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Interpal: A Butterfly Stings

This is a guest post by habibi

The Charity Commission has finally published the results of its investigation into Interpal’s alleged links with Hamas.

Those links have already prompted Australia, Canada and the US to ban the charity. We should be so lucky. Instead, the Commission offered this gift to Interpal:

The Inquiry could not verify the material suggesting that certain local partners funded by the Charity may be promoting terrorist ideology or activities, so the material was of insufficient evidential value to support these allegations.

I like the Charity Commission’s world. It must be such a nice place, a land of butterflies and birdsong. It’s not part of this world, though. For example, some of us remember a BBC Panorama programme about charity in the occupied Palestinian territories. It showed children in schools funded by Interpal, singing songs like this:

We all sacrifice ourselves for our country. We answer your call and make of our skulls a ladder to your glory, a ladder.

To martyrs in every time and place. To their rich blood and to their wounds which have defined the identity of the Islamic land.

Rise with us to liberate Palestine through the path of the Islamic dawah. Whoever abandons the path of Muslims will live under humiliation and slavery.

Fasten your bomb belt oh would-be martyr and fill the square with blood so that we get back our homeland.

This finding by the Commission is dispiritingly funny too:

During a broadcast on Al Jazeera in 2001 Dr Mustafa called Sheikh al-Qaradawi the ‘Sheikh of the Mujahideen’. Dr Mustafa told the Inquiry that he was speaking in his personal capacity at the time. The word ‘Mujahideen’ has been given different interpretations. It can mean someone who is engaging in a spiritual or social struggle. However, in modern times it has also been given a different interpretation by its association with Afghan fighters in conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. More recently, it has been adopted by some political commentators as a word associated with the Taliban and with militant Islamists. The Inquiry acknowledged that this definition was one of a range of potential interpretations of Dr Mustafa’s words.

Finding related to reference to ‘Sheikh of the Mujahideen

The incident took place a number of years ago and was the only such example brought to the Inquiry’s attention. Although trustees should exercise caution when using terms that are open to controversial political interpretations, the Inquiry makes no findings on this allegation.

Yes, when Islamists such as Qaradawi and Mustafa talk about the mujahideen, the word is “open to interpretation”. They might well be saluting devout inner strugglers, you know.

Nonetheless, soft as I believe it is, even the Commission has made findings that sting. The blame goes to the trustees, who:

* had not taken sufficiently rigorous steps to investigate allegations about some of their partner organisations (Paragraphs 49-68),

* had not put in place adequate due diligence and monitoring procedures to be satisfied that these organisations were not promoting terrorist ideologies or activities. Where procedures were in place, they were not sufficient nor fully implemented (Paragraphs 115-147).

* had not adequately managed the charity’s relationship with the organisation the Union for Good. The Inquiry concluded that the charity’s continued membership of the Union for Good was not appropriate for a number of reasons set out in the report, including the involvement of designated entities in projects co-ordinated through the Union for Good, that designated entities had been amongst the Union for Good’s membership, and that one of the charity’s trustees was closely linked to the organisation (Paragraphs 69-114).

The judgment on partners is especially embarrassing for Interpal. In 2003, at the end of an earlier enquiry into the charity, it had been specifically advised by the Commission to improve its due diligence procedures when working with third parties. However, in this enquiry, the Commission found that:

“…the procedures put forward by the Charity in 2003 as methods of obtaining independent verification of the work done by its zakat committee partners were not fully implemented and did not achieve this aim.

The Charity did not implement its plan to send questionnaires to all its partners to seek clarification on their procedures for selecting beneficiaries until this Inquiry commenced.

The delegations were not an effective monitoring method. Those sent as part of the Bearing Witness programme served a different, albeit beneficial purpose, while the details supplied regarding the internal delegations did not demonstrate that they provided adequate detailed monitoring of the Charity’s partners and projects.

The Charity was working with other NGOs to verify the distribution of its funds, but close links between the Charity and the Union for Good meant this could not be considered independent verification of the work done by the Charity’s partners.”

Interpal will now have to improve its due diligence procedures, again. The trouble is this: given the charity’s documented record in this field, one must wonder where the Commission’s patience comes from, and when, if ever, it may reach an end. Now that it has established some of what happened in recent years, the Commission simply calls the record “a matter of concern”, but does not formally sanction Interpal or openly threaten future sanctions for these failures.

Perhaps potential donors will be more wary than the Commission. After all, many of them may not wish to see a single penny of theirs end up with Hamas via Interpal, which is also what the law expects of them in their financial affairs, but after these revelations how can they be sure this will not happen?

The demand that Interpal end its relationship with the Union for Good is more tangible. It is also significant and welcome, even if more could and should have been done. The Union is an international charity grouping, not registered in the UK, which is headed by Qaradawi. It too has been banned by the US. Essam Mustafa, a Vice Chairman at Interpal, is also the Secretary General of the Union for Good. Furthermore, the Commission reports that the two charities have been close operational partners in recent years.

However, Interpal has rejected this finding about the Union for Good and says it “would like the Charity Commission to revisit this issue”. It is unclear what will happen next. There’s more to say about this story, but let’s conclude by noting the lack of information about just how the Commission carried out central elements of this enquiry.

In general counterterrorism policy guidance, the Commission has said that it takes allegations of links to terrorism very seriously and will alert and co-operate with the police and security services where this is deemed appropriate. Well, in over two years of work on Interpal – an inexcusably slow performance – did it tap other government departments’ resources, which would obviously be vital when many of the most important questions can only be answered properly by investigative work overseas? Unless I have missed it, the Commission just doesn’t say. Or was Interpal, under investigation for the third time, effectively allowed to provide the most important evidence itself, apart from BBC Panorama, which, excellent as it can be, is hardly a tool of law enforcement? If that is what happened, it is very poor regulatory practice, and one would hope that certain butterflies come under some scrutiny in Westminster and Whitehall.

Indeed there is much to explore in this policy area. Given its existing powers, even an aggressive Commission would struggle to get to grips with difficult counterterrorist finance cases. It cannot carry out surveillance, raid offices, and even dig up gardens, as the successful prosecution team of the Holy Land Foundation terror finance case did.

Moreover, if one studies Commission policy statements and reviews, including responses to allegations of wrongdoing by Islamic charities, it is clear that the organisation sees itself as a promoter and defender of charities. In general, those who get certain procedures wrong will be helped, not punished. Well, I like British do-gooders on the whole, but they are not the first people I’d think of for dealing with the challenges of law enforcement. Britain has rougher beasts for that.

When it comes to the abuse of charity in terrorism finance, perhaps their role and record too need scrutiny.