Airplane Terrorism Case Prompts Questions About the Work of Islamic Charities in Britain 

LONDON, Aug. 23 — Once again, with another alleged terror plot that has a possible connection to a charity, the question is being asked here, with more urgency: To what extent do Muslim charities — on the surface noble and selfless — mask movements and money for terrorists and extremist groups?

The question has a long history, here and in the United States, but no precise answer. A quick bottom line, though, seems to be this:

Charitable groups, experts agree, continue to play a role in the financing and operations surrounding terrorist groups and plots. But with more scrutiny since the Sept. 11 attacks — demonization, the charities say — the role of charities seems to be changing: diminishing somewhat but also growing more subtle and harder to detect.

“Anyone who has bothered to study terrorist financing at the most shallow level knows the role that charities have played since 1985,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, an American expert on terrorism who acts as a consultant to American and British prosecutors. “Even if charities aren’t playing a primary role, it is almost certain that they are playing a secondary role.” But beyond the first glance, the question grows in complexity, not least because of the vastly different approaches to Muslim charities in the United States and Britain. Since Sept. 11, American officials have banned many charities that still operate freely in Britain, reflecting a disagreement about where charity ends and extremism begins.  

“The approach in America is very much to prevent the worst, whereas in Britain the approach is to encourage the best,” said Peter Neumann, director of the Center for Defense Studies at King’s College in London.  In short, he said, the British have tended to judge a charity on its track record in providing relief more than its possible ties to extremists. He cited the best-known case here, that of the Palestinians Relief and Development Fund, known as Interpal, which provides money to poor Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 2003, the United States Treasury named Interpal a “specially designated global terrorist” group that directly financed Hamas, the extremist group responsible for the deadliest suicide bombings against Israelis.  But two investigations by the British Charity Commission, in 1996 and in 2003, gave Interpal a clean bill of health.

Those findings have led Interpal and other Muslim charities to declare the links between charity and terrorism to be overstated — to the point of bias against Muslims and the real acts of charity they provide. “We have to prove that we are not doing anything,” said Ibrahim Hewitt, the chairman of the trustees of Interpal. “It’s the old weapons of mass destruction thing. We have to prove a negative. And this diverts resources from the real work of trying to alleviate poverty.” Now, Interpal is again being investigated by the Charity Commission after a BBC documentary broadcast last month alleging that donations went to projects, schools in particular, that encourage allegiance to Hamas, opposition to Israel and a radical view of Islam.

With six million Muslims — for whom charity is a required religious duty — Britain provides a ready pool of donors, who rally in times of disaster, especially those in Muslim countries. Most of the money goes abroad, much of it to Pakistan, the home country of most British Muslims, where the link between extremist groups and charities is far clearer than it is here.

Appeals for money go out in mosques, letters and leaflets and over the Internet, most recently for relief efforts in Lebanon. “Middle East Crisis: Please donate now,” reads one sign at an Islamic charity in Walthamstow, in East London, home to most of the suspects in a plot that the authorities say they thwarted two weeks ago to bring down trans-Atlantic flights.  In the first days after those arrests, some Pakistani officials speculated about involvement from Jamaat ud Dawa, a front for one of Pakistan’s most extremist groups, and questioned whether donations to earthquake relief in Kashmir last year had been funneled back to plotters in Britain.

But most speculation has centered on a small charity, Crescent Relief, founded by the family of two suspects said to be at the center of the recent plot. One was arrested here and, according to news reports, released on Wednesday; the other was arrested in Pakistan. Another suspect was listed last fall in a British newspaper as the local contact for the charity as it collected money for Kashmir earthquake victims.

To Mr. Kohlmann, those facts suggest a time-honored way that some charities have been linked to terror groups in recent years: as a support and alibi rather than the more direct, and documented, role played by Muslim charities in the Bosnia war in the early 1990’s and the embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998. Skip to next paragraph Threats & ResponsesGo to Complete Coverage »Readers' OpinionsReaders shared their thoughts on the terror arrests and the vulnerability of the United States.


“Who pays for tickets?” Mr. Kohlmann asked. “Who provides a good excuse, or a good reason, to travel from the U.K. to Pakistan? They also provide a cover story. They provide documents — and that is what they have always done in conflicts from Afghanistan to Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Caucasus to Iraq.”


Mr. Kohlmann, citing photographs from charities’ Web sites, said a strong case could be made about Crescent Relief’s ties to groups defined by the United States as tied to terrorists. One photo from its Web site shows a man pointing to tents donated in Kashmir bearing its logo and that of ISRA, a Sudan-based charity designated by Washington in 2004 as having terrorist ties. Another photo shows a man identified as a member of Crescent Relief in Iraq with a member of ISRA who was specifically identified by the United States in designating the group as being tied to terrorists.The Charity Commission has said it is deciding whether to investigate Crescent Relief.

But there has been no official suggestion that Crescent Relief’s trustees had any involvement in the plot. Investigators have not been in touch with its bank, according to one official briefed on the investigation, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. And the trustees’ assets apparently have not been frozen.


 To some experts, that may suggest what they said was a growing trend in the link between terror groups and charities: that legitimate charities are infiltrated by extremists who secretly siphon off money. The United States Treasury has reportedly been reluctant to issue a list of “clean” Muslim charities precisely because of the fear of such infiltration.

“Often,” Mr. Neumann said, “it’s the individual rather than the entire institution that has been involved in terrorist funding.”


 Mr. Kohlmann contends that some British officials, and the Charity Commission in particular, have been too lax. Other experts described the attitude less as laxness in surveillance or law enforcement than a reluctance to punish suspect charities. But Mr. Neumann and others said the British showed signs of hardening, particularly after four bombers killed 52 people on buses and trains here on July 7 of last year.

“Before 7/7, Pakistan was not on the radar screen of British security forces,” he said. “They have a lot of catching up to do.”

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