How an interagency team took down terror networks exploiting the pandemic

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When the pandemic hit in 2020, it didn’t take long for terrorist groups to take advantage of it. ISIS set up a website to ostensibly sell face masks, but really to get money peddling their inferior products. But a team from the FBI, IRS Criminal Investigations and Homeland Security Investigations stopped this activity by seizing 300 cryptocurrency...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, it didn’t take long for terrorist groups to take advantage of it. ISIS set up a website to ostensibly sell face masks, but really to get money peddling their inferior 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’re finalists in this year’s Service to America Medals program. The team’s ,  formerly with the IRS,  joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

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

Chris Janczewski  Yeah, so initially kind of spun off from another case that had been worked previously by a federal law enforcement. There was a financier who was previously charged for a different case, and saw that they had relations to somebody that had actually set up the site on behalf of ISIS. So we knew that this person had connections to ISIS, knew that they were up to trying to generate financing for them and then connected them to the website.

Tom Temin  This person was American or a foreign national?

Chris Janczewski  Foreign national.

Tom Temin  Got it. And so tell us the genesis of this interagency team that was set up. Apparently, you all felt at some point that there needed to be a dedicated interagency team on this very effort in the early days of the pandemic.

Chris Janczewski  Yeah, actually, we were nominated for the award for three different distinct cases. So we actually disrupted financing for ISIS, as you mentioned, but also Hamas’ military wing al-Qassam Brigades (AQB) and then also another case related to al-Qaeda’s financing. The backbone for this entire team was Zia Faruqui in the U.S. Attorneys’ office based in Washington, DC. And so we had worked together and a few other cases, really had some great collaboration, and I think that’s kind of what led to our success and be able to pivot between these three different distinct cases. It’s just, like you said, the interagency collaboration.

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

Chris Janczewski  No, they didn’t. That’s what was kind of most disturbing about this is that one never getting ripped off and the time of severe need. So there’s the opportunity cost, they no longer have the money to be able to send for additional supplies, perhaps. But additionally, they were going to fund a illegitimate group. What worse way could they have actually contributed.

Tom Temin  And what did you do? What was the procedure? How did you get at this? And what was the tie in with cryptocurrency? It seems like every international crime somehow has to do with cryptocurrency these days.

Chris Janczewski  So this one wasn’t as specifically related to cryptocurrency as the two other cases, which we can speak about. In this one, we really just made a decision that we needed to act quickly and disrupt this fraud. So we moved quickly to take down the website, take down the related Facebook pages and then work with our foreign law enforcement partners to be able to address the people behind the website.

Tom Temin  And you were also, in other cases, able to get the Bitcoin and in some cases divert the money back to the government in the first place for victims compensation fund.

Chris Janczewski  Yeah, absolutely. So in the Hamas case specifically, we were able to make a mirror image of Hamas’ website, where they were directing people to send payments to their Bitcoin addresses. So for 30 days, we set up our own webpage that looked exactly like that. And we put our, the U.S. government’s, Bitcoin addresses and email addresses in it. So if somebody went to the website thinking they were actually going to donate to Hamas’ military wing, instead, they were sending money to the U.S. government. And those funds are then turned around and go to the victims of terrorist funds, so think of the people that were victims from 9/11 and receive compensation, which we really thought was a great cause. Instead of money going to terrorists, of course, we then turn it around and go to the exact people they were intending to hurt.

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

Chris Janczewski  Certainly, the works never done. This was just kind of one chapter in the U.S. law enforcement’s fight against terrorist financing and just highlights one example. Well, three examples, but one example of a team working together to be able to combat this.

Tom Temin  So the team will continue or just the techniques that learn will be passed on to others?

Chris Janczewski  So most of the people from the team promoted on or left the government. For example, the lead prosecutor Zia Faruqui went on to become a magistrate judge and other prosecutor Jesse Brooks went to the private sector. Myself, Kyle Armstrong both left to go to TRM Labs, a blockchain analytic company, Ryan Landers promoted on. So the team kind of disbanded in some parts. So thankfully, we all kind of grew and we’re able to continue on our careers, thanks in part to this case. But there are other people that were a part of it and helped and I hopefully believe they learned from some of the techniques that we deployed and will be able to share on.

Tom Temin  And you have gone to a company, you mentioned, that deals in bitcoins. Tell us a little bit more about that. You and, I guess, Kyle Armstrong are at the same company now.

Chris Janczewski  Yeah, that’s right. And so one of the things that I focused on as a special agent was tracing cryptocurrency payments. For example, if somebody sent a donation to Hamas, and we want to see who sent it, where did it go? That would be something that I would dig into. And TRM Labs provides software that’s able to be able to track cryptocurrency payments in use of investigations like that.

Tom Temin  Got it. And how did you come to this work? I mean, you look young, from what I can see on our video chat here. You’ve already been to IRS investigations. Now you’re in the private sector. Tell us about your goals and your career and how you got to the spot.

Chris Janczewski  Yeah, I’d like to say that I had this brilliant five year plan to be able to be here with you today. It wasn’t that well thought out in that respect. Coming out of college knew that I wanted to be a special agent. I just studied accounting and the IRS made the most sense for me. And then it was a remarkable journey. The last six years I focused on cybercrime and cryptocurrency payments. Given that IRS, we follow the money, that was really something that we focused on in regards to cryptocurrency. And then ultimately, I just wanted to do cool cases with great people. And so that’s how I linked up with Kyle, Landers, Zia, Jesse Brooks and others to be able to pivot from these three different terrorist cases. Previously, we looked at child exploitation. 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 in Bitcoin.

Tom Temin  Wow. Well, let’s hope the government, in one way or another, benefits from you in the future in some form of service. Chris Janczewski, is formerly of the IRS. Thanks so much for joining me.

Chris Janczewski  My pleasure. Thank you, sir.

Tom Temin  And he along with Kyle Armstrong, formerly of the FBI, and Ryan Landers of Homeland Security Investigations are finalists in this year’s Service to America Medals program.

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