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New York Times
16 Dec 2023
Justin Scheck

NextImg:Israel Found the Hamas Money Machine Years Ago. Nobody Turned It Off.

Israeli security officials scored a major intelligence coup in 2018: secret documents that laid out, in intricate detail, what amounted to a private equity fund that Hamas used to finance its operations.

The ledgers, pilfered from the computer of a senior Hamas official, listed assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Hamas controlled mining, chicken farming and road building companies in Sudan, twin skyscrapers in the United Arab Emirates, a property developer in Algeria, and a real estate firm listed on the Turkish stock exchange.

The documents, which The New York Times reviewed, were a potential road map for choking off Hamas’s money and thwarting its plans. The agents who obtained the records shared them inside their own government and in Washington.

Nothing happened.

For years, none of the companies named in the ledgers faced sanctions from the United States or Israel for years. Nobody publicly called out the companies or pressured Turkey, the hub of the financial network, to shut it down.

A Times investigation found that both senior Israeli and American officials failed to prioritize financial intelligence — which they had in hand — showing that tens of millions of dollars flowed from the companies to Hamas at the exact moment that it was buying new weapons and preparing an attack.

That money, American and Israeli officials now say, helped Hamas build up its military infrastructure and helped lay the groundwork for the Oct. 7 attacks.

“Everyone is talking about failures of intelligence on Oct. 7, but no one is talking about the failure to stop the money,” said Udi Levy, a former chief of Mossad’s economic warfare division. “It’s the money — the money — that allowed this.”

At its peak, Israeli and American officials now say, the portfolio had a value of roughly half a billion dollars.

Even after the Treasury Department finally levied sanctions against the network in 2022, records show, Hamas-linked figures were able to obtain millions of dollars by selling shares in a blacklisted company. The Treasury Department now fears that such money flows will allow Hamas to finance its continuing war with Israel and to rebuild when it is over.

“It’s something we are deeply worried about and expect to see given the financial stress Hamas is under,” said Brian Nelson, the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “What we are trying to do is disrupt that.”

That was what Israel’s terrorism-finance investigators hoped to do with their 2018 discovery. But at the top echelons of the Israeli and American governments, officials focused on putting together a series of financial sanctions against Iran. Neither country prioritized Hamas.

Israeli leaders believed that Hamas was more interested in governing than fighting. By the time the agents discovered the ledgers in 2018, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was encouraging the government of Qatar to deliver millions of dollars to the Gaza Strip. He gambled that the money would buy stability and peace.

Mr. Levy recalled briefing Mr. Netanyahu personally in 2015 about the Hamas portfolio.

“I can tell you for sure that I talked to him about this,” Mr. Levy said. “But he didn’t care that much about it.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s Mossad chief shut down Mr. Levy’s team, Task Force Harpoon, that focused on disrupting the money flowing to groups including Hamas.

Former Harpoon agents grew so frustrated with the inaction that they uploaded some documents to Facebook, hoping that companies and investors would find them and stop doing business with Hamas-linked companies.

ImageMembers of Hamas’s military wing gather next to a large model of a drone. One person is holding the hand of a small child.
Members of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, next to a model of an Ababil drone in 2022 during a rally in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.Credit...Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the years that followed the 2018 discovery, Hamas’s money network burrowed deeper into the mainstream financial system, records show.

The Turkish company at the heart of the operation had such a sheen of legitimacy that major American and European banks managed shares on behalf of clients. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invested tens of thousands of dollars before the company was placed under sanction.

The Times reviewed previously undisclosed intelligence documents and corporate records and interviewed dozens of current officials from the United States, Israel, Turkey and Hamas’s financial network. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Israeli intelligence and security agencies have apologized for the failings that led up to the Oct. 7 attacks.

Mr. Netanyahu has acknowledged that his government failed to protect its people and said that he would face, and answer, tough questions after the war. He has denied, though, that he took his eye off Hamas. But he declined to answer questions from The Times about the ledgers or the hunt for Hamas’s money.

2015: Task Force Harpoon

Israeli security and intelligence officials, working from a secure compound outside Tel Aviv, spent years tracking Hamas’s money. By 2015, they were on to what they called Hamas’s “secret investment portfolio.”

Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State often use front companies to launder money. But here, Israeli agents saw something different, more ambitious: a multinational network of real businesses churning out real profits.

On paper, they looked like unrelated companies. But over and over, the Israelis said they identified the same Hamas-linked figures as shareholders, executives and board members.

