Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project, and Clifford Smith, the director of its Washington Project, spoke to participants in an April 3 webinar (video) about their investigation into the Obama administration's funding of an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist charity vis-à-vis the anti-Israel evangelical aid charity World Vision.
Westrop, who has uncovered federal grants worth at least $40 million going to Islamist groups over the last decade, stumbled upon this revelation while routinely monitoring the government database USAspending.gov. In 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), awarded $723,000 to the global evangelical charity World Vision to improve water, sanitation, hygiene and food security in Sudan's Blue Nile region, $200,000 of which World Vision awarded to the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA), a charity designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist supporting entity in 2004.
"We assumed it must be a mistake ... So we wrote to ... USAID to ask them about it," Westrop recounted. "Sure enough, they came back and said, 'No, no, no, this is a mistake. This is another group. It's not related to the Sudanese group that's designated as a terrorist organization. You're mistaken.'"
Sam Westrop (left), Clifford Smith (right)
Sam Westrop (left), Clifford Smith (right)
Suspicious of this answer, Westrop and Smith filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, submitted additional inquiries, and used a contact in Sudan to seek further confirmation that the address listed in the USAID grant matched that of the terror charity. "Just as our Freedom of Information Act [request] was about to yield something and we were pursuing USAID through the courts, we got a return call from the federal government saying, 'Actually we made a mistake when we told you before that there was no link. This is indeed a designated terrorist organization that has received government monies, and here's how it happened.'"
Investigating further, they discovered that World Vision has had a "systemic problem" with getting too close to terrorists. "This is not the first time they've gotten caught doing something like this. It's the third that we know of. They have gotten caught before funding the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] ... [and] they have also funded Hamas," said Smith.
Emails obtained by Westrop and Smith through additional FOIA requests showed that senior Obama administration officials knowingly authorized a payment of more than $120,000 from World Vision to ISRA after being made aware of its terrorist links and sought a Treasury Department review of ISRA's terrorist status (which was ultimately confirmed).
ISRA also received funds from the UN and other Western governments. Although ISRA now appears to have been shut down, Westrop cautioned that there are many other Islamist charities seeking "to take Western government funds and to exploit the goodwill of donors all around the world."
The original clue to this whole issue was just sitting in a public database that anyone could have seen. We came across it by accident and we followed it up. But it makes us wonder what else is out there sitting in a government database, just waiting to be discovered, as it relates to radical Islam, the spread of jihadism and terror finance around the world.
Asked why the U.S. government gives money to foreign NGOs at all, Westrop explained that "there are good reasons ... if one accepts that international development should be a key part of the government's function ... [They] may have contacts and the infrastructure in places the federal government simply does not." But "the accountability, the transparency and the checks to make sure that no radical or violently inclined group ever receives a single cent of American taxpayer dollars, must be so strong that they can never possibly be broken."
We must "make sure that no radical or violently inclined group ever receives a single cent of American taxpayer dollars."
Smith added that merely not having documented terror ties is too low a threshold. "Right now anybody can give money to anybody as long as they're not a black hat – as long as they're not a designated terrorist organization – even though in this case, even that happened," he said. "If you're a foreign company that's going to be getting U.S. taxpayer dollars, you should have to get a white hat, preemptively, in my opinion, to show that you are a good organization ... What we really need is a clamp-down on funds that are going to groups that are ideologically extremist."
Gary C. Gambill is general editor at the Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.