The little cans were at cash registers everywhere in Kuwait, where I lived during much of the 1990s. Covered with pictures of children in anguish amid burning rubble, these cans collected coins and cash for “Palestinian Relief” or the like. Sometimes, I put my change into these cans, causing the person behind the counter to often give me a puzzled look. Then, I learned from my Kuwaiti friends that these collection cans were not always helping those kids – many were funding Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and other violent groups.
Now, 20 years later, there is an international web of finance that leads to deadly insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Part of it runs through so-called “charities,” while another funding stream for terrorists is enabled by official complicity. And, these sources also intersect.
Colin Clarke, author of an upcoming book titled “Terrorism Inc: The Funding of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Irregular Warfare” says much of the cash now pouring into ISIL and other violent groups comes from three regional sources.
“A key component of support to Sunni extremist groups [including ISIL] comes from wealthy individuals in the Arab Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia,” Clarke told VOA, adding “The majority of donors likely know exactly where their money is going. Some are blatant about it, while others enjoy the plausible deniability of ambiguity.”
Clarke also contends these three states are using this funding stream as a means of achieving influence with insurgent groups. “The Saudis,” he said, “are reportedly fearful of the threat posed by ISIL, but certainly contribute to radical groups, battling for a leadership role with Qatar, another country active in this funding.”
Kuwait has also allegedly kept the flames of insurgency fueled with cash. Until recently, one of those streams reportedly ran through Kuwait’s Aqaf, its Ministry of Islamic Affairs. In May, Aqaf Minister Nayef al-Ajmi resigned in the wake of accusations by a senior U.S. official that he was enabling terrorists.
U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen was quoted by Reuters as saying that Ajimi “had a history of promoting jihad in Syria,” noting that Ajimi’s face appeared on fundraising posters for a Syrian al-Qaida-linked insurgent group, the Nusra Front. Ajimi called Cohen’s assertions “groundless and baseless,” a position also taken by Kuwait’s Cabinet.
The situation with Kuwait’s Aqaf and other Islamic funding channels has lengthy historic roots.
“Islamic charities have long been a source of funding for violent extremists,” according to RAND Corporation political scientist Patrick Johnston. “Charities were one of al-Qaida’s early sources of funding, and Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, helped establish charities in the Philippines and elsewhere through which al-Qaida could raise and launder money.”
The RAND analyst named several such money conduits that have been put under U.S. sanctions: the Benevolence International Foundation, based in Saudi Arabia, along with the International Islamic Relief Organization. Both have been accused by U.S. and other authorities of funding al-Qaida. Another Saudi-based charity hit by U.S. sanctions for its al-Qaida connections is the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation.
But Johnston does not make a blanket indictment of Islamic charities. “The key thing to note about charities,” he told VOA, “is that not all Islamic charities are sources of terrorist funding, and even among the ones that are, many donations that end up funding extremist activities are made unwittingly.”
Perhaps the most sophisticated fundraising for terror is being employed by ISIL. Along with donations from Sunni jihad supporters, partly through charities, ISIL is also well known for running robust kidnapping and extortion operations in the territories in Syria and Iraq that it controls. ISIL also reportedly set up an “oil tap” in Iraq, selling siphoned petroleum from the output of the huge Baiji refinery north of Baghdad and elsewhere.
But that pales in comparison to what this insurgent group did when it took over Mosul in early June. It raided the Iraq Central Bank in that key northern city, along with other Mosul banks, for a haul that multiple reports peg at over $400 million.
The violence from Gaza through Iraq isn’t confined to Sunni extremists. Shia groups such as Hezbollah also get substantial support from donors in the region, including Iran. Colin Clarke’s upcoming book says that another funding stream comes from Lebanese living on another continent.
“The Lebanese diaspora living in Africa is known to contribute significant funding to Hezbollah’s agenda,” Clarke said, adding that this has been going on for some time. The analyst cited a Beirut-bound jetliner that crashed in Benin in December 2003. Aboard were a Hezbollah official and two of his aides. They were “carrying approximately $2,000,000 in donations obtained from Lebanese nationals in West African countries including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Benin, among others,” he said, noting that “an estimated 120,000 Lebanese émigrés live throughout the region.”
Iran has openly supported - with military assistance, fighters, and cash - both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Tehran is trying to reinforce both leaders against ISIL and other insurgents seeking to topple them. For years, Iran has used charities called “bonyads” as concealed conduits to fund its IRGC “Revolutionary Guards,” insurgent operations and other activities. The heads of these bonyads are appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, currently Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and these “charities” function, according to Clarke, as “independent economic entities and patronage networks unaccountable to the state.”
In the face of so much money going to insurgents and terrorists, Johnston said it’s up to the global financial community to continue “finding new and improved means to audit banks worldwide, and ensuring their compliance with ‘know your customer’ and other anti-money laundering initiatives.”
But as the financial community works to heighten transparency and accountability, the terrorists and insurgents respond to those changing conditions with new tactics - and continue to function.
“While the United States has cracked down on terror financing through Islamic charities since 9/11 [The September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington], charities linked to terrorist organizations have remained extremely resilient,” said Clarke, “displaying a penchant for adaptation that constrains the ability of the United States and the international community to make significant headway in this area, despite continued efforts.”