Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Key sponsors and donors: Islamic charities

Several major charities based in the Gulf that have, in the past, been implicated in financing jihadi terrorism continue to operate openly today.  We will examine specific examples below from Qatar, Kuwait and also Turkey.  Their activities tend to combine humanitarian relief and development projects with overt Wahhabi missionary operations (fundamentalist preaching and mosque-building), often in zones of conflict or sectarian tensions.  In their fundraising they appeal to pious Muslims’ concerns for people in poor, disaster-stricken and war-ravaged areas, especially fellow-Muslims.  They offer mosque-building, well-digging and the sponsorship of orphans, among other good works, as appropriate channels for Muslim philanthropy.

It is far from clear how much of this charity may be wittingly or unwittingly diverted to jihadi ends today.  One problem from a counter-terrorism perspective, however, is that the infusion of funds or even humanitarian relief aid into areas where extremist groups are active may allow these groups to seem to be providing food, social services and medical care.  This in turn may enable them to bolster their standing within local communities, thereby increasing support for their violent activities.  As one analyst put it, when discussing a Kuwaiti donor’s support for several hospitals run and used by the Free Syrian Army, “such work may be humanitarian in nature but it clearly has partisan implications”.  And as US Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen concluded in March 2014: “Even legitimate charitable activity that benefits a terrorist organisation strengthens that organisation; this is why they do it. Although some of our international partners may disagree with us, we must not allow terrorist organisations to use the cover of seemingly legitimate charitable activity to mask and advance their broader violent objectives.”

Another grey area concerns zakat, the regular almsgiving that is obligatory on all Muslims and commonly implemented through donations to charitable organisations.  Some scholars of a Salafist bent claim that zakat money can legitimately be used to fund jihad, but this is controversial.  It is more often held correct to give it to “parents, relatives, orphans, the helpless and travellers in need” (Qur’an 2:215); or that “alms are for the poor and the needy and those employed to administer (the funds), for those whose hearts have (recently) been reconciled (to truth), for those in bondage and in debt, in the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer” (Qur’an 9:60).

However, the phrase translated here as “in the cause of Allah” (also “in the way of Allah”) can be interpreted in various ways.  It was not difficult for this researcher to find, in answer to the question “is it permissible to collect zakat for the mujahideen?”, a fatwa issued by the influential Salafi cleric Sheikh Mohammed bin Saleh al-Uthaymeen of Saudi Arabia, dated September 26, 2007, stating:

“Allah made mujahideen (literally: those who strive) in the way of Allah one of the categories of the people of zakat, so it is permissible for us to give zakat to those who strive in the way of Allah.  But who is a mujahid (person who strives) in the way of Allah?

“The Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) made clear who it is that strives in the way of Allah when he was asked, concerning a man who fights bravely, who fights zealously and who fights so that his status may be seen, which of these is in the way of Allah? and the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) gave us a valuable and just criterion by saying: “He who fights so that the Word of Allah may be supreme, he is in the way of Allah.”  So whoever fights for this purpose, to raise aloft the Word of Allah, to bring the Sharia of Allah into effect, and to introduce the religion of Allah to the land of the infidels, he is in the way of Allah.  He is given zakat, whether by his being given dirhams (money) that he can use for the jihad or by materiel being bought to equip the warriors.”

The phrase “equip the warriors” (tajhiz al-ghuzat) or “equip a warrior” (tajhiz ghazi), thus referencing the virtuous calling of jihad, lends an aura of charitable duty to financing armed violence and the use of IEDs.  It has been used as a fundraising slogan by some of the Jabhat al-Nusra financiers discussed earlier, as well as by the Salafi Bahraini MP discussed in 6.3 above, Sheikh Abdulhalim Murad:

Translation:  Urgent need to equip 5000 fighters to confront more than 20 thousand fighters of the Party of Satan who have entered Homs. 1000 dinars ($2650) for ‘tajhiz ghazi’ (to equip a warrior)

A fatwa cited by the Assembly of Muslims (sic) Jurists in America in 2011 also takes the view that zakat can be used “to support legitimate Jihad activities”, though it does not define “Jihad activities” nor specify what kind would be “legitimate”.

The webpage on which al-Uthaymeen’s fatwa was found (shown below), on the multilingual, also carried advertisements for two Qatari charities linked to the emirate’s ruling Al Thani family – the Sheikh Eid bin Mohammed Al Thani Charitable Foundation (discussed further below) and the Sheikh Thani bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services, known as RAF.

Qatar Charity

We saw earlier, in section 5.2, that in the past Qatar Charity (formerly Qatar Charitable Society) regularly used to channel funds to AQ and its operatives overseas.  It may not entirely have desisted.  In December 2012, for example, a video proclaiming the creation of the Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella group of Jabhat al-Nusra allies that later merged into the Islamic Front, showed Front members providing aid to Syrian civilians with boxes and flags bearing the logos of a Turkish humanitarian group (IHH) that has been suspected of helping Syrian rebels, and also of Qatar Charity.

