By Drew Alyeshmerni:
In Judaism, it’s tzedakah. In Islam, it’s zakat. In Christianity, it’s tithing. Each major religion sees the importance of giving charity, whether for the sake of doing good or as a religious obligation. Other influences on an individual’s propensity for charitable donations include political affiliation, religion, race, sexual orientation, country of origin, interests or concerns.
Charities provide local or international assistance and are often regulated by government entities such as the Internal Revenue Service in the United States and the Charity Commission1 in the United Kingdom. These organisations try to make sure that charities operating in conflict zones do not have ties to terrorism. Charities diverting money towards terrorist groups has happened in the Syrian Civil War and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Due to the large number of local and international organizations raising funds for Syrian relief efforts, the Charity Commission issued an alert in April 2013 titled ‘Safer Giving Advice for Syria’. Their concerns have proved prescient. In February 2014, British citizen Abdul Waheed Majid joined an aid convoy heading to Aleppo with the Birmingham-based ‘Children in Deen’ organization. While in Syria, he abandoned his convoy, joined the Al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, and drove a truck full of explosives into a prison wall. His suicide mission – partially funded by unsuspecting individuals’ charitable contributions – caused dozens of civilian deaths and allowed hundreds of dangerous prisoners to escape.2
Events such as Majid’s suicide mission have sparked great concern over the destination of funds raised by charities who claim to be doing humanitarian work but are actually directly or indirectly supporting terrorist groups. Since February 2014, the Charity Commission has opened an investigation into 86 aid groups suspected of supporting extremists, including 37 charities involved in providing aid to war-torn Syria.3 In addition to Children in Deen, these charities include Aid Convoy, Syria Aid, and Al-Fatiha Global. The investigations are still underway and dozens of other charities are being monitored for their fundraising activities in the UK.4
This phenomenon – the use of charities as funding fronts for terrorist activities – is not new. After the September 11, 2001, attacks the United States government initiated the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) in order to identify, track and pursue terrorist groups’ sources of funding.5 Through the TFTP, the US government has uncovered and shut down over 40 designated charities used as Potential Fundraising Front Organizations, or PFFOs.6 In August 2010 the US entered a TFTP agreement with the European Union.7 This agreement enables the sharing of intelligence between the US and the EU, although there are limits to the efficiency of the US in preventing the flow of funds to terrorist organizations. Prime examples of these limits are the attitudes and actions by other countries against organizations such as Hamas, a US-designated terrorist organization that operates throughout the Levant, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.
Charitable organizations identified as PFFOs for Hamas in the US are not designated as such in the EU and UK. One such organization is Interpal, the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund. Interpal, a UK-based charity, is allegedly designed to hide the flow of money to Hamas.8 According to the US Treasury, Hamas raises tens of millions of dollars per year throughout the world by using charitable fundraising as a cover.9
While Hamas supports a wide array of humanitarian projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their work is also a primary recruiting tool for the organization’s military wing,10 which is responsible for carrying out acts of terrorism against Israel. These include the June 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, the firing of 11,000 rockets since 2005 upon southern Israel’s civilians, and the use of cross-border tunnels to carry out attacks within Israel. In stark contrast to the findings of ongoing investigations into organizations feared to be funding terrorist operations in Syria, the UK’s Charity Commission claims that Interpal does not support terrorism.11 Additionally, the EU has actually removed Hamas from its list of designated terrorist organizations.12
What is the effectiveness then of the Charity Commission’s policy aimed at eradicating the abuse of charitable organizations by Syrian-based terror groups when potential fundraising front organizations for other groups such as Hamas, still considered a terrorist organisation in countries such as Egypt and the United States, are allowed to freely operate on British and European soil?
