With various proscriptions and inquiries into Islamist groups recently introduced, it seems the Indian government has thoroughly woken up to the threat posed by Islamist movements active across South Asia. Security services, politicians and media have recently paid particularly close attention to the danger of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and Kashmir, and their branches and proxies' links to terrorist plots against Indian troops and civilians.
But Islamism is never a parochial affair. Every Islamist group, no matter how locally focused, makes use of international networks of support, and relies on infrastructure closely intertwined with civil society. Today, Western Islamist charities, funded by Western governments and linked to international Islamist movements such as Jamaat-e-Islami, operate throughout India with impunity.
These charities have long histories of subsidizing terrorism and enabling extremism. One of the most egregious examples is Muslim Aid.
Founded in London in 1985, Muslim Aid has grown into one of the largest Islamic charities in the world, boasting revenue of tens of millions of pounds each year. Outside of its headquarters in the UK, it operates branches, offices and various affiliate entities in a dozen countries across Africa and Asia, with prominent fundraising offices in Sweden and the United States as well.
From the beginning, Muslim Aid's officials have been tied closely to Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). In 2013, a Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal sentenced to death in absentia one of the charity's early leaders, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, for his role leading a JI killing squad that abducted and murdered 18 people during the country's 1971 Liberation War.
Muslim Aid board chairmen have included Manazir Ahsan, a leading British Islamist who helped to coordinate Islamist riots in the UK against novelist Salman Rushdie over his book, The Satanic Verses; and Iqbal Sacranie, another infamous British Islamist who said of Rushdie: "Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him."
Manazir Ahsan is also closely involved with the Islamic Foundation, JI's UK-based think tank. His colleagues there have included former Muslim Aid official Farooq Murad, the son of Khurram Murad, who has led both the Bangladeshi and Pakistani branches of JI. In 2003, The Times reported that two Islamic Foundation trustees were on the UN sanctions list of people associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
With this violence-tied management, it comes as little surprise that Muslim Aid has repeatedly been found involved with a number of terror networks. In 2010, following investigative work by British media and an inquiry by Britain's charity regulator, Muslim Aid was found (and admitted) to have been funding a number of front organizations for the terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Muslim Aid's terror links are not limited just to the Palestinian territories. Counter-terrorism analyst Chris Blackburn notes that Muslim Aid's Australian branch has supported jihadist-funding organizations in Indonesia; government agencies in Bangladesh included Muslim Aid in a list of ten Islamic charities supporting Islamist terrorism; and Spanish police have declared that Muslim Aid financed jihadists in Bosnia in the 1990s.
In the United States, documents acquired by the Middle East Forum show that in 2015, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (which is tasked with stopping the flow of monies to terrorist groups) looked into Muslim Aid as a potential terror financer.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, both the UK and Pakistani branches of Muslim Aid partner openly with Al Khidmat, the "charitable" arm of Jamaat-e-Islami's Pakistani arm. Al Khidmat publicly works with Hizbul Mujahedeen, the Kashmiri militant wing of Jamaat-e-Islami and a designated terrorist group in both India and the United States.
Other terrorist operatives have made use of Muslim Aid's infrastructure. In 2012, three terrorist operatives used Muslim Aid identities to raise money for a series of suicide bombings. Although Muslim Aid was apparently unaware of this scheme, Britain's charity regulator later censured the organization for having "insufficient measures in place to monitor its spending" and activities, leading British officials to fear, among other things, that it might be "inadvertently funding a proscribed terrorist organisation." Concerns over the charity's management have continued to surface over the past few years.
Muslim Aid India
Despite this extraordinary array of terror links and overt extremism, Muslim Aid is active on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir, and well as throughout India. Although it claims to have operated a field office in the country since 2005, this was not its first appearance: a British Islamist publication from 1992 features a call for donations to "Muslim Aid – India" in the wake of the notorious destruction of the Babri Mosque in Uttar Pradesh.
Today, Muslim Aid India appears to operate primarily out of Hyderabad. But management of the charity is not exactly local. Its two leading officials, Mirza Feroz Baig and Jafer Hussain Qureshi, are involved with a string of companies and charities registered in the United Kingdom. Several of these organizations have declared addresses on incorporation paperwork registered to a single house in the English city of Birmingham, which property records obtained by the Middle East Forum show to be owned by Qureshi.
