Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

‘Soft power’ financing of religious, cultural and educational networks that nurture the jihadi ideology- Case study: Qatar Charity and the Muslim Brotherhood network in Europe

With this caution in mind about how to interpret the underlying motives and possible ramifications of foreign funding of mosques in western Europe, we turn now, as an extensive case study, to an ambitious Wahhabi missionary project in the West that is part of Qatar Charity’s “Ghaith Initiative”, and its relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood-allied Union des organisations islamiques en Europe (UOIE; or Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe – FIOE).

In June 2016, a delegation from the governing board of the Al Noor Centre in Mulhouse, northern France, visited Doha seeking donations to help complete construction of “the largest Islamic centre in Europe”, described in a press release as a project of Qatar Charity’s “Ghaith Initiative”.  The delegation included three Frenchwomen described as supervisors of Al Noor France and identified as preacher Khadijah Halfiah, a board member of the Muslim Association of Alsace (AMAL) and the Noor Centre’s fundraiser; Beyout Ogheili (a recent ‘revert’ to Islam), a bank manager and financial adviser to AMAL; and Hind Al-Mohafidh, another AMAL board member.

The AMAL delegation from Mulhouse and Sheikh Dr Ahmed al-Hammadi in Doha.

Qatar Charity’s chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Nasser bin Jassem Al Thani, said the project reflected the charity’s eagerness to “strengthen the Islamic identity of Muslim communities in Europe, supporting the idea of ​​peaceful coexistence between different cultures, promoting a proper understanding of the values ​​and principles of Islam and reflecting a moderate interaction with Muslim communities”.

It was stated that the centre is being overseen by Qatar Charity UK, whose deputy chairman, Salah al-Hammadi, is the son of the Qatari missionary preacher Sheikh Dr Ahmed al-Hammadi, the driving force behind the Ghaith Initiative.  In June 2015, shortly before the launch of the initiative, Sheikh Ahmed could be seen tweeting, with Islamic chauvinism, that “the historic impact of the Muslims on Europe remains to this day, and cannot in fairness be denied”, and that “leading scholars in Europe testify to the major role of the Muslims in its renaissance”.  He was already fundraising on Twitter and on local TV channels for Islamic schools in France, where he said there were 12 million Muslims (at least double most other estimates) and that 10,000 people a year were being brought into Islam. “The Al Noor Centre is a quantum leap in terms of projects in Europe,” the younger al-Hammadi said at the French delegation’s press conference.

Qatar Charity says the centre will be “strategically located in the border region between France, Germany and Switzerland” and serve 200,000 Muslims in the area. The project will cost €27 million ($29.4 million), of which nearly half had been raised by June 2016, and it has the backing of Qatar’s Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic endowments) and Islamic Affairs. It will cooperate fully “with all local authorities and institutions working for the public benefit and fighting against Islamophobia, racism and incitement to hatred, contributing to Muslim community service, helping them to practise their religious duties, meeting their cultural needs and activating the spirit of active citizenship and positive partnership and commitment. It will also teach Arabic language and Islamic education to more than 800 children and young people – including Quran memorisation – and incorporate a regular school which will accommodate 300 students, providing them with a good level of education which will allow them to ultimately enter the most prestigious local universities.”

Qatar Charity calls the Ghaith Initiative a “natural extension” of projects established over the past few years under the supervision of Sheikh Dr Ahmed Al Hammadi, which have included the creation of 138 Islamic centres across Europe.  Similar projects in France for which the Qatar Charity website is currently soliciting financial support include an Islamic cultural centre in the ‘strategic’ city of Strasbourg (apparently ‘the capital of the European Union’); an educational and cultural centre in Belfort, also in northeast France; and the European Institute for Human Sciences (IESH), a residential imam-training centre near Chateau Chinon in central France that also offers distance learning, summer schools and family holidays.  The IESH was set up by the Union des organisations islamiques en Europe (UOIE) – one of a number of organisations designated terrorist by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2014.

The institute has been teaching Arabic, Quran-memorisation and religious studies since 1990, and is at present fundraising for a new mosque and accommodation block.  The IESH has been “voted Quran Institute of the Year by the Muslim World League”, based in Mecca.  It also publishes fatwas on happenings in Europe based on the guidance of the Dublin-based European Council on Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which was established by the UOIE in 1997 and is chaired by the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood (MB) preacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi. According to Wikipedia, one of the objectives of the ECFR is to “promote, and control, the local education of native imams”.  This is something that might help to counter criticism of the foreign-born imams often appointed in the past to preach in foreign-funded mosques in Europe without adequate knowledge of local conditions or even languages.  However, this claim is not supported by the ECFR’s own constitution.

