It’s disappointing but not surprising to see the negative light in which Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin portray the Islamic charitable sector in a recent Foreign Policy magazine article. After all, as Glenn reenwald noted in Salon, they are members of Washington’s cottage industry of so-called terrorism experts “who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.”
Painting the charitable sector as unsuspecting patsies or complicit in terrorist activities is not only inaccurate, but a great disservice to organizations and individuals dedicated to helping communities around the world overcome the effects of disasters and conflict. In fact, charity employees and volunteers working in global hot spots like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to be victims of a terrorist attack rather than play any part in its planning. 308 aid workers- the highest number on record- were killed, kidnapped or wounded in 2011, the most recent year of analyzed data from the Aid Worker Security Database.
Since 9/11, humanitarian organizations, in particular Muslim charities, have been exposed to high levels of scrutiny as the U.S. government and multi-lateral bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have fortified measures on combatting terror finance. Even with the increased attention, less than 2 percent of the nearly 2900 listings on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorist list are charities (as of 2012). In the U.S. only one charity has been convicted of financing terrorism, and it was not even represented in court and presented no defense. Therefore, describing the sector as “reemerging as sponsors of jihadi activity,” as Gartenstein-Ross and Zelin do in their article, seems out of touch with the facts.
The article also tries to establish a link between charities and well-funded armed militias across North Africa, but offers scant supporting evidence to back up this allegation. For example, the article claims Qatar Charity helped finance al Qaeda's affiliates in northern Mali late last year, but only offers this (unexplained) sentence as evidence: a “35-year-old Moussa Touré returned to Gao, where Qatar Charity paid him twice the salary that he made previously.”
Perhaps if the authors had not been singly-mindedly focused on assailing Islamic charities, they would have known that terrorist groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have “grown accustomed to ransom payments” to finance their activities, according to the New York Times. Reports show that European countries have paid nearly $130 million in ransom payments over the past 10 years to armed groups across North Africa.
The real problem revealed by the bad actors described in the article is the “humanitarian vacuum” effect created when legitimate charities cannot access areas where listed terrorist groups are active because U.S. laws prohibit any sort of contact with them, even in order to access civilians in need. When this happens, so-called “charities” controlled by armed groups fill the vacuum. And they do not provide aid solely based on need, the way that humanitarian groups should, but use it as a wedge to promote ideology. In this way, counterterrorism laws work against counterterrorism purposes.
This does not mean the charitable sector can ignore the risks, and it does not. Charities use and support smart and effective due diligence and vetting procedures to prevent their assets from being diverted to terrorism. Examples of these include The Sphere Project Handbook and InterAction's PVO Standards. And the proof is in the pudding: the U.S. government has not shut down any charities in several years.
Charities play a valuable role in addressing the roots of terrorism. Rather than be vilified, charities should be seen as allies who share the same goals of human security and a more peaceful world.