How a multi-agency team took down terror networks exploiting the pandemic

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When the 2020 pandemic hit, it didn’t take long for terrorist groups to take advantage. ISIS set up a website to ostensibly sell face masks, but in fact to monetize their substandard products. But a team from the FBI, IRS Criminal Investigations and Homeland Security Investigations stopped this activity by seizing 300 cryptocurrency accounts worth $2 million. And that’s not all. For their work, they are finalists in this year’s Service to America Medals program. The team, formerly with the IRS, followed suit Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Tom Temin And we should point out that Homeland Security Investigations’ Ryan Landers and the FBI’s Kyle Armstrong were your cohorts on this. Well, let’s start at the beginning. What made you think that ISIS was behind one of probably hundreds of websites that have popped up selling face masks and Purell and whatever else was in short supply at the time? What was your clue that something bad was going on here?

Chris Janczewski Yes, so in the beginning it was somehow split off from another case that had previously been handled by a federal police force. There was a financier who was previously indicted in another case and saw that he had ties to someone who actually set up the site on behalf of ISIS. So we knew this person had ties to ISIS, knew they were willing to try to raise funds for them, and then connected them to the site.

Tom Temin Was this person American or foreign?

Chris Janczewski Foreigner.

Tom Temin I have it. So tell us the genesis of this interagency team that has been put in place. It seems you all felt at some point that it took a dedicated cross-agency team to do just that in the early days of the pandemic.

Chris Janczewski Yes, actually we were nominated for the award for three different cases. So we actually stopped funding for ISIS as you mentioned, but also for the military wing of Hamas, the Al Qassam Brigades (AQB) and then also another case related to Al Qaeda funding. The backbone of this entire team was Zia Faruqui at the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC. And so we had worked together and a few other cases, really had a great collaboration and I think that led to our success and we were able to switch between these three different cases. It’s just, as you said, cooperation between the authorities.

Tom Temin And by the way, if someone sent money to this site, which in this case was set up by ISIS, did they really send masks to people?

Chris Janczewski No, they do not have. The most disturbing part was never being ripped off and the time of need. So there’s the opportunity cost, they might not have the cash left to send additional supplies. But in addition they would fund an illegitimate group. In what worse way could they have actually contributed.

Tom Temin And what have you done? What was the procedure? How did you come up with it? And what was the connection with cryptocurrency? It seems like every international crime these days has something to do with cryptocurrency.

Chris Janczewski So this one wasn’t as specifically related to cryptocurrency as the other two cases we can talk about. In this case, the only decision we really made was that we had to act quickly and stop this scam. So we quickly took the website down, shut down the associated Facebook pages, and then worked with our overseas law enforcement partners to target the people behind the website.

Tom Temin And they have been able to get the bitcoin in other cases, and in some cases redirect the money primarily to the government for the Victims Compensation Fund.

Chris Janczewski Yes absolutely. So specifically in the Hamas case, we were able to create a mirror image of the Hamas website where they instructed people to send payments to their bitcoin addresses. So we spent 30 days setting up our own website that looked exactly like this. And we put our, US government, bitcoin addresses and email addresses in it. So if someone went to the site thinking they were actually making a donation to Hamas’ military wing, they were sending money to the US government instead. And those funds are then turned around and go to the victims of terror funds. So think of the people who were victims of 9/11 getting compensation, which we really thought was a great thing. Of course, instead of giving money to terrorists, we turn it around and go to the very people they meant to hurt.

Tom Temin We’re speaking to Chris Janczewski, formerly of the IRS. We’ll get to that in a moment. He is a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program, along with Kyle Armstrong of the FBI and Ryan Landers of Homeland Security Investigations. And so the task force is now dissolved? They kind of trailed these three terrorist groups for this purpose, but it strikes me that they are at work elsewhere in the world and it seems like this could almost be an ongoing effort.

Chris Janczewski Of course, the work is never finished. This was just one chapter in US law enforcement’s fight against terrorist financing and highlights just one example. Well, three examples, but one example of a team working together to counteract this.

Tom Temin So the team will continue or just pass on the techniques learned to others?

Chris Janczewski So most of the people on the team went into and out of government. For example, lead prosecutor Zia Faruqui became a judge and fellow prosecutor Jesse Brooks went into private business. Myself and Kyle Armstrong both went to TRM Labs, a blockchain analytics company promoted by Ryan Landers. So the team broke up in some parts. Luckily, we’ve all somehow grown and are able to continue our careers, thanks in part to this case. But there are other people who have been involved and helped and I think hopefully they’ve learned from some of the techniques we’ve used and will be able to pass them on.

Tom Temin And you went to a company you mentioned that deals in bitcoins. Tell us a little bit more about it. You and Kyle Armstrong, I’m guessing, are with the same company now.

Chris Janczewski Yes that’s right. One of the things I focused on as a special agent was tracking cryptocurrency payments. For example, if someone sent a donation to Hamas and we want to see who sent it, where did it go? That would be something I would look into. And TRM Labs offers software capable of tracking cryptocurrency payments as part of such investigations.

Tom Temin I have it. And how did you get this job? I mean you look young as I can see in our video chat here. You’ve been on IRS investigations before. Now you are in the private sector. Tell us about your goals, your career and how you got there.

Chris Janczewski Yes, I want to say that I had this brilliant five year plan to be here with you today. It wasn’t very well thought out in that regard. When I got out of college, I knew I wanted to be a special agent. I just graduated from accounting and the IRS made the most sense to me. And then it was a remarkable journey. For the past six years I have focused on cybercrime and cryptocurrency payments. Given that IRS follows the money, that was really something we focused on when it came to cryptocurrency. And finally, I just wanted to do cool cases with great people. And so I teamed up with Kyle, Landers, Zia, Jesse Brooks and others to take my mind off these three separate terror cases. Previously we dealt with the exploitation of children. We looked at North Korea hacks of cryptocurrency exchanges, and most recently, in February, the team led by Alden Pelker and Jessica Peck seized $3.6 billion worth of Bitcoin.

Tom Temin Wow. Let’s hope that one way or another the government benefits from you in some form of service in the future. Chris Janczewski, formerly with the IRS. Thank you for joining me.

Chris Janczewski I am glad. Thank you my Lord.

Tom Temin And he’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America medal program, along with ex-FBI Kyle Armstrong and Ryan Landers of Homeland Security Investigations.

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