Cryptocurrency Crowdsourcing by Russian-Speaking Foreign Fighters in Syria

On 7 February 2017, MT announced on its Twitter account that Baltabayev and his pregnant wife had been killed in an air strike. In a private chat with this author, posing as a potential funder from Malaysia on 9 February 2017, a source claiming to be a member of MT in Syria said, from a now-deleted Twitter account, that the strike had targeted the apartment block where Baltabayev was living with his family, killing his pregnant wife. Baltabayev, however, was unharmed. To avoid further attacks, MT social media announced that he had been killed. Shortly afterward, Baltabayev returned to social media, posing as ‘Abu Salman Belarus’, the new amir of MT, and promoting Bitcoin as a new mechanism for MT’s supporters to fund his work. In a private chat with the author again posing as a potential funder from Malaysia on 8 June 2018, Baltabayev explained that the move to cryptocurrency had several benefits as he saw it: as a more secure alternative than QIWI for donations from Russia, and as an opportunity to allow donors outside Russia to help MT, which would bring more money to the group. Baltabayev’s move was also inspired by the increasing media attention around jihadi groups using cryptocurrencies for fundraising, in particular Al-Sadaqah, which opened an account on Twitter in November 2017 that solicited donations through Bitcoin. Baltabayev was aware that, if MT started using Bitcoin too, it would attract more media attention to the group, which would also boost its prestige and fundraising potential.

Was Bitcoin a Success for Baltabayev?

Two Bitcoin wallet addresses shared by Baltabayev via MT’s social media in 2018 (1LVwtwghTiorsXKtozvHHQCME3qRcse3DP and 1J5x4is2cqHZFYDeaef2bih5WVWuvEcLdA) were included in the list of accounts blacklisted by the US in 2020. However, analysis of Bitcoin’s open blockchain ledger shows that the total amount sent to the two wallets from July 2018 until their seizure by the US Department of Justice in 2020 was just $115.72. The account beginning 1LVw received two donations, on 13 July 2018 ($41.09) and 22 July 2018 ($28.59), while the account beginning 1J5x received two donations of $23.02 each on 13 August 2018. From July 2018 until his (real) death in August 2019, Baltabayev, as the fictitious Abu Salman Belarus, gained considerable exposure and kudos on social and traditional media – something unmatched by any other small, Russian-speaking jamaat in Syria. MT media activists operated highly accessible social media platforms in English and Arabic as well as Russian, and even ran a Telegram channel – which anyone could join – where it broadcast information about its training camps alongside donation solicitations. MT’s Bitcoin addresses were publicly available and easy to find. It is interesting, therefore, that MT’s high profile did not translate into a significant amount of Bitcoin donations. Indeed, this somewhat surprising reality, particularly in light of media fears regarding the potential use of Bitcoin as a terror-funding mechanism by groups in Idlib, has been noted by other researchers. In a recent report on terrorist use of cryptocurrencies, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point quoted Collin Almquist of Chainalysis as saying that ‘[We] see a lot of misinformation in the headlines about millions of dollars of Bitcoin being raised for terrorist organizations, and that’s not true’.

However, as Baltabayev predicted, MT’s use of Bitcoin as a fundraising mechanism did help it to attract a great deal of attention and publicity, which undoubtedly added to its prestige and notoriety. This may well have contributed to increased donations to MT from other, harder-to-trace sources, such as direct sponsorship from private donors, donations-in-kind of weapons, or increased recruitment.

Infrastructure

As jihadi groups in Idlib began to experiment with offering Bitcoin, infrastructure was also emerging in the province to support the use of cryptocurrency for receiving payments directly in Syria, without having to cash out Bitcoin donations in Turkey and then transfer dollars or Turkish lira to Syria through couriers or hawala networks (which takes longer, is harder to organise, and incurs increased costs). By December 2018, cryptocurrency exchanges had begun operating in Idlib. Blockchain analyst group Chainalysis has identified one of these, BitCoinTransfer, as being used by MT. Another, BitCoinExchange, advertises in English, Russian and Arabic on Telegram, and claims it has physical offices in Idlib city, Darkush and Sarmada. It also runs a 24-hour phone line for clients, providing assistance in setting up accounts with Binance, buying and selling a range of cryptocurrencies including Tether, and handling transactions using a variety of wallets including Payeer and PayPal, which allow users to hold both crypto and fiat currencies. The emergence of these businesses reflects the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies as a money-transfer mechanism in HTS-controlled territory. For Idlib’s foreign-fighter population, their use goes beyond ‘terror funding’ in the literal sense of direct financing of terrorist groups for military purposes. They offer foreign militants in Idlib ways to make digital payments, such as for goods purchased online for transfer via Turkey, or to pay people-smuggling networks to transport them or family members out of Syria.

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