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.