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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
Charities in terror fund spotlight
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News Online business reporter

It's never easy running a charity.

Charity managers have to try to save the world on a shoestring, relying on a network of volunteers and underpaid if enthusiastic staff to ensure that as much money as possible goes to where it can do the most good.

A mosque at sunset
Islam requires Muslims to give alms, or zakat
But now, just to make life even more complicated, they are increasingly coming under suspicion of financing terrorists as well.

This suspicion is ratcheting up official scrutiny of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in many countries, not least the US and the UK.

For Islamic charities in particular, this new focus is unwelcome, but not surprising.

"The kind of restraint that some charities are feeling is really not fair," said Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, chairman of Muslim Aid, whose 5m-a-year operation is run from an office in North London.

"You get headlines saying that a 'Muslim aid agency' has been banned, and I get dozens of worried phone calls from donors."

New attention

But the focus is there nonetheless.

This new front in the fight against the funding of terror has been quietly developing in the two years since 11 September 2001.

Not long after the planes hit the World Trade Centre's twin towers, investigators moved in on a trio of Islamic charities based in the US, freezing their assets and arresting senior staff.

Everything went quiet for a while after that, but now charities and non-governmental organisations in general are firmly back in the spotlight.

The US Congress is holding high-level hearings at which charities in the US, Europe and especially in Saudi Arabia, are being blamed for channelling money to extremist and violent groups.

And in the past six months, the US Treasury has called for an outright ban on a number of charities across the world.

Holes in the net

Charities are in the frame because regulators worldwide have long been concerned that non-governmental organisations may offer a convenient conduit for funding violence.

Financial scrutiny is not always what it could be, they say, and the trust-based nature of charitable work means that it is sometimes possible for an insider to hide funding for terror inside financial flows used for entirely genuine aid and assistance.

CHARITIES LINKED TO HAMAS BY WASHINGTON
Commite de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (CBSP), France.
Association de Secours Palestinien (ASP), Switzerland
Interpal, UK
Palestinian Association, Austria
Sanabil Association for Relief and Development, Lebanon
Source: US Treasury

"There's a systemic vulnerability allowing money to move through charities," making them a "tremendous funding mechanism", Dennis Lormel, head of the terrorist finance section at the US' Federal Bureau of Investigation, told BBC News Online.

The global rules for fighting terror funding published within a month of 9/11 included recommendations about the regulation of charities drawn up largely by the UK's oversight body, the Charity Commission.

'Unwitting victims'

The Commission says it has only found a handful of cases of charities being misused - and stresses that terrorism is not confined to any given religious group.

Simon Gillespie, the Commission's Director of Operations, feels the UK's regulatory system strikes the right balance.

But the rules elsewhere often need tightening up, he says, and the Commission is campaigning hard.

The Commission has been running seminars funded in part by the UK government around the world - in Sri Lanka, in Afghanistan, in South Africa and elsewhere - to help boost capacity.

"We are not coming in as some dictatorial power," Mr Gillespie said. "They don't do NGO regulation the way we do, but we can give a helping hand."

In the US, as in the UK, investigators are at pains to stress that the vast majority of groups are completely above board - and even those found to be channelling funds for terror usually don't know it.

"About 95% of the charities that are infiltrated are being exploited," the FBI's Dennis Lormel said.

"Even in such cases, they can point to a huge percentage of donations which are genuine charitable giving."

Accusations

But none of that comes as much solace to the Islamic charities around the world who now say they are being tainted with unjustified suspicions - simply because of their Muslim background.

In a Muslim context, donating money to charity is a duty.

The giving of zakat - or alms intended to relieve the poor and the sick - is even regularised as a kind of tax in some Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East.

So it comes as little surprise that Muslim charities abound, from tiny ones linked to local mosques to multi-million dollar operations working in a dozen or more countries.

Muslim Aid, which works mainly in Sudan, Somalia and Bangladesh, is near the top end, surpassed in size only by a handful of organisations such as Islamic Relief, with 20m in donations each year.

Some of its fellows may face the problems of accountability and transparency that many volunteer organisations encounter.

But Muslim Aid has had its practices recommended by the Charity Commission, and is even working on accounting software designed specifically to serve the audit needs of Islamic charities.

Co-operation

Meanwhile, the authorities in Washington DC are sure their accusations are justified.

But the US push has met with varying degrees of co-operation from countries elsewhere.

When the Al-Aqsa Foundation was named by the US in April as responsible for funding suicide bombers in Israel, the reaction was immediate, with a clutch of European countries including the UK promising to freeze its funds.

In August, when five more charities were accused of supplying funds used for violence to extremist Palestinian group Hamas, the response was less unanimous.

Lebanon, it emerged, had already frozen the organisation's assets weeks before after US pressure.

In the UK, Interpal also had its finances frozen, by local regulator the Charity Commission.

But on 24 September, the Commission lifted the freeze, saying the US had failed to provide any evidence to support its accusations.

The Saudi connection

On the world stage, meanwhile, the US is busy accusing the Saudi government of turning a blind eye to the use of state-sponsored charities such as the International Islamic Relief Organisation and the World Association of Muslim Youth for funding terror.

Many Saudi charities "do immense positive good, and I have to applaud the Saudi government for backing them", Jonathan Winer, who led international law enforcement efforts at the US State Department under President Bill Clinton, told the BBC's File on Four programme.

But at the same time, he said, there was no mechanism to make sure the money was not going to fund violence.

They were, he said, "as leaky as a sieve".

Cracks

US authorities now say the Saudis are working much harder to tighten up their scrutiny of charities following a string of deadly bombings linked to al-Qaeda, which rocked the secretive kingdom earlier this year.

But despite that, the linked problems of patchy checks and a lack of published evidence remain.

While these concerns continue, on the one hand charities - particularly Islamic ones - will feel they are being unfairly singled out, and that donors may take accusations as fact despite the lack of proof.

And on the other, regulators may worry that despite their best efforts, some cash may be slipping through the cracks in the system to ends that are far from charitable.


SEE ALSO:
Dirty money spotlight widens
02 Oct 03  |  Business
Saudi defends anti-terror drive
20 Sep 03  |  Middle East
UK charity's assets frozen
28 Aug 03  |  Business
US freezes Hamas accounts
23 Aug 03  |  Middle East
UK and US freeze Islamic charity
30 May 03  |  Business


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