By Rodger Shanahan
Charities operating in conflict zones must take steps to ensure they’re not exploited by terrorist groups. (ABC News)
Humanitarian disasters offer opportunities for terrorist groups to infiltrate conflict areas under the guise of providing humanitarian assistance, and to raise or send funds to these areas under the same cover.
In the case of Australia, terrorists and their supporters have at times sought to portray themselves as humanitarian workers in order to construct a legal defence.
While most humanitarian groups operating in Syria have legitimate aims, the civil war and rise of radical Islamist groups that resulted has shown how easily the desire to assist those in need can be manipulated by jihadists.
There have been several instances in Australia where jihadists have attempted to solicit charitable funding.
One example was the Orphans Children and Human Care Foundation run by Mohamad Zuhbi, the Australian indicted on terrorism charges in the United States.
In order to minimise the likelihood of this sector being exploited in the future, countries such as Australia should use regulatory and legislative frameworks to limit the ability of individuals and groups to exploit humanitarian assistance in high-risk areas.
Donations diverted to terrorists
Even if jihadists do not establish their own charities, there are other ways they can use charity to support their causes.
In the United Kingdom, for example, funds have been diverted from well-established, legitimate Islamic charities.
In 2011, a three-person terrorist cell in Birmingham conducted street collections for Muslim Aid and a local Islamic learning centre, raising nearly 14,000 pounds ($24,700), of which only 1,500 pounds ($2,650) went to the charities concerned.
The money was used to finance terrorism, including sending four people to Pakistan for terrorism training.
Since 2013, the UK Charities Commission has conducted an inquiry into Muslim Aid over irregularities at two unnamed field offices and at its Iraq office. An interim manager was appointed by the Commission in October 2016 and a new board took up their appointments in February 2018.
Human Aid UK, a smaller Islamic charity that operated aid convoys into Syria, was also the subject of a statutory inquiry by the Charities Commission, which even met with a representative of the charity based in Turkey.
The Commission found that there was an insufficient degree of due diligence being conducted, given the charity’s activities in high-risk areas such as Syria.
It is essential that aid groups working in Syria ensure they’re not unwittingly affiliating with terrorists. (Reuters: Rodi Said)
Due diligence — expensive but essential
This highlights the critical role that due diligence checks, a comprehensive understanding of the end-to-end funding cycle, and tight internal governance play in ensuring that charities are not manipulated by terrorists.
Discussions with representatives of Syrian NGOs in Turkey and Jordan underlined that a strong understanding of the mechanics of due diligence was often lacking among local aid workers in the early stages of crises.
As one Syrian NGO worker remarked, prior to working with western NGOs based in Turkey, his only experience of charitable donations was giving money at the mosque at Friday prayers. It wasn’t until his training with the NGO that he became aware of western-style charitable aid accountability mechanisms.
Many NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in Syria have established processes for conducting due diligence on aid projects.
Some groups carry out physical checks (using Syrian nationals travelling from Turkey) and check employees’ personal details against terrorist databases. Other organisations such as Adam Smith International conduct third-party monitoring in areas where it may not be feasible for the parent NGO to do so.
These types of services can be expensive and are generally only available to larger aid organisations.
Many NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in Syria have established processes for conducting due diligence on aid projects. (Reuters: Saad AboBrahim)
In Australia, no cases of foreign fighters infiltrating charities or charitable money being unwittingly sent to terrorists have been brought to light. Regardless, there are still risks that small and inexperienced charities with good intentions could have their money diverted.
A group called the Islamic Development Organisation was, for example, deregistered by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) in November 2016 for reasons that cannot be revealed, owing to the secrecy provisions in the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012.
Another group, which was not registered with the ACNC, had its bank account closed in 2014 for undisclosed reasons, although it still accepts donations through an account with a credit union.
Those operating in complex conflict zones need to be particularly alert to being compromised and must have robust accountability systems in place in the country of destination for the funds.
It is easy for charities to be exploited if they do not have good awareness of the whole end-to-end funding cycle.
As a representative of one Syrian NGO noted:
“In Syria, without very careful checks it is very easy to have someone give you a receipt, and a list of recipients with names and addresses, all of which are bogus.”
Nevertheless, most registered Islamic charities in Australia operate within the guidelines of Australian Council for International Development or the ACNC (or both).
What our Government can do
The Australian Government has taken a range of steps aimed at preventing prospective Australian foreign fighters from travelling to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, and stopping money being sent there to support jihadist groups.
There are, however, a number of ways that existing measures could be strengthened to preclude individuals and groups exploiting the cover of humanitarian activities.
A key element in preventing this abuse is early intervention by government.
A broader and more timely use of the “declared area” legislation would make it more difficult for would-be terrorists to masquerade as humanitarian workers, and easier to prosecute them on their return.
Charity groups that wish to raise funds for, or operate in, declared areas should not only be registered, but have their end-to-end funding cycle validated as part of the registration process.
This will help to filter out charities that are acting as fronts for terrorists and greatly reduce the likelihood of smaller, legitimate charities having their funds diverted to terrorist groups.
It will still allow more established humanitarian groups with strong due diligence systems to operate in high-risk environments and to provide humanitarian assistance in a timely manner.
Dr Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute. This is an extract from an analysis paper titled Charities and Terrorism — Lessons from the Syrian Crisis, which was released today.