There were people like Hisham Qafisheh, a white-goateed Jordanian who studied in Saudi Arabia and had a knack for finding political support. One of his companies won a $500 million highway contract in Sudan.

Hisham Qafisheh

Then there was Amer Al-Shawa, a Turkish man of Palestinian descent who studied electrical engineering in Ohio and more recently spent five months under interrogation in an Emirati jail on suspicion of funding Hamas.

At the top was Ahmed Odeh, a heavyset Jordanian businessman with years of experience in Saudi Arabia. The Israelis learned — and the Americans now say much of this publicly — that Hamas’s governing Shura Council had given Mr. Odeh seed money to build and manage a portfolio of companies.

Hamas, the de facto governing body of Gaza, relied principally on Iran to fund its military wing. But Hamas wanted its own funding stream, too.

The Israeli security services operated a terrorism-finance investigative team at the time called Task Force Harpoon. It put people from across counterterrorism — spies, soldiers, police officers, accountants, lawyers — under the same umbrella and gave them a direct report to the prime minister. The task force even had an economic warfare unit within the Mossad intelligence agency that could covertly act on the intelligence it had gathered.

“We didn’t have any rivalries,” Tamir Pardo, the Mossad chief at the time, said in an interview. “No one got credit for any one operation. It just worked.”

Harpoon, he said, was “one of the most important tools the Mossad had.” It churned out intelligence to financial regulators, law enforcement agencies, politicians and allies in Washington, helping Israel win financial sanctions targeting Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.

Mr. Levy, who ran Harpoon and its dedicated economic warfare unit, recalled the first time he heard about Hamas’s portfolio.

Amer Al-Shawa

“One of the guys on my team, a Mossad guy, showed it to me,” Mr. Levy said. “What we understood then was that they had these companies to make a little bit of money and to use them as a legal platform to transfer money from place to place.”

Back then, the consensus among Israeli officials was that Iran was the bigger threat. It had nuclear ambitions and armed both Hamas and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. So the bulk of the task force’s attention remained focused there.

Still, Mr. Levy said the discovery was enough of a “red flag” that he told Mr. Netanyahu about it.

2016: Shut Down

A 2014 war between Israel and Hamas had left Hamas’s fortifications in ruins and its arsenal depleted.

Hamas, though, was able to rebuild. In 2016, Israeli intelligence officials noted that the group was obtaining GPS jammers, drones and precision weapons, according to a military document reviewed by The Times.

Hamas had added about 6,000 operatives to its ranks since the war ended, and the military had learned that Hamas was developing plans to storm Israeli communities and take hostages.

By 2016, Mr. Netanyahu’s government had begun pursuing a strategy to contain Hamas by allowing the Qataris to send money to Gaza. Mr. Netanyahu says that money was humanitarian aid. Privately, he told others that stabilizing Hamas would lessen pressure on him to negotiate toward a Palestinian state.

That same year, the new Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, dismantled Harpoon as part of an agency reorganization, according to Mr. Levy and others.

Mr. Levy left government that year. A new group of intelligence agents and specialists from a few other agencies kept chasing the money, only without the organizational structure and direct access to senior policymakers.

This new group soon made another alarming discovery.

Up until that point, members of the team told The Times, they had estimated that Hamas was taking about $10 million to $15 million annually from their companies’ profits.

Then they learned, based on sources and other intelligence, that Hamas had sold off some of the secret portfolio’s assets, raising more than $75 million. That money, according to an Israeli intelligence assessment, was sent to Gaza, where it was used to rebuild Hamas’s military infrastructure.

Tamir Pardo, a former head of Mossad, in September in Herzliya, Israel. The Harpoon Task Force, he said, was “one of the most important tools the Mossad had.”Credit...Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

The Israeli authorities have now concluded that this influx of money not only helped Hamas prepare for the Oct. 7 attacks, but gave leaders confidence that they would have the money to rebuild afterward, according to five Israeli security officials.

Exactly how significant that money was to the Oct. 7 attacks is unknown. Israeli officials have promised an inquiry into the intelligence failures that led up to the attacks, and new details may emerge.

But what is clear is that the Israeli government took no public action against the Hamas-linked companies. Instead, it decided to build a case to get the United States government to shut the companies off from the global financial system. But that would take time, and more evidence.

2018: The Big Break

Exactly how Israeli intelligence obtained the ledgers — whether from an informant or a computer hack — remains unclear. But in 2018, the team got the proof it had been seeking.

Residents in 2014 outside their destroyed homes in Beit Lahia, in the Gaza Strip.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The documents were created by Mahmoud Ghazal, a man whom the Israelis had identified as the Hamas portfolio’s bookkeeper.

