In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it became clear to intelligence agencies that tracking the funds of terrorist groups and individuals was one of the most powerful tools at their disposal. Thus, “follow the money,” a Watergate-era dictum, acquired renewed relevance in the 21st century. Monitoring money flows would not only allow those fighting terrorism to disrupt al-Qaeda’s financial support, but, even more important, it could provide actionable intelligence about the terrorists’ identities, their whereabouts and, in some cases, even their future targets.
Unfortunately, it became equally apparent that there were significant hurdles in tracking these money flows. The international financial system was rife with centuries-old rules, institutions and practices that made it very easy for banks to shield their clients’ identities and hide their assets and transactions from the prying eyes of tax authorities, law enforcement agencies, and litigious business partners or former spouses.