations from individual donors of between $16 countries encouraged Islamist leaders to establish these

networks [16]. Donations were used to assist mujahidin facilitators had bank accounts around the world. For years, al
fighters, to build training camps, to cover the travel expenses Qaeda has been particularly interested in operating in the
of young Muslims interested in joining the war against areas with lax financial regulations and anti money
Soviets, and to support the families of the fighters. These laundering laws and inefficient banking oversight. Over the
charities established a strong presence in the Middle East, years regional banking centers in the Middle East have
especially in the Persian Gulf region, and in Western avoided building anti money laundering regimes and
countries, including the United States. oversight of the banking system consistent with international
standards. For instance, funds for the attempted assassination
It is known that al Qaeda relies on financial facilitators who
of President Mubarak went through National Commercial
play a big role in raising, moving and storing the money for
Bank (NCB), the largest bank in Saudi Arabia. It transferred
al Qaeda. They raised money from witting and unwitting
millions of dollars to al Qaeda's accounts via corresponding
donors, primarily in the Gulf countries, and particularly in
banks in London and New York [ S]. The NCB chairman,
Saudi Arabia, but also from countries around the world.
Khalid bin Mahfouz, denied that his bank was involved in
These financial facilitators also enabled al Qaeda to develop funding an al Qaeda group. He stated that he could not have
a substantial fmancial network in Southeast Asia, as well as been aware of every wire transfer moving through the bank,
funding sources in Europe, Africa and Asia. and that if he knew that such transactions were taking place,
he would not have allowed it. There was no evidence found
Wealthy donors are an integral part of al Qaeda's financial
that Mahfouz was personally involved in any of these
network. A few wealthy donors can sponsor much terror.
transactions. He also was involved with the Bank of Credit
"Mustafa Ahmed al-Hasnawi, the Saudi national and bin
and Commerce International (BCCI), another bank from al
Laden money man, sent the September 11 hijackers
Qaeda's infrastructure. BCCI was a major international bank
operational funds and received at least $15,000 in unspent
founded in 1972 by Pakistani financier Agha Hasan Abedi. It
funds before leaving the UAE for Pakistan on September II"
expanded into 69 countries but lost huge sums of money
[17]. Evidence seized in March 2002 from the Bosnian
from its lending operations, foreign currency dealings and
offices of the Benevolence International Foundation, an
deposit accounts. Khalid bin Mahfouz was a principal
Illinois-based Muslim charity, included handwritten
shareholder and director in the BCCI Group. He was indicted
documents scanned into computer formats with a file titled
in New York State on the grounds that he had withdrawn
"Osama's history" that contained "a handwritten draft list of
sizeable investments in the bank just before its collapse in
people referred to within al Qaeda as the 'Golden Chain',
1991, which resulted in a gross misstatement of the true
wealthy donors to mujahedeen efforts." "The list contained
financial picture of the bank. The scheme resulted in larger
20 names, and after each name a parenthetical indicating the
losses for depositors and others when BCCI's worldwide
person who received the money from the specified donor... ";
Ponzi scheme finally collapsed. Mahfouz denied all
the list suggested at least seven of the donors gave directly to
allegations but paid a fme of $225 million.
bin Laden, and six of the others were listed as giving to the
founder of a Muslim charity, the court docwnent said [IS].
"Some individual donors surely knew the ultimate destination
of their donations. ...These financial facilitators also
appeared to rely heavily on certain imams at mosques who Several information technologies are being examined to
diverted zakat donations to the facilitators and encouraged combat terrorism. Most notable is data mining [20]. We have
support of radical causes."[ 19] been developing data mining tools for intrusion detection,
fraud detection, and social network analysis, as well as to
2.5 Methods of transferring and storing funds
conduct surveillance. Data mining is the process of analyzing
vast amounts of data and extracting the nuggets often
Al Qaeda uses various mechanisms to move and store its
previously unknown. We have also focused on privacy
funds. According to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)
violations that could arise due to data mining. I feel that in
report on Terrorist Financing [5], there are three main
order to model the terrorist behavior, it is important to
methods by which terrorists move their funds or transfer
understand their modus operandi. The challenge is that the
value. They are: Use of financial system, physical movement
terrorist patterns might change and this will be very difficult
of money and international trade system. Besides these
to model. Therefore, with respect to data mining, we need
methods, terrorists abuse alternative remittance systems
traditional data mining techniques to study the behavior of
(ARS), charities and businesses and smuggle precious stones
terrorists who do not change their tactics, and also adaptive
and metals as a cover of moving funds.
real-time data mining to study the behavior of the terrorists
Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda relied on the financial system in who change their tactics. With respect to finance networks,
transferring funds. It used extensively commercial banks, we need to apply the data mining techniques to uncover
shell banks, front companies, charities and financial service hidden dependencies. The challenge we have is when the
businesses to move money around the world. Al Qaeda used terrorist adapts his/her behavior and the financial efforts
the international banking system from the beginning. Bin based on the reaction of say the U.S. or Israel's response to
Laden as well as other top cadre members and fmancial terror, then it will be far more complicated to predict how the

terrorist will adapt its behavior and fund collection patterns. in counter-terrorism and law enforcement by enabling
This is one of the challenges we are facing with groups like al information sharing and analysis of fmancial transactions.
Qaeda. They are decentralized and unpredictable. Therefore, Starting with a network such as FinCEN, we could extend it
we need solutions that can adapt. In addition, we need to include unusual situations, changing patterns and reasoning
solutions to model the behavior of the adversary. under uncertainty.