ECFR’s Facebook profile picture

There is an intricate network of relationships between the UOIE and its French offshoot (the UOIF) and their many mosques, the ECFR, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Qataris and others.  The UOIF was founded in 1983 in by two students, from Tunisia and Iraq, as a federation of about 15 Muslim organisations in France, and now owns and manages hundreds of mosques.  It is seen as representing the MB in France, and it therefore makes sense for Qatar, which has for decades had close links with the Brotherhood in several parts of the world, to channel its investment in French Islam into UOIF-affiliated mosques and centres.  According to one French commentator, Qatar’s financing of French mosques has followed the model of earlier Moroccan, Algerian and Saudi backers, “but with a greater emphasis on proselytising”.  He also pointed out the contrasts between the Qataris’ association with the MB and its activist political reform agenda, the conservative Salafism promoted by the Saudis, and the nationally-based ties linking Moroccan and Algerian funders to an older generation of Muslim immigrants.

The controversial Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi (French commentators sometimes call him ‘sulfureux’, sulphurous) plays an influential role as head of the ECFR.  He has been accused of “flooding Europe with his fatwas from Dublin” while continuing to preach in Doha and broadcast his popular talk show Al-Sharia wal-Hayat (Sharia and Life) to millions of viewers worldwide on Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite TV.  Qaradawi advocates the integration of Muslims into the modern world and has opposed certain extremist views, but he has frequently voiced anti-Semitic views in the past and justified suicide bombings, including by women, in Palestine.  Qaradawi was also a regular guest at the IESH in Chateau Chinon and at UOIF gatherings in France before being banned in 2012 from visiting the country.  The many other MB guest speakers and preachers at UOIF mosques and seminars have included Professor Tariq Ramadan and his allegedly more radical and openly anti-Semitic brother Hani (grandsons, incidentally, of MB founder Hassan al-Banna).

Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi; Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, mother of the Emir of Qatar; and Professor Tariq Ramadan, who holds the Qatar-sponsored chair of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University

The Noor Centre in Mulhouse, meanwhile, into which Qatar Charity has already injected large amounts of funding, is run by the UOIF-affiliated Muslim Association of Alsace (AMAL).  The project to replace AMAL’s older and much smaller facilities with a majestic new all-purpose centre was launched in 2009 with money from Kuwait as well as Qatar in addition to local donations, and reportedly has the backing of Youssef al-Qaradawi.  Other French Muslim groups have criticised what they see as the inappropriately grandiose scale of the project and its alleged commercial and political dimensions, as well as accusing AMAL of financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency about the Qatari donations.

Qatar Charity UK (QCUK)

In 2014, with the help of a £99,151 ($120,000) loan from AMAL, Qatar Charity opened an office in London “because of the need for direct supervision of Qatar Charity projects in Britain and in Europe generally, especially with the development of these projects and their increase in size,” according to Chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Nasser Al Thani.  He said more than QR500 million ($137 milllion) had been spent since 2010 on projects in Europe, “which has included a number of projects for the benefit of the Muslim communities there”.  The new office’s managing director, Salman Kaldari, said the primary goal was to support the social and economic progress of the most disadvantaged in the UK and other European countries, but in reality the London outfit appears from company documents to be more focused on Islamic projects.  QCUK’s website is currently suspended, but elsewhere it has described itself as “a non-faith-based charity that is focused on making a sustainable and meaningful impact to communities regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender or colour. However, the charity also receives and distributes donations that are specifically earmarked for projects related to Ramadan and other Islamic traditions.”

During its first full year of operations, 2014-15, QCUK’s income was £4,457,191 ($5,447,935), of which 99.5% consisted of grants from Qatar Charity in Doha.  £3,979,451 of the total took the form of restricted donations, of which just 3.1% was spent during the year; a further 5.1% was accounted for by a net loss on foreign exchange.  £85,400 from Doha was spent on helping local organisations in the UK to provide Ramadan meals for the poor in the community, and £38,768 of Doha money was used to alleviate food shortages among the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar (a cause also strongly promoted by Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV).  Money from general unrestricted funds was used to help establish a centre for rape victims in Bosnia.  Also, under the working name of ‘Nectar Trust’, QCUK partnered with Mosaic, a youth project of the Prince of Wales’s charitable trust, as part of a strategy to build relations with reputable charities and other organisations.

The unspent 92% of restricted funding, which is to be disbursed once due diligence processes are complete, was earmarked for projects including:

  • £2,139,139 for three “community centres”, two in the UK and one in Europe, including facilities for marriage functions, sports and day care centres, prayer areas, shops, and classrooms for teaching Arabic;
  • £802,437 for the IEHS imam-training centre at Chateau Chinon in France;
  • £695,696 for the Emaan Trust in Sheffield, northern England, founded in 2004 with the objective of “establishing a major Islamic centre”, which has twice been visited by Dr Ahmed al-Hammadi of Qatar Charity’s Ghaith Initiative, most recently in July 2016; one of Emaan’s trustees, Ahmad al-Rawi, was formerly president of the UOIE;
  • £92,933 for Swansea University Campus; and
  • £61,576 for a multipurpose centre in Mulhouse, northern France; the money was due to be reassigned, once permission from Doha was confirmed, as the trustees decided after due diligence not to go ahead with the project.

