In 1997, employees of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF), a Saudi-based charity, were mulling how best to strike a blow against the United States in East Africa. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, one employee indicated that the plan they hatched "would be a suicide bombing carried out by crashing a vehicle into the gate at the Embassy." A wealthy foundation official from outside the region agreed to fund the operation.
The employees' plans would go through several iterations, but AHIF would eventually play a role in the ultimate attack. In 1998, simultaneous explosions ripped through the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya -- attacks eventually traced back to al Qaeda operatives. Prior to the bombings, a former director of AHIF's Tanzanian branch made preparations for the advance party that planned the bombings, and the Comoros Islands branch of the charity was used, according to the Treasury Department, "as a staging area and exfiltration route for the perpetrators." The ultimate result was deadly: 224 people killed and more than 4,000 wounded.
This was, of course, before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent crackdown on wealthy Islamist charity organizations such as AHIF, which provided a large portion of the funding that made international terrorism possible. As a monograph produced for the 9/11 Commission noted, prior to 9/11, "al Qaeda was funded, to the tune of approximately $30 million per year, by diversions of money from Islamic charities and the use of well-placed financial facilitators who gathered money from both witting and unwitting donors."
But despite all the efforts made to shut down such groups, Islamist-leaning international charities and other NGOs are now reemerging as sponsors of jihadi activity. In countries like Tunisia and Syria, they are providing the infusion of funds that have allowed extremist groups to undertake the hard work of providing food, social services, and medical care. Jihadists, meanwhile, have discovered that they can bolster their standing within local communities, thereby increasing support for their violent activities. And governments are struggling to keep up.
Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), best known for its members' involvement in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, represents the most prominent example of this phenomenon. AST, a Salafi-jihadi organization, has been active since March 2011 in undertaking dawa -- missionary work calling people to their interpretation of Islam.
In addition to direct outreach at cafes and universities, AST performs dawa through a variety of social services. The group organizes charitable convoys through which it distributes food, clothing, and other supplies to different parts of the country. It also sponsors medical convoys, which it sets up at local buildings or mosques to provide medical care and medicine.
This may seem like purely humanitarian work, but it is explicitly designed to strengthen the group's dawa efforts. At all functions, AST passes out religious literature and then posts pictures and videos of these charitable activities to its official Facebook page (which has been taken down repeatedly, but re-emerged more than eight times in the past six months). Based on AST's media releases, the group has performed these activities more than 90 times in more than 30 cities and villages in Tunisia.
Although AST has collected donations at mosques during Friday prayers, the economic climate in Tunisia makes it likely that these donations comprise only a small portion of the funds that the group requires. The pictures, videos, and information that AST posts on its Facebook page suggest another source of funding: In at least one case, it received medical supplies from the Kuwaiti charity RIHS (the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society), which is known as the Society for Preservation of Islamic Heritage in Tunisia.
The fact that RIHS has been involved in supporting a militant group in Tunisia will come as no surprise to seasoned watchers of terrorist financing. The Treasury Department designated RIHS in 2008 "for providing financial and material support to al Qaida and al Qaida affiliates, including Lashkar e-Tayyiba, Jemaah Islamiyah, and Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya." The Treasury designation also charges that RIHS provided financial support specifically for terrorist acts.
That's not AST's only connection to sympathetic foreign organizations. The literature it passes out at its dawa events can be traced to at least three book publishing houses in Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Qassem, based in Riyadh; Dar al-Tarafen, based in Taif; and the Cooperative Office for the Call and Guidance and Education Communities, based in Dammam. It is unclear what kind of relationship AST has with these publishing houses, and it is possible that it does not receive support from any of them. Nonetheless, the fact that a significant amount of its literature originates from Saudi Arabia -- a traditional supporter of Salafi organizations -- is likely a sign that it is receiving outside assistance from the kingdom.