The ledgers spanned 2012 to 2018 and contained entries and valuations for companies that the agents had been monitoring in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey and elsewhere. The records also contained familiar names, including Mr. Qafisheh and Mr. Al-Shawa.

The documents were hard evidence of what the Israelis had long suspected: Despite what public records said, Hamas was in control.

“It was a big breakthrough,” said one official involved in the investigation. “Hamas could hide behind frontmen and shareholders, but the money always talks.”

The ledgers also contained coded entries that puzzled investigators, but one document was a sort of Rosetta Stone: “QG” for instance, referred to Qitaa Ghaza, or the Gaza Strip. “D” referred to Daffa, or the West Bank. Beside each was a large dollar figure. From this, the Israelis deduced where Hamas was sending its money.

This discovery was quickly bolstered by intelligence from Saudi Arabia. In mid-2018, the Saudis arrested Mr. Ghazal, the Hamas accountant, and two other men who corporate records show held positions in 18 companies in the portfolio.

Under interrogation, Mr. Ghazal confessed that the portfolio existed to transfer money to Hamas, according to records related to the three men’s arrests that were viewed by The Times. He also said that, just as the Israelis had long suspected, Mr. Odeh directed where the money went.

The two other men told their interrogators that they were shareholders in name only. Their stakes were actually owned by Mr. Qafisheh, the goateed Jordanian who had also been on the Israeli radar screen for years. Mr. Qafisheh, the men said, was a Hamas operative.

Yossi Cohen in 2019 in Tel Aviv. As chief of Mossad in 2016, he dismantled Harpoon.Credit...Corinna Kern/Reuters

The documents do not say what the Saudis did to elicit the confessions. The kingdom’s harsh interrogation techniques have earned it international condemnation.

The Saudis shared the materials with Washington, according to officials with direct knowledge of the matter, knowing that Washington would share them with its close ally Israel. The Saudi monarchy has no tolerance for Hamas and hoped that Washington would blacklist the companies, the officials said.

The Israeli team shared the ledgers and its intelligence with American officials in early 2019, hoping to encourage financial sanctions.

But then, nothing.

The Trump administration did not act. Treasury Department officials said that they did not delay any decisions. Issuing sanctions, they said, is a complicated process. And Israel, which was more focused on getting the Americans to issue Iranian sanctions, did not press for more urgent actions, both Israeli and American officials say.

“We have great people still who are trying to do this work,” Mr. Levy said. “But if no one at a high level is putting this as a priority, what can they do?”

2019: Turkey

Though the investment portfolio spanned many countries, Turkey was key.

In a photograph provided by state media, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, right, is seen meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s political chief, in 2020 in Istanbul.Credit...Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

The Saudis had made clear with their arrests that Hamas was not welcome. And the financiers had lost much of their Sudanese income with the fall of the autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir.

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, has not criminalized Hamas nor has it clearly restricted Hamas’s activities in Turkey.

By 2019, Mr. Odeh was in Turkey, as was Mr. Qafisheh.

Mr. Al-Shawa, the Ohio-educated engineer who had been in Israel’s sights for years, spent 135 days in Emirati jails before being released in 2015 — without explanation “and without breakfast,” he told The Times in an interview. He returned to Turkey.

Mr. Erdogan was a major proponent of the nation’s building industry, which was good news for the company at the center of the Hamas portfolio: a real estate developer named Trend GYO.

Trend took advantage of Mr. Erdogan’s building boom. It brought in an investor, Hamid Al Ahmar, with ties to the president. And it reorganized itself as a real estate investment trust, which had Turkish tax advantages, and went public.

Trend’s general manager, Mr. Al-Shawa, said he had no real power at the company. The board, he said, made all of the decisions. He denied being involved with Hamas, but he said that he suspected others at Trend were.

Hamid Al AhmarCredit...Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency

“Do I have proof? No. But sometimes you just have a feeling,” he said. “I really didn’t care. Why should I? I was there to make money.”

Mr. Odeh and Mr. Al Ahmar declined to comment through intermediaries. Trend would not pass messages seeking comment to Mr. Qafisheh, and a spokeswoman said he and Mr. Al Ahmar were no longer involved with the company. The spokeswoman said the question of whether Hamas owned the company was “ridiculous and meaningless.” She said Trend was appealing its Treasury designation. Hamas, through its media office in Lebanon, declined to comment.