In addition, £3,188 – a rather small amount for a major humanitarian charity, and also unspent – was earmarked for Syrian refugees.

During the financial year 2014-15 QCUK paid back in full the £99,151 loan from AMAL; the trustees’ annual report duly noted that QCUK’s director-general, Ayyoub Abouliaqin, was an AMAL trustee.  It also noted, under ‘related party transactions’, that QCUK’s chairman, Yousef al-Kuwari, was CEO of Qatar Charity in Doha, and that one of QCUK’s other trustees, Mohammad al-Ghamdi, was the Doha charity’s executive director for international development.  Since February 2016 there have been no British trustees on the board, and al-Ghamdi has stepped down, leaving Yousef al-Kuwari in charge along with fellow-Qataris Mohammed Saadon al-Kuwari and Salah Ahmed al-Hammadi.

Qatar Charity and its UK operation, which has the blessing of the Qatari embassy in London, clearly has big ambitions.  QCUK’s stated vision is to be “the main charitable partner for Qatari investors in UK and Europe” and “provide opportunities for Qatari investors and businesses in the UK and elsewhere to demonstrate and increase the effectiveness of their corporate social responsibility”.  While broadly philanthropic in nature, however, its plan of work is also strongly oriented to spreading and strengthening the Qatari brand of the Islamic faith in Europe, and hardly transparent about doing so.  We will discuss further below whether, or to what extent, activities of this kind should give rise to concern.

UK inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)

A Palestinian official once reportedly claimed “the Americans mistakenly think that moderate political Islam, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, would be able to combat radical Islam”. Contacts between the US and UK governments and various MB representatives over the years may well have had this thought in mind.  Key allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, however, have all banned the Brotherhood, calling it a terrorist organisation, and made clear their desire for Western governments to do likewise.  In 2014 British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an inquiry into the MB and MB-related groups and their extensive but secretive operations in the UK and elsewhere.  Allegedly under Saudi pressure to come up with damning evidence against the Brotherhood, the British government eventually published the main findings in December 2015.

The inquiry found that for the most part, the MB have preferred non-violent incremental change as the means of achieving their goal of establishing an Islamic state, but they are prepared to countenance violence – including, from time to time, terrorism – where gradualism is ineffective.  They have not been linked to terrorist-related activity in and against the UK, and have often condemned such activity in the UK associated with al-Qaeda.  However, MB-related organisations and individuals in the UK have openly supported the activities of the Palestinian Islamist organisation Hamas, and some have consistently opposed programmes by successive UK governments to prevent terrorism.  (Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007, has been designated a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and Canada, and its military wing by the EU, Japan, the UK and Australia; it is supported by Qatar and Turkey.  It has carried out IED and suicide attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets, and continues to make rocket attacks against Israel.)

The MB, the inquiry report went on, faced a significant challenge for community support in the UK from militant Salafists who returned to the country after fighting in Afghanistan and who regarded the Brotherhood as ineffective.  For some years, the MB shaped the new Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), dominated the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and played an important role in establishing and then running the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).  The MCB sought and obtained a dialogue with the government, and the MAB were active partners in a security dialogue with the police, collaborating with them to eject a militant Salafist preacher, Abu Hamza, from the Finsbury Park mosque in north London.  However, the inquiry stated, there had been no substantive dialogue between government and any part of the Brotherhood in the UK since 2009.  The MAB appeared less active than previously, it said, and since 2001 the ISB had distanced itself from the MB and consciously set out to promote a British Muslim identity and support British values.

The inquiry found that a complex network of charities and fundraising groups associated with the MB had also developed in the UK over many years. Whilst some of these seem to be raising funds only for the Brotherhood in the UK, others have been linked to Hamas.  As of July 2014, members of Al-Islah, the Emirati chapter of the MB, resident in the UK were also linked to several UK-based charities that were in turn associated with the UK-based Emirates Media and Studies Centre.  The inquiry’s report added that MB organisations in the UK, including charities, are connected to counterparts elsewhere in Europe.  The MAB, for example, is associated with the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE, or UOIE), established by the MB in 1989.

The inquiry noted in conclusion that much about the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK remains secretive, including membership, fundraising and educational programmes, but MB associates and affiliates in the UK have at times had significant influence on the largest UK Muslim student organisation, on national organisations that have claimed to represent Muslim communities, and on charities and some mosques. Though their domestic influence has declined, organisations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood continue to have an influence in the UK which is disproportionate to their size; and aspects of MB ideology and tactics, in this country and overseas, “are contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security”.

Overall, then, the inquiry seems to have judged the MB to be relatively harmless, albeit secretive, at least in terms of domestic explosive violence.

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