Over the last week the world has been forced to watch in horror as yet more of violence has erupted in the Middle East – this time spurred on by an unprecedented attack led by the notorious Islamist militant/terrorist group Hamas against multiple Israeli towns beginning on October 7th . The unprovoked terror attacks coined “Al-Aqsa Storm”, which had reportedly been intricately planned over a two-year span, ultimately claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Israeli citizens and led to the capture of over 150 hostages, a group made up of mostly innocent women and children. In the time since the initial attacks, a legitimate humanitarian crisis has developed in Gaza – a coastal enclave controlled by Hamas – as thousands of Palestinian’s and Hamas fighters have succumbed to an Israeli counter-siege marked by an ongoing series of airstrikes and mounting ground operations at the Strip. Millions have been encouraged by the Israeli military to evacuate the region in order to ensure their safety and to reduce the risk of starvation as the country continues its onslaught against the Hamas, one that shows no imminent signs of slowing.
The relations between Israel and Palestine have been far from cordial since Israel’s very establishment as a state in 1948, mostly due to conflict over who is the true owner of what is viewed as sacred land found between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Even so, the fast-developing nature of the military activity in response to the Hamas assault has been spectacular, and has led many to wonder just how the Hamas militant group was able to finance its surprise operation against Israel in the first place. Evidence has emerged suggesting that the attacks were largely funded by cryptocurrencies, with much of the group’s funding coming from Gaza and Egypt. There is also reason to believe that Iran – a country long synonymous with sanctions evasion and financial crime in support of terror activity – could have played a large role in these developments as well.
Given that Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union (EU), and other prominent government bodies, they face stringent economic sanctions and exclusion from the international banking system. As such, conventional means of storing and transferring funds in support of their destabilizing activities is limited. However, with money laundering efforts running rampant in the Middle East on behalf of several other sanctioned nations, Hamas has turned to alternative sources to grow their fundraising efforts. Over the two-year span during which their recent plot was formulated, Hamas and other Islamic terror groups sympathetic to Palestine were able to raise a collective $134 million worth of crypto. German international broadcaster Deustche Welle writes that “Hamas reportedly received $41 million (€39 million) between August 2021 and June 2023, according to crypto analytics and software firm BitOK, which is based in Tel Aviv. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), whose militants joined Hamas in carrying out the attack, received another $93 million in cryptocurrencies, according to London-based crypto researcher Elliptic.”1 Most of these transfers came in the form of Bitcoin, which remains the most popular crypto-coin on the market today. While the Hamas also been found to be involved in crypto-mining activity which has become a passive means of financing their operations, the bulk of these funds were received via voluntary donations pledged across various social media platforms in a twisted form of crowd-funding.
The cryptocurrency market is viewed as the preferred method for conducting these activities due to the relative ease in which funds can be moved from wallet to wallet while maintaining relative anonymity for those behind said transactions. Because crypto operates on a blockchain system that remains grossly unregulated and as such out of the reach of government control, it is very difficult for authorities to stop transactions or freeze accounts, let alone trace the origins of these funds back to the parties involved. In many cases, government authorities have had to settle for going after the cryptocurrency exchanges themselves (i.e. the recent regulatory repercussions seen at prominent crypto-platform Binance) with sanctions and other legal action as a means of hindering the proliferation of these illicit activities. As such, the scrutiny of digital assets and decentralized currency has again come to the forefront of the discussion at the international level as the primary deterrent to mass adoption as a tangible means of finance. The U.S. Treasury has stated as much, claiming there are “gaps” in financial crime controls at crypto exchanges that allow terrorist groups including Hamas, Islamic State, and al Qaeda to misuse them.3
As of early 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department began the process of targeting individuals and companies who have generated revenue for Hamas through their Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The issue lies in the fact that those generating said finances comprise an expansive, cross-border network holding assets estimated at upwards of $500 million collectively and includes contributions from entities operating in Sudan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among other nations. “Hamas has generated vast sums of revenue through its secret investment portfolio while destabilizing Gaza, which is facing harsh living and economic conditions. Hamas maintains a violent agenda that harms both Israelis and Palestinians. The United States is committed to denying Hamas the ability to generate and move funds and to holding Hamas accountable for its role in promoting and carrying out violence in the region.”4
The elephant in the room however remains Iran, with the Republic widely viewed as Palestine’s largest financial backer and a sworn enemy of Israel. As such, a recent deal between the Biden Administration and Iran was again called into question, with many insinuating that a significant infusion of cash provided to Iran in said deal was perhaps a driving force behind last week’s Hamas attack on Israel. In August, the U.S. and Iran reached an agreement that saw the release of five imprisoned Americans in exchange for the release of multiple jailed Iranians and more notably renewed access to approximately $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue. The U.S. ultimately transferred the hefty sum comprised of Iran’s existing assets in South Korea into an account in the central bank of Qatar. The account was to be controlled by the government of Qatar and regulated so Iran could gain access to the money only to make humanitarian purchases (i.e. for medicine and food/supplies).
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other parties have denied that any of these funds have been spent yet, while adding that they had “not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack”2,acknowledging however that there is a long-standing relationship between the parties involved. Though it does not appear that the billions gifted to Iran played a role directly in the attacks, Republicans claim the gesture of weakness – and the stature of President Biden himself – have emboldened Islamic terror groups in the region due to there being no significant threat of true U.S. intervention. In the days since the initial attacks, U.S. officials and the Qatari government have agreed to stop Iran from accessing this account altogether, while also threatening additional sanctions on Iran – this in spite of no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in the recent Hamas activity. These threats instead come in response to the confirmation that Hamas has received weapons and training from Iran in the recent past.
Global RADAR will continue to provide updates on these developments as they pertain to sanctions and other regulatory developments in the weeks to follow.
- Pladson, Kristie. “How Cryptocurrency Fueled Hamas’ Terror Attack on Israel – DW – 10/15/2023.” Dw.Com, Deutsche Welle, 15 Oct. 2023.
- Pound, Jesse. “Blinken Says U.S. Has ‘not yet Seen’ Evidence of Iran Involvement in Hamas Attack on Israel.” CNBC, 8 Oct. 2023.
- Thaler, Shannon. “Palestinian Terrorists behind Israel Attack Raised More than $100m in Crypto.” New York Post, 11 Oct. 2023.
- “Treasury Targets Covert Hamas Investment Network and Finance Official.” U.S. Department of the Treasury, 24 May 2022.