Uncharitable Organizations

Islamist groups are bankrolling terror groups across the Middle East and pretending it's aid work.

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.


The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) -- an umbrella group of six organizations that is considered one of the key jihadi elements within the Syrian opposition -- is another benefactor of money from sympathetic charities. SIF has clearly expressed ties to government-linked NGOs in Turkey and Qatar: The video proclaiming the creation of this new group in December showed SIF members providing aid to Syrian civilians with boxes and flags bearing the logos of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which the German Interior Ministry banned for contributing funds to Hamas. Additionally, in early January, SIF posted a video to YouTube depicting its members picking up aid from IHH in Yayladagi, Turkey, that was to be distributed in Syria.

Other boxes and flags in SIF's December video belonged to Qatar Charity, which used to go by the name Qatar Charitable Society. As evidence submitted by the U.S. government in a criminal trial noted, in 1993 Osama bin Laden named the society as one of several charities that were used to fund al Qaeda's overseas operations. In 1995, the group's funds were used to support an assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Terrorism Without Borders

These charities form an international network that has financed radical groups across the Muslim world. Most significantly, Qatar Charity is known to have operated in northern Mali when it was overrun by Islamist groups, including al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa. These jihadists were not only well armed, but also well funded: The U.N. news agency IRIN reported in October that displaced Malians were risking a return to the north because of economic opportunities. The Islamist groups, the report stated, "removed taxes on many basic goods, say traders in the region, provide erratic electricity and water services at no charge, and have fixed the price of some basic foods."

Qatar Charity was part of that mix in Gao, one of the Malian cities that fell under Islamist control. IRIN reported that 35-year-old Moussa Touré returned to Gao, where Qatar Charity paid him twice the salary that he made previously. Because of such efforts, Maliweb, an independent Malian news source based in the United States, accused Qatar Charity of being a major financier of "the terrorists in northern Mali." Although Qatar Charity has its defenders, the focus of its charitable efforts and the manner in which they coincided with Islamist attempts to bolster the economy provide reasons for suspicion.

The international record of RIHS is just as shadowy. In January 2012, a commission of inquiry set up by Egypt's Justice Ministry issued a report stating that the Kuwaiti charity was funding Salafi groups in that country. And Spanish intelligence issued a report in late 2011 singling out RIHS: The version of Islam advanced in its mosques in Reus and Catalonia, the report said, "opposes the integration of Muslims into Spanish society," thereby "promoting segregation from and hatred toward non-Muslim communities."

Other charities that in the past supported al Qaeda and jihadi causes may also be on the rebound. For example, when the Treasury Department designated AHIF, the Saudi charity linked to the U.S. Embassy bombings, for "having provided financial and material support to al Qaida," it noted that AHIF's leadership "has attempted to reconstitute the operations of the organization, and parts of the organization have continued to operate."

As the monograph on terrorist financing for the 9/11 Commission notes, two types of charities become involved in sponsoring jihadi activities. In the first case, lax oversight allows jihadi operatives or supporters to divert money intended for legitimate purposes to militant causes. But in the second case, "entire charities from the top down may have known of and even participated in the funneling of money" to jihadi causes.

Even charities that have made an organizational decision to support jihadi causes will no doubt do some legitimate -- perhaps even praiseworthy -- work. But there is a dark side to these groups: They are making it possible for terrorist organizations to provide social services, thus increasing the base of support for their deadly work. As the United States learned in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this dark side must be taken seriously.



Cutting Off Your Nose

The impending sequester won't just do short-term damage to the U.S. government. In fact, it's already hurt it more than you think.

Fiscal showdowns have become the new normal in Washington -- covered in the media like horse-race politics, with a breathless focus on who is winning, who is losing, and which side might go over the cliff in a game of budget chicken. But that coverage has largely ignored the bigger story: the degree to which budget brinkmanship has damaged governance itself across the widest range of policy areas.

The showdowns, of course, are a reflection of America's deeply dysfunctional politics, but it's more than just the political system that is broken. The repeated bluster, hostage-taking, and eleventh- (or twelfth-) hour short-term deals -- often followed by more confrontation and threats -- have made it almost impossible for government managers to plan for the future, innovate, recruit, or do that most essential and fundamental responsibility required of appointed leaders -- execute policy.

