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When Charity Should Stop At Home

This is a guest post by habibi

The guilty verdicts in the Holy Land Foundation trial were the reward for over a decade’s hard work by the Justice Department and the FBI.  Better late than never.

So how is the UK doing when it comes to terrorists’ abuse of charities?

The Charity Commission offers a summary of its counterterrorist policies here and a long version – updated in July 2008 – here.  At first glance, the summary is straightforward and reassuring.  A sample:

The Commission works to three basic assumptions, and these have important implications for the way we deal with charities where suspicions of links to terrorism arise. The assumptions are:

  1. the Commission would not register an organisation that had support of terrorism explicitly or implicitly as an object;
  2. that use of an existing charity’s assets for support of terrorist activity is not a proper use of those assets;
  3. that links – or alleged links – between a charity and terrorism corrode public confidence in the integrity of charity.

Even better, among its “key principles when looking at charities with potential links to terrorism”, the Commission cites the following:

* Any links between charities and terrorist activity are totally unacceptable. ‘Links’ in this case might include fundraising or provision of facilities, but also include formal or informal links to organisations ‘proscribed’ under the Terrorism Act 2000.

* The Charity Commission will deal with any allegation of links between a charity and terrorist activity as an immediate priority.

* Charities should take all necessary steps to ensure their activities could not be misinterpreted. The Commission expects trustees or charities to ensure their activities are open and transparent, for example when transferring assets abroad. We hold trustees accountable for ensuring that procedures are put in place to ensure that terrorist organisations cannot take advantage of a charity’s status, reputation, facilities or assets.

Furthermore, since 2007 the Treasury has allocated an extra £1 million per year to the Commission.  It has also “redirected” some of its existing resources.  These measures, the Commission has said, will strengthen its compliance work in the context of terrorist links to charities.

That’s the policy in theory.  The practice, at least in the case of Mohammed Al Ghabra of East London, a former trustee of the Al Ikhlas Foundation, also known (to the Commission as well) as the Muslim Prisoner Support Group, is dispiriting.

In September 2007 the Commission suspended al Ghabra as a trustee of the foundation.  In October 2008, the Commission announced that it had concluded “that it was in the interests of the Charity [al Ikhlas] to remove Mohammed Al Ghabra as a trustee and/or agent of the Charity”.

What took them so long?  Never mind access to intelligence (the Commission claims it works with law enforcement authorities), consider US, Bank of England and press reports open to all:

  •  The US Treasury, December 2006: “Al Ghabra has organized travel to Pakistan for individuals seeking to meet with senior al Qaida individuals and to undertake jihad training.  Several of these individuals have returned to the UK to engage in covert activity on behalf of al Qaida.  Additionally, Al Ghabra has provided material support and facilitated the travel of UK-based individuals to Iraq to support the insurgents fight against coalition forces.”
  •  The Bank of England, December 2006: “The Bank of England, as agent for Her Majesty’s Treasury, issues this news release to advise that on 12 December 2006 the United Nations Sanctions Committee approved the addition of Mohammed Al Ghabra to the UN Consolidated List maintained under Resolution 1390 (2002). The individual therefore falls within the UK financial sanctions regime under the Al-Qaida and Taliban (United Nations Measures) Order 2006. (December 2006)
  • The Times, July 2007: “A suspected Al-Qaeda operative who is believed by MI5 to have played a key role in the events leading up to the July 21 failed bombings is at liberty and living in east London”

I think this is what native Brits (oh how I wish more of you were restless) call a “leisurely pace”.  In counterterrorism, of all fields.

In fact, the Commission has said it “was informed” of Al Ghabra’s UN designation in July 2007.  Apparently it did not bother to read Bank of England terrorist sanctions lists and would not have learned of this case without a third party informing it.  This is very careless, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the foundation is still running, and remains dedicated to supporting convicted and suspected Islamist terrorists and supporters of terrorism, such as Omar Abdul Rahman, Aafia Siddiqui and, of course, Abu Hamza.  Have a look at its web site.  Furthermore, its required Commission filings – annual returns and accounts for the past two financial years – are long overdue.

How can this situation not “corrode public confidence in the integrity of charity”, which the Commission claims is such an important concern?  How has it shown, in this case, that “Any links between charities and terrorist activity are totally unacceptable”?

Nor, apparently, is this the only case where the Commission’s pace is shockingly slow.  As far as I can tell, it has yet to issue a ruling on Crescent Relief (see pages 12-13 of that pdf file), more than two years after freezing its funds.  Furthermore, according to this article, the Crescent Relief investigation only began after the Commission bothered to read press reports.  Note that Crescent Relief was founded by the father and uncle of Rashid Rauf.

Never mind, for a moment, the Commission moving at a snail’s pace.  Frustrating as that is, the quality of its work and judgment is the most important issue.  I think this, from the Commission’s counterterrorism guidance document, is the heart of the problem:

“The Commission applies a risk-based and proportionate approach to regulation. This means that we engage with charities in a way which will make most difference to them and those who benefit from them. As a modern regulator, the Commission’s approach emphasises providing support and guidance and promoting best practice as well as ensuring that charities comply with their legal obligations. We aim to encourage and support charities to improve their performance by working in partnership with them and with umbrella groups, helping to define and facilitate best practice and sharing this knowledge widely.” 

If you read the Ikhlas ruling, alongside criticism you will see this “we want to help” strategy in action, on behalf of pro-terrorist campaigners.  It states:

“The Commission has provided advice and guidance to the Trustees of the Charity which will allow them to take the Charity forward on a strong administrative footing.”

To further illustrate the approach and attitude at work here, consider this article, where the Commission’s chief executive, Andrew Hind, offers a display of spectacular complacency:

The Charity Commission has been reluctant to tout its role in the battle to stamp out the sources of terrorism, instead choosing to focus on the benefits that charities bring society. In an interview on Wednesday, commission chief executive Andrew Hind described the commission’s mission as “trying to encourage 1,000 flowers to bloom.”

A strong individual volunteer sector is “a fundamental element” to a functioning civil society, Hind said.

A former BBC World Service chief operating officer and finance director, Hind is reluctant to discuss the group’s role in terrorism tracking, and chooses his words carefully. He sees charity, and Britain’s strong tradition of contributing time and money to those less fortunate, as akin to the role of a free press in society, he said.

The commission is not in the habit of actively investigating organizations for links to terrorism, he said, and often relies on tips from the public to spur investigations. “This is a very small part of our overall” mission, he insists.

Hind said there are no regularly scheduled conversations with United States or European officials on the subject. Establishing regular communication with the United States would be unwelcome, Hind said. “I hope it doesn’t happen, because that would be indicative of larger problems,” he said.

In a war, and make no mistake, Islamists are waging war on the UK and its interests and allies abroad, no government body should help the enemy.  The Charity Commission, in all of what appears to be its arrogance and incompetence, does not seem to get this, at all.  Most unfortunately, assuming HMG gives a damn that is, the Commission’s operations are independent, by law.

To conclude, entirely randomly of course, and with no reference to any of the above, oh no sir, have a look at this US Treasury announcement of November 2008 and this one of 2003, consider the time that has passed without further official news since this Commission press release, and then enjoy some more Liberace.