In the case of Hamas and Interpal, the joint EU-US TFTP agreement and system of checks erected in the UK’s Charity Act of 2006 to audit charities suspected of abuse are proving to be tools influenced by public opinion surrounding the political climate on any given day. In the case of the few dozen Syrian-linked charities in the UK being investigated by the Charity Commission, one has to wonder if the only reason they are being investigated is because of the intense publicity surrounding events that relate Syria to Britain, like Majid’s suicide mission, the beheading of a British aid worker, and the migration of 500 British jihadists to the Islamic State. Would those charities have even been flagged for review if not for these events? And if not for these events, would the Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front have been considered terrorist organizations, or would they have been considered nationalist liberation organizations for the Sunnis of the Middle East, much like Hamas for the Palestinians? The point is that public opinion seems to determine the policy of those organisations charged with investigating charities suspected of funding terrorist groups.
After exploring these two different cases in Syria and Palestine, we must ask ourselves the following questions: Are the policies used to oversee and investigate charities indeed founded on justice, or are they simply based on political interest and public opinion? Is it important for individual donors to do their due diligence when determining where to make their international charitable contributions, or must donors simply put their trust in governmental bodies that may potentially be influenced by politics and public opinion?
In order to ensure that your charitable contributions go directly to supporting the cause you care about, dig a little deeper with your research. Look at other countries’ information on charities to which you are considering making a contribution, and consider whether there is a correlation between the activities of such charities and the operations of terrorist organizations. Your generosity is surely heartfelt, but unless you do the necessary research, you may unwittingly be supporting a cause other than the one you intended.
Drew Alyeshmerni has an MA in Public Policy from Tel Aviv University and certification in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona. While in Israel she coordinated international humanitarian aid projects for the Palestinian population of the West Bank under the Civil Administration and worked in a variety of Human Rights groups, including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, and the Center for Jewish Arab Economic Development. Drew currently lives in Los Angeles, California, where she focuses on reconciliation between Arabs and Jews on college campuses. Find her on LinkedIn.
This article was the final part of a Strife series on terrorist financing. Over the last four weeks authors have examined different methods of terrorist financing, using modern and varied case studies, offering a new look at who and what is funding today’s terror activities. In Part I Arne Holverscheid discussed the role of private Kuwaiti donors in financing rebel groups in Syria affiliated with terror organisations and blurring the lines between good and bad, friend and foe. In Part II Claire Mennessier examined the involvement of Pakistan in financing terror groups, and the motivations and challenges presented by this involvement. Last week, in Part III, Samuel Smith addressed the frightening trend of kidnapping for ransom as a source of finance for terror groups through a case study of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
1 The Charity Commission is responsible for registering eligible charitable organisations in the United Kingdom and investigating cases of malpractice or misconduct by charitable organisations. See the following page for further information: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/charity-commission/about
2 Sophie Jane Evans, “Investigation Launched into Birmingham Charity Used by ‘British Suicide Bomber’ to Travel to Syria and Carry out Attack,” Mail Online, March 3, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2571460/Children-Deen-used-British-suicide-bomber-travel-Syria-carry-attack.html.
3 Tim Ross et al., “Charity Commission: British Charities Investigated for Terror Risk,” The Telegraph, November 1, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11203569/Charity-Commission-British-charities-investigated-for-terror-links.html
5 “Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP),” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 5, 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/terrorist-illicit-finance/Terrorist-Finance-Tracking/Pages/tftp.aspx.
6 “Protecting Charitable Organizations – E ,” U.S. Department of Treasury, August 21, 2007, http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/terrorist-illicit-finance/Pages/protecting-charities_execorder_13224-e.aspx .
7 “Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme,” European Commission, December 12, 2014, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/crisis-and-terrorism/tftp/index_en.htm.
8 “Protecting Charitable Organizations – E” – Listed under Interpal
9 ibid- listed under H- Hamas Fundraising
10 ibid -Listed under H- Hamas Fundraising
11“UK Charity Commission: Interpal Not Supporting Terror Groups,” Charity and Security Network, April 9, 2009, http://www.charityandsecurity.org/news/UK_Charity_Commission_Interpal_Not%20Supporting_Terror.
12“EU court takes Hamas off terrorist organisations list,” BBC, December 17, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30511569