The surging value of bitcoin cryptocurrency is not just attracting business start-ups and investors. It's also drawing the attention of terrorists and U.S. geopolitical rivals, according to analysts.
Terror groups see a fundraising opportunity with the decentralized digital currency because it is used outside the traditional global banking system. And an embrace by nations such as Russia and Venezuela could be a long-term play to blunt the effects of international sanctions, said Yaya Fanusie, the director of analysis for the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“There are clear cases of designated terrorist groups trying to raise money through bitcoin” Fanusie said Tuesday during a panel at the foundation in Washington, D.C.
Bitcoin, which was created a decade ago, has spurred a growing panoply of cryptocurrencies and an online ledger system called blockchain that many believe could be revolutionary for the international banking system. The value of the currency has skyrocketed in recent months. A single bitcoin was equal to about $11,550 on Tuesday, according to Google.
As the public flocks to the currency, “experimentation is happening” among Islamic terrorists, Fanusie said. Groups are using social media to solicit donations and post bitcoin addresses for the payments, including a group that claimed to be supporting fighters in Syria.
“Perhaps there’s been an uptick because of the price rise and now everybody just knows about bitcoin, but this is clearly a way to raise funds,” he said.
So far, the groups have not been very successful with cryptocurrency.
“It is very easy to put up a bitcoin address. It is more difficult to get people to sort of widely adopt this as a fundraising method,” Fanusie said.
Russia is hoping for better luck with its bid to formally legalize the trading of bitcoin and other types of digital currency with new legislation, which officials there reportedly believe could allow the country to move money internationally in defiance of sanctions.
The U.S. has sanctioned Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its fueling of a civil war in Ukraine. Congress also passed sanctions last year after Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Venezuela has created its own digital currency called the “petro,” a reference to its oil resources. But the U.S. Treasury warned investors Tuesday that the country could try to use the currency to circumvent sanctions, according to Reuters.
The U.S. issued sanctions against Caracas in 2015 due to deteriorating human rights as well as political and press freedoms. President Trump issued a new round of sanctions in August.
“There is an intent there that I think is being telegraphed, where the aim is not to evade sanctions tomorrow but to create a system so where there are sanctions … that the actors who are designated are resistant to it because they have an alternative means,” Fanusie said.
Overall, the cryptocurrency and blockchain technology has been incubating for years and other countries around the world have been quick to see the potential.
“If you go to London and say ‘blockchain’ it’d be hard to find people who don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Jamie Smith, the global chief communications officer at the Bitfury Group who served in the White House during the Obama administration.
But Americans — and the U.S. regulatory and national security system — have been much slower to understand and react to the rise of the new currency, which could one day challenge the old system of fiat currency and the dominance of the dollar in global banking, Smith said. Fiat currency refers to money that is deemed to have value by a government.
“I am severely concerned about the U.S. angle on this,” she said. “I think we are asleep at the wheel. I think this is moving way faster than people understand … we need to learn really quickly and get ahead of this.”