ISLAMIC NGOs AND THE MURKY BUSINESS OF FUELING THE SYRIAN JIHAD
By Ronald Sandee
Among the array of activities that help analysts map al-Qa’ida’s international network while dually building understandings of key sources of support for the Global Jihad movement, following the money is crucial. Today, thwarting terrorist threats emanating from Syrian territory will likely require an equal, if not greater investment in terror finance investigations than were made by the US and its partners in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. While it is known that much private support for the world’s newest jihad theater is flowing to Syria from the Gulf, it is clear a number of prominent jihadist groups active in Syria are garnering support from extra-regional fundraising and facilitation networks — many of which operate in the West.
Not until after the 9/11 attacks did many Western intelligence services have a clear picture of the sophisticated ways al-Qa’ida and other jihadist groups utilize NGOs. But since at least the 1980s, NGOs had been used by these elements to not only perform fundraising work, but to also undertake other activities that have helped al-Qa’ida and similar groups pursue their goals. For instance, both the Saudi Islamic NGO al-Wafa Humanitarian Organization (Wafa al-Igatha al-Islamia) and the Pakistani NGO Umma Tameer-e-Nau (UTN) were actively involved in al-Qa’ida’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Following 9/11, one of the first significant pieces of evidence that shed light on al-Qa’ida’s fundraising activities was the so-called “Golden Chain” (See above image). The Golden Chain was a one-page document that was probably created before al-Qa’ida was officially organized. It contained what was likely a mere wish list of potential donors; a list similar to those created by development officers at nonprofit organizations in the US before launching fundraising campaigns. Some who appeared on the list were to be approached by Usama bin Laden, others were to be solicited by Wa’el Julaidan, and so on. The document was called the Golden Chain because all of the names thereon are connected with signatures.
Prosecutors in the trial of Syrian-born American citizen Enaam M. Arnaout noted the presence of a signature on the Golden Chain was likely an indication the signer received money from a specified donor (See page 30 here). However, I believe it is more likely the signatures were placed on the document by individuals who had assumed responsibility for managing relations with specific prospective donors whose names are linked to their signatures. In either case, the document indicates al-Qa’ida’s fundraising work was well organized, with its senior-most members engaged in solicitation work on behalf of the enterprise.
While it is not known if all prospects listed on the document were actually contacted by al-Qa’ida, from the Tareekh Osama files used to support official investigations of al-Qa’ida in the West one learns of roles played in important NGOs by individuals who were part of bin Laden’s network. One notable dual agent was Wa’el Julaidan (aka Abu Hassan al-Madani), who was not only working with the Maktab al-Khidamat (MaK) run by Abdallah Azzam and Usama bin Ladin, but was also the head of the International Islamic Relief Organization’s (IIRO) in Peshawar, an organization US federal investigators determined was under the umbrella of the Muslim World League (See page 19 here). In this capacity, Julaiden was able to use official IIRO letterhead from his office to assist both the MaK and, later, al-Qa’ida.
By the conclusion of the Balkan Wars, al-Qa’ida-linked groups had perfected the practice of using Islamic NGOs like Benevolence International as front organizations. Some Islamic NGOs were willing supporters — some were actually created for this specific purpose. Others were infiltrated and manipulated by members of al-Qa’ida and the like.
Eventually it became clear that many businessmen and other individuals on the Arabian Peninsula were funneling money through NGOs to support bin Laden’s efforts to set the world on fire. Under heavy pressure from the West, the Saudi government in particular was forced to take steps to address this situation. One result was the shuttering of the prominent Islamic NGO al-Haramain due to its unwillingness to discontinue support for violent jihadis like the Saudi leadership of al-Waqf al-Islami, who are running a radical Mosque in the Netherlands and are active in the Balkans, notably in Bulgaria.
During the decade following 9/11, many Islamic NGOs were closely monitored. As Western intelligence services and law enforcement officials became more aware of fundraising and facilitation networks supporting the Global Jihad movement, important investigative breakthroughs were made by examining activities of the parent organizations of Salafi Mosques.
Often, organizations that were supporting violent extremists were designated by the United States, United Nations and the European Union as supporters/facilitators of terrorist organizations. Typically, these NGOs that were operating in the Middle East and the West derived the bulk of their financial support from wealthy patrons in the Gulf. However, we now see a significant change.
In response to the horrors unfolding in Syria, Muslim communities in the West have become increasingly willing to open their wallets to help the Syrian people. Funding drives in one city often bring in more than €100,000 per day. Although most donors probably don’t intend for their money to be used to support terrorism, those responsible for collecting and distributing this money sometimes have different agendas.
Basic indicators that ties may exist between these fundraising entities and groups designated terrorist organizations by Western governments include:
Some newly established Islamic NGOs active in Western Europe use well designed websites that convey information in several languages while portraying their organizations as local foundations, even when the entities are not registered in the countries in which they conduct fundraising activities. Other Islamic foundations collecting money in Europe and delivering it in person to Syria are very careful not to use their real names while fundraising in the West. Some openly proclaim support for jihadi groups active in Syria.
One traveling preacher/fundraiser active in multiple countries has highlighted online his work collecting more than €500,000 for Syrians in nearly a dozen Mosques. He is apparently very respected by fighters in Syria, who keep in touch with him using online social media platforms like Twitter, and his online accounts reveal he travelled to Syria to deliver money in person.
With respect to donations collected from donors who intend to support jihadis, a new and interesting dimension of the Global Jihad movement has become evident in the ease with which fundraisers and facilitators for the Syrian jihad are raising large sums from donors in the West. Whereas the Arabian Peninsula was previously the chief source of support for radical Islamist groups, now we see that European jihadis are funded by European Muslim businessmen.
Ultimately, while active funding drives in Mosques and through social media (often in Arabic, Berber or Turkish) have energized Muslim communities willing to help Syrian refugees, the proceeds can end up in murky webs of radical Islamist facilitators/preachers who are not held accountable for how funds are used in Syria. Indeed, it is possible that a significant sum of money raised in the West from donors motivated by humanitarian concerns has been funneled to jihadist groups. Meanwhile, as substantial support for the Syrian jihad is flowing from Muslim communities in the West, it is important for officials to be mindful that some organizations engaged in fundraising work for al-Qa’ida have been tasked with performing other work in support of the Global Jihad, too.