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20th Apr 2019

'Swift' used in Norway's al Qaeda sting, US says

  • 'Sometimes they're not aware we know about them, sometimes they simply have no choice,' a US official said on bank snoops (Photo: wikipedia)

Three al Qaeda suspects arrested in a Norway bomb plot were tracked down via the US anti-terrorism program searching through international bank transactions recorded by the Belgium-based company Swift, an American official said.

Norwegian police on Thursday said they had arrested three men suspected of having links to al Qaeda in a conspiracy with links to the US and UK. The men, one of whom was arrested in Germany, are suspected of planning to use bombs containing peroxide which are both powerful and easily transported.

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One of the suspects is a 39-year old Norwegian citizen, a Muslim Uighur from China, who had lived in Norway since 1999. Another is an Iraqi citizen, aged 37, who was granted Norwegian residency on humanitarian grounds, while the third is an Uzbek national, 31, who was granted permanent residency in Norway on grounds of family reunification.

"I can tell you the 'Terrorism Finance Tracking Program' (TFTP) provided support to the Norwegian investigation of that al Qaeda threat," under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey told Brussels journalists in a conference call on Thursday (8 July).

His comments were made in connection to a vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg the same day approving an EU-US agreement on the flow of data from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), which was interrupted in February when MEPs struck down an earlier deal due to privacy concerns.

Mr Levey explained that the TFTP stopped receiving new data, but continued to "generate leads" based on data it had at the end of 2009, when Swift moved storage of European transactions from the US to the Netherlands.

The TFTP program started as a covert operation in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It was outed only in 2006, when the New York Times ran a front page story on it.

Following the outrage of Europeans when they found out that US prosecutors were secretly snooping on their bank transactions, Swift decided to reconfigure its database structure, so that no EU data would be kept on US soil, where it can be subject to "national security orders."

Referring to extra privacy safeguards inserted into the new Swift deal, the US official said they are "intended to give assurances to Europeans" that the checks and balances included in the program from its beginning in 2001 "are real and effective."

"At the same time, nothing in the agreement compromises the functioning of the program," he added.

Asked about the average amounts of terrorist funding the TFTP is able to track down, Mr Levey said even if it was a transaction of a couple of hundreds of euros, it could provide valuable information, particularly on the location of the suspect.

"With respect to al Qaeda, it's under very significant financial stress. In fact it is in the worst financial position it's been in in years. And able to generate donations from individuals, but only small amounts," he said.

Despite all the publicity generated by the EU-US negotiations and the outing of the program in 2006, terrorist suspects continued to use banks for money transfers.

"Sometimes they're not aware we know about them, sometimes they simply have no choice, because there is no other way to make a payment in another country," one US official familiar with the program told journalists in Washington on 23 June.

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