The sequester, a set of across-the-board spending cuts due to go into effect on March 1, is the most immediate problem for managers; in many cases it will mean furloughs and serious disruption in services. Take, for example, the plight of the federal executives charged with managing the Department of Agriculture's meat and poultry inspection service. Last year, the department's roughly 10,000 inspectors took more than 9 million pounds of tainted meat and poultry off supermarket shelves and out of restaurants. Since personnel make up well over 90 percent of the service's budget, however, an 8 to 10 percent budget cut imposed by this year's sequester will mean furloughs for as many as 900 inspectors.

Fewer inspectors, even for a few weeks, will mean postponed inspections and, ultimately, less meat on the market. At the same time, it will likely result in more tainted meat and poultry on shelves and in menus -- meaning more outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and listeria (with fewer experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help contain and manage them). It will also mean more pressure on the remaining inspectors to do more with less.

Perhaps more immediately alarming is that the sequester will have the same impact on Border Patrol agents, transportation security, embassy security, and myriad programs designed to ameliorate diseases in Africa and elsewhere.

But the sequester is just one of two short-term management migraines. The second is the real possibility that managers will have to navigate through a government shutdown for days, weeks, or even months beginning in late March -- or if the past is any guide, multiple shutdowns. Some agencies and bureaus will be shuttered, others scaled back to skeletal staffs, with little idea of how long the shutdown will last.

Beyond these immediate concerns, there are a number of more serious, long-term management ailments. For years now, nearly every government agency has been operating without an appropriation -- that is, without a clear budget. As a result, managers don't know how big their operating budget will be from day to day or month to month, making it virtually impossible to innovate, add expertise, or recruit new talent. Now multiply that burden across a range of key agencies, departments, and bureaus -- from cybersecurity and aviation security to health research and drug approval. The problems with prioritization of embassy security have been well publicized since last September's attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; they are deeply amplified by the lack of any budget certainty. Most efforts to fortify security and modernize embassies and consulates require extended contracts with contractors and others, something much harder to do without budget stability.

The problem goes beyond budgets and planning. The assault on federal workers is also making it more and more difficult to recruit people with the necessary expertise. Adding insult to injury, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to block a 0.5 percent pay increase for federal employees, further diminishing the government's ability to attract talent. At best, the final version will be static pay (minus the days lost via furloughs from the sequester).

These measures are especially harmful in dynamic fields like cybersecurity, where America's edge depends on its ability to put its best and brightest to work. China, Russia, Iran, and even al Qaeda have ramped up their cyber-espionage activities, targeting America's defense establishment and power grids, as well as its businesses and financial institutions. They are employing an array of increasingly pernicious and sophisticated techniques -- cooked up by the best engineers and computer hackers that money can buy. But as this cyberwar ramps up, the U.S. government's budget impasse makes it more difficult to invest in expensive, cutting-edge computers and technical resources needed to combat these sophisticated probes and attacks on American businesses and U.S. government facilities and programs.

Meanwhile, as recruiting season nears at Stanford University, MIT, and other breeding grounds for technological talent, the government agencies charged with combating cyberthreats have to compete with Apple, Google, Intel, and others who offer fat pay and benefit packages -- while government recruiters can offer only budget cutbacks, forced furloughs, and near-permanent pay freezes. And the crisis is by no means confined to entry-level employees. The top federal managers, part of the elite Senior Executive Service -- the top career managers in all departments and agencies who are given enhanced recognition and responsibility to make government work -- are about to face a recruitment impasse of their own. Most are baby boomers at or near retirement age; replacing them with top-flight people under these conditions will be an equally steep challenge.

Whatever one thinks about the optimal size of government, making sure the government we have is functional should be a commonly shared goal. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go with the government you have, not the one you want. In the midst of dysfunctional tribal politics, and blinded by extreme ideology that is reinforced by talk radio, blogs, and emails, the use of brinkmanship has become the new norm -- one that is blinding us to the lasting damage it inflicts on the basic practice of governance.

Win McNamee/Getty Images