At around the same time, French politicians explicitly accused Qatar of giving material support to separatists and Islamists in northern Mali.  The French weekly Le Canard Enchaine had previously quoted unnamed French intelligence sources as saying Tuareg separatists and AQ allies Ansar Dine and MUJAO had all received cash from Doha.  The mayor of Gao, a north Malian city that had fallen to the Islamists, told RTL radio: “The French government knows perfectly well who is supporting these terrorists.  Qatar, for example, continues to send so-called aid and food every day to the airports of Gao and Timbuktu.” Doha’s relationship with predominantly Muslim northern Mali is well entrenched.  According to regional expert Mehdi Lazar, Qatar has an established network of institutions it supports in Mali, including madrasas, schools and charities that it has been funding from the 1980s and 1990s.

Qatar Charity has been involved in Mali since at least 2009, when it opened a mosque in the capital, Bamako, and the Malian President came and prayed in it.  In its report on the event, Qatar Charity noted that it had also distributed two tons of canned meat for the Eid in poor villages and school cafeterias, and that “Qatar Charity has carried out several education and health projects in the Republic of Mali, among which were five schools, three clinics, thirty Mosques and two ploy-service [sic] centres”. This categorisation perhaps gives an indication of the organisation’s relative priorities.  The items it is inviting donors to fund in Mali in 2016 are not dissimilar: sheep, cows, sewing machines, motorcycles – and three more small mosques.

Qatar Charity claims to have built 8,148 mosques worldwide in its 30 years of existence, and to have set up 621 schools, sponsored 213,750 orphans, and built 138 Islamic centres in Europe.  Its income in 2015 was QR1.06 billion ($291 million).  Recent aid projects featured in the latest Arabic edition of its magazine Ghiras include providing ambulances to Aleppo, vaccinating Syrian children against polio and measles, humanitarian projects in war-ravaged Yemen, building social housing in Mauritania, and the use of innovative apps, reality TV and social networking ambassadors to encourage charitable giving in Qatar.  It also highlights the opening of a regional office in Ankara to oversee relief operations in Syria and improve its emergency response, and mentions plans to open sub-regional offices in Istanbul and Calais.  Some of Qatar Charity’s activities are now being funded and managed through the linked organisation Qatar Charity UK, which we will look at further in section 7.3.

In one example of a humanitarian operation with a fairly clear partisan or sectarian dimension, in May 2016 Qatar Charity launched a campaign with the slogan “Fallujah is Dying” (pictured above). It aimed to raise money and send relief to tens of thousands of (Sunni) civilians who were either besieged in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah or had been forcibly displaced from their homes there.  The remaining inhabitants were being used as human shields by IS fighters in the city, as Iraqi forces backed by US air power – and ominously partnered with Shia militias – battled to retake it.  Some Shia believed the civilians still living in Fallujah must be sympathetic to IS, and it was widely feared that when the city finally fell the militias would commit abuses against these longsuffering people. The charity aimed to raise QR3 million ($825,000) to provide 10,000 food hampers and a similar number of hygiene packs to help relieve their hardship.

RIHS, Kuwait

Another Gulf charity with a long pedigree of terrorist financing that is nowadays involved in apparently wholesome good works across the world, albeit with a strongly Salafist missionary theme, is the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS).  In 2002 the US Treasury Department blocked the assets of “two organisations and two individuals who have been stealing from widows and orphans to fund al-Qaeda terrorism”.  The organisations were named as the Afghan Support Committee (ASC, an NGO established by Osama Bin Laden) and the Afghanistan and Pakistan offices of RIHS; the individuals were senior officials in the two organisations.  “While portraying themselves as legitimate charitable enterprises,” the Treasury press release said, “the ASC and RIHS have financed and facilitated terrorism. ASC and RIHS personnel… defrauded well-meaning contributors by diverting money donated for widows and orphans to al-Qaida terrorists.  In order to obtain additional funds from the Kuwait RIHS headquarters, the RIHS office in Pakistan padded the number of orphans it claimed to care for by providing names of orphans that did not exist or who had died. Funds then sent for the purpose of caring for the non-existent or dead orphans were instead diverted to al-Qaeda terrorists.”

The US authorities stated at that time that there was “no evidence at this point that this financing was done with the knowledge of RIHS in Kuwait”.  Four years later, however, after RIHS branches had been closed or raided on suspicion of providing support for terrorism by the governments of Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Russia, the Treasury Department designated the entire organisation, including its Kuwait HQ.  It said RIHS provided financial and material support to AQ and AQ affiliates, including Lashkar e-Tayyiba, Jemaah Islamiyah, and Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, and had also provided financial support for acts of terrorism. “Designating and freezing the assets of an organisation engaged in charitable work is a decision not taken lightly, because the last thing we want to do is cut off needed humanitarian assistance”, said Stuart Levey, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. ‘‘However, the reality is that RIHS has used charity and humanitarian assistance as cover to fund terrorist activity and harm innocent civilians, often in poor and impoverished regions. We have a responsibility to do all we can to shut down the funding channels of terrorism.”