Foreign investors piled in. In 2019, while Washington sat on the ledgers, American and European banks held more than 3 percent of the company’s publicly traded shares on behalf of clients, Turkish financial records show. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s investment arm, Ensign Peak Advisors, bought more than 200,000 shares.

There is no indication that the church or the Western banks knew about any Hamas ties at the time. A church spokesman said that a U.S.-based investment adviser, Acadian Asset Management, bought the shares on its behalf. An Acadian spokesman said the company had “complied with all relevant laws.”

While the sanctions proposal languished, Israeli and American officials now say, Hamas appointed a new investment chief, Musa Dudin. Unlike his predecessors, he was a well-known Hamas military operative who had spent 18 years in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly attacks.

Mr. Dudin, too, has resettled in Turkey. Mr. Dudin declined to comment through an intermediary.

Meanwhile, Hamas-linked owners began cashing out. In 2019, Mr. Qafisheh sold more than $500,000 worth of stock, corporate filings show. In 2020, Mr. Al Ahmar sold shares worth $1.6 million.

The company’s owners got money out of the company another way, too. Mr. Al-Shawa, in his interview, said that the board pushed him to award Trend contracts to a construction company that Mr. Qafisheh owned with two other Trend shareholders.

Company records show that Trend paid that company more than $7.5 million from 2018 to 2022 — one example of how Hamas-linked figures pulled cash from the portfolio.

Trend, in a written statement, said it had paid the construction company “in accordance with commercial practices and legal rules” and no longer has a relationship with the company.

The Israeli agents understood that Iranian sanctions would take precedence over Hamas but were frustrated by the delays. At their wits’ end, former Task Force Harpoon members took a desperate step. In June 2021, they uploaded some of the Hamas financial records to Facebook. The documents revealed a few nodes of the secret network, including Trend. It is unclear whether that was authorized.

The goal was to create a trail of online breadcrumbs for journalists, financial investigators and others to follow. The Facebook post generated a smattering of news coverage.

The Trend GYO headquarters in Istanbul.Credit...Justin Scheck/The New York Times

“There wasn’t any way to use the intelligence we had,” said Uzi Shawa, a former Mossad agent and Harpoon member. “It was almost done as a last resort.”

Finally, in May 2022, the Treasury Department announced financial sanctions against what it called an expansive Hamas funding network. Mr. Odeh and Mr. Qafisheh were named as financiers.

“The United States is committed to denying Hamas the ability to generate and move funds and to holding Hamas accountable for its role in promoting and carrying out violence,” the department said.

Trend was financially blacklisted, as were several other associated companies.

All had been named in the ledgers that the Israeli team had given the Americans three years earlier.

2023: Aftermath

Musa DudinCredit...via Facebook

Late last month, Mr. Nelson, the Treasury Department official, flew to Turkey to urge the Turkish government to stop sheltering Hamas’s money.

“It’s the highest priority in our building,” he said in an interview this month. The department recently added Mr. Dudin, Mr. Al-Shawa and others to the financial blacklist. Mr. Al-Shawa said he was appealing the decision.

Mr. Erdogan has given no indication that he intends to recognize those sanctions. After the Oct. 7 attacks, he declared that Hamas was not a terrorist organization, but a “liberation group.”

Americans “are the only ones who set the law in the world and all others follow,” Hasan Turan, a minister from Mr. Erdogan’s governing party, said in a recent interview. “It is not acceptable.”

Mr. Turan even met with Mr. Al Ahmar, the former Trend investor, last month to discuss ways to support the Palestinians.

The value of Trend’s stock, which is still traded on the Istanbul exchange, has more than doubled since it was added to the sanctions list. During that same period, two Trend shareholders now under sanction sold $4.3 million in stock, corporate filings show. Asked if that money went to Hamas, the company’s chairman said he did not know and it would be inappropriate to ask.

And as recently as this year, Hamas-tied companies and people under sanction were still able to hold Turkish bank accounts in U.S. dollars, banking records reviewed by The Times show, despite ostensibly being cut off from the American financial system.

Mr. Pardo, the former Mossad chief, said he did not know what happened after he left in 2016. But “from the results,” he said, “you can judge that they had a lot of money.”

“I believe that if someone would have chased the money and stopped it,” he added, “we wouldn’t be seeing the results of what we see today.”

Mr. Levy, the former Harpoon deputy, grows emotional when he talks about the Hamas money. “I want to do everything we can to prevent war,” he said. “I really believed that we could do that by going after the financial infrastructure of terrorist groups. But we have to be serious.”

Ronen Bergman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.