The question is, what is our strategy to combat terrorism? The Social Networks Social networks can be applied for counter
scenario that is emerging is the following: there are vast terrorism in two ways. One is that the terrorists are also
amounts of data out there in the form of emails, web sites, forming networks and are also part of online social networks.
twitter pages, Facebook pages, chats and databases. Much of By mining these networks, one can perhaps uncover hidden
this data is in the form of text, video, images, and audio. information and dependencies, as well as behavior patterns of
Semantic web technologies such as RDF (Resource terrorists. Second, social networks are also networks.
Description Framework) are being explored to represent this Therefore, techniques for modeling and analyzing social
vast amount of unstructured data [21]. We are interested in networks can be used to model and analyze financial
extracting concepts from this data using data mining networks. Financial networks show relationships between
techniques, and then linking the concepts into a network individuals and their fmancial transactions. The analysis
(which can be regarded to be a social network). Then the techniques can be used to extract hidden information in
networks are analyzed to extract the nuggets using further financial networks. For example, FinCEN is a network.
data mining techniques. These nuggets are the knowledge that Techniques for analyzing social networks may be applied for
the agencies will use to get a competitive advantage over their FinCEN. In their article [23], Lei Tang et al examine how
competitors and in this the competitors are the adversaries. social network analysis can be used to detect financial crimes.
Such a process has come to be called knowledge One of the challenges is building the financial network using
management. In addition, the nuggets extracted from the vast social network building techniques. Valdis Krebs' Initial
data sources have to be assembled into a data product and Mapping of the 9111 Hijackers' Network was given in [24].
shared among the various agencies. Therefore, in the end it is Two suspicious people are used as a starting point and then
not only extracting the useful nuggets, it is also about sharing the network is expanded. Similarly, one needs to model the
the right data at the right time at the right place to form the financial network of the terrorist using known starting points.
right product. Essentially, we are forming a supply chain for As the network is built, techniques such as link analysis may
developing data products to combat terrorism. In summary, in be applied to uncover hidden dependencies. In addition,
addition to data mining, a number of the technologies are missing links have to be filled. Various probabilistic and
suitable for combating terrorism including semantic web, statistical models are being applied. Game theory strategies
knowledge management and social networking. Below we are also being used for modeling the behavior of adversaries
will briefly discuss how the two key technologies, data [25].
mining and social networks, are being applied.
Data Mining Data mining is being used to analyze large
This report has described the financial strategies of al Qaeda.
amounts of data and extract patterns and trends. One of the
In particular, the structure of al Qaeda, its sources of funding
major steps in applying traditional data mining techniques is
and the movement of funds were discussed. Then we
to have clean and organized data. Therefore, the available
discussed applying various information technologies to
financial data has to be organized and mined. Mining
combat terrorism. These include data mining and social
techniques may include link analysis to determine the links
between the individuals and/or banks in the finance network,
association rule mining to extract rules about the fmance In this paper, we provided details of al Qaeda's finance
network, or classification techniques such as decision trees to network and expressed the need to expand systems such as
determine the different classes or groups of individuals who FinCEN to detect changing patterns of terrorist fmancial
are funding al Qaeda and their attributes. transactions. Our goal is to make a terrorist group ineffective
by thwarting their funding. Our ultimate goal is for the
Furthermore, while traditional data mining techniques are still
agencies to share the right information at the right time to
useful, we need to develop new kinds of data mining
fight the global war on terror.
techniques to reason under uncertainty, deal with incomplete
information, handle timing constraints and model cover ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
stories. One good starting point for work in this area is
This work was sponsored by the Air Force Office of
FinCEN. As stated in [22], "the Financial Crimes
Scientific Research under Contract FA-9550-09-0468.
Enforcement Network (or FinCEN) is a bureau of the United
States Department of the Treasury that collects and analyzes
DISCLAIMER: The views and conclusions contained in this
information about fmancial transactions in order to combat
report are those of the author and do not reflect the policies
money laundering, terrorist financiers, and other fmancial
and procedures of The University of Texas at Dallas or the
crimes." FinCEN, created in 1990, supports people working
United States Government.

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