The US government concluded that RIHS’s senior leadership, who had actively managed all aspects of the organisation’s day-to-day operations, had been aware of both legitimate and illegitimate uses of RIHS funds and, when other states had taken action against it, had developed multiple methods to continue its operations.

By 2011, in the early stages of the Syrian conflict, RIHS was financing armed groups fighting the Assad regime to the tune of KD 80,000 ($280,000) a month.  In recent years it has also been linked to terrorist activity in Somalia and spreading Salafism in Tunisia, Spain and Egypt.

The RIHS website lists current projects across Africa and Asia, including a clinic in Cambodia, a kindergarten in Tanzania and well-digging in India, but above all mosques, Islamic centres and schools as far afield as Belgium, Denmark, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan and Madagascar.  It offers opportunities to sponsor orphans, Islamic scholars, missionaries and Quran-memorisers, and says that sponsoring Muslim orphans is of great importance, as it has the aim of “raising them in accordance with the correct precepts and understanding of Islam”.  One Islamic centre it is setting up in Indonesia declares as its aim: “To care for orphans and the sons of Muslims, so that they go out as missionaries and Qur’an-memorisers and spread goodness.”  From a non-Salafi perspective one might view this as indoctrination of the vulnerable.

The website carries testimonials from leading clerics including the prominent Salafist Sheikh Mohammed bin Saleh al-Uthaymeen, who issued the fatwa on zakat quoted above, and the late Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia.

In the past 18 months RIHS appears to have been particularly active in east and sub-Saharan Africa, sending delegations to deliver aid to flood victims in Burkino Faso, northern Mali, Niger and Malawi, and to drought victims in the Horn of Africa; and to visit orphanages and other projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti and Cameroon.  Maintaining its historic interest in Syria, the charity also posts under the heading of “Achievements” this year the delivery of emergency medical and food aid to Aleppo on May 1, 2016, which would have been a considerable logistical feat.

Sheikh Eid Foundation, Qatar

Another Gulf charity that does a lot of mosque-building and orphan-raising while also being tainted with jihadist connections is the Sheikh Eid bin Mohammed Al Thani Charitable Foundation in Doha.  The Sheikh Eid charity was banned by Israel in 2008 for financing Hamas, and in 2013 one of its co-founders, Abdulrahman bin Umayr al-Nu’aimi, was designated by the US Treasury Department a major financial backer of al-Qaeda.  Last year Sheikh Eid hired a PR firm in Washington to lobby for it on NGO regulations and charity best practices. The charity is currently heavily engaged in work with Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as in Iraq, and has been campaigning this year for aid for Aleppo. In May 2016 Sheikh Eid announced the ambitious plan of encouraging private businesses in Qatar to donate a percentage of their profits to the foundation during the month of Ramadan, setting a target of QR 36 million, roughly $10 million.

IHH, Turkey

NGOs outside the Gulf have also been tainted by alleged jihadi connections.  One such is Turkey’s IHH (Human Relief Foundation).  IHH has done charitable work since 1992, and is seen as being closely linked to the Turkish government.  Like the other groups already mentioned, IHH carries out legitimate charity work, but it is also alleged to have been involved in weapons transfers to Hamas as well as to militants in Bosnia and Afghanistan and, since 2012, to jihadi groups in Syria.  In the early stages of the Syrian war IHH was seen as the Turkish government’s ‘soft power’ branch into Syria through its aid deliveries.

We have already mentioned how its logo, on boxes of relief supplies, was caught on camera in an Islamic Front video.  In 2013, Turkish police raids on vehicles reportedly owned by IHH near the Syrian border found large caches of weapons that were being sent to Jabhat al-Nusra.  The trucks were allegedly being escorted by personnel from Turkey’s intelligence service, MIT, and after a phone call from the local governor the police were told to stand down.  A similar incident occurred in January 2014; again, the local governor intervened and the police officers intercepting the vehicles were reassigned.

These are not isolated incidents.  In January 2014, Turkish police raided IHH offices in Istanbul, Van, Kilis, Adana, Gaziantep and Kayseri provinces in ‘an anti-al-Qaeda operation’ and detained 28 people.  Two of the police chiefs responsible for the raids were later dismissed, as were eight staff in the various prosecutorial offices involved. In January 2015 leaked documents revealed that Turkey had been orchestrating arms deliveries to several groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra, using IHH vehicles.  According to Ahmet Sait Yayla, a former chief of counter-terrorism in Turkey’s national police who has accused Turkish intelligence of sponsoring terror in Syria, several hundred trucks have been sent by IHH to Syria since 2012.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.