Muslim Aid's Qureshi, it seems, has been helping for years to manage the affairs of the terror-connected international Islamist operative Zakir Naik. One of the companies previously registered to Qureshi's address is Universal Broadcasting Corporation Limited, a key component of Zakir Naik's network, and which serves as the umbrella organization for Naik's infamous Peace TV media outlets and various companies.
Perhaps the most famous radical preacher in the world, Naik lives in exile in Malaysia, where he is currently the target of an extradition request by Indian authorities on charges of money laundering and allegations of terrorism links. Law enforcement blame Naik's preaching for the radicalization of hundreds of jihadist recruits. Because of his extremism, he is banned from entering a number of other countries, including the UK and Canada.
And yet it is in the UK where Naik operates his most significant network of companies outside India, all with the help of a senior Muslim Aid official.
Along with Qureshi, both Zakir Naik and his wife, Farhat, have been listed in company registration documentation as directors of the Universal Broadcasting Corporation, with Farhat's address listed as Qureshi's house. Farhat, along with a number of Naik's other companies, are believed to be part of Naik's extensive money laundering effort.
Moreover, documents gathered by the Middle East Forum reveal that this enterprising trio, along with other trustees from Qureshi's other companies, are also listed as trustees of the UK office of the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF), which India banned in 2016. In fact, Muslim Aid India's Qureshi has been a director of almost all of Naik's UK businesses and charities.
In May, Britain's media watchdog issued a £300,000 fine against Peace TV and its various parent companies (with which Qureshi has also been involved) for inciting murder and broadcasting hate speech. The outlet shut down its UK broadcasting in November just before regulators were expected to rescind its license. Britain's Charity Commission, meanwhile, recently opened an investigation into IRF, citing concerns over its close links to Peace TV.
Qureshi, who has also served as a trustee of Muslim Aid's UK headquarters as well as Muslim Aid Sweden, is involved with a number of other prominent Islamist charities. He runs the Zakat Foundation of India, where his colleagues include Syed Zafar Mahmood, a prominent anti-Modi activist who in 2018, on behalf of the Zakat Foundation, publicly denounced the ban of the terror-tied Popular Front of India (PFI). Qureshi has also served of chairman of the Al Fouz Trust, a British charity that operates in South Asia. Emma Webb, in a report for the Henry Jackson Society, notes that Al Fouz Trust has previously reported "sponsoring the programs" on Zakir Naik's Peace TV of Abdurraheem Green, a prominent Salafi hate preacher and former jihadist.
Finally, Qureshi is a trustee of the Al-Khair Foundation, a charity that runs that radical television station IQRA TV. Al-Khair has often partnered with Muslim Aid, while also maintaining close ties to Zakir Naik and his network (in fact, it appears to have been an invitation to an Al-Khair Foundation conference that prompted Zakir Naik's ban from entering the United Kingdom).
Within India, Jamaat-e-Islami and Zakir Naik (who belongs to the Ahl-e-Hadith sect of Islam) may represent two separate, dangerous threats; but outside India, it appears, its advocates are working closely together.
Muslim Aid India, just as with other Muslim Aid branches, appears to be controlled by a close-knit cell of prominent Islamists with international connections to notorious terror-tied extremists. This Birmingham-Hyderabadi network deserves extensive investigation by both Indian and Western law enforcement.
An Uphill Battle
Despite all this evidence of extremism, however, the Muslim Aid franchise has enjoyed significant support from Western governments. The group received more than $1.5 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2013, handed over just three years after the charity admitted to funding proxies for the designated terrorist organization, Hamas. The European Union has given millions to the Islamist charity - 600,000 Euros in 2017 alone.
There is some evidence, however, that Muslim Aid's luck is running out. British government support for Muslim Aid, meanwhile, has drastically diminished over the past decade, with documents published on British government websites now openly naming Muslim Aid as Jamaat-e-Islami-connected. Britain's Charity Commission, meanwhile, has conducted repeated investigations into Muslim Aid's management.
Muslim Aid is not, of course, the only Western Jamaati charity active in India. Helping Hand for Relief and Development – the international aid arm of the Jamaat-e-Islami's branch in the United States – also operates on both sides of the LoC in Kashmir. In 2018, the Middle East Forum revealed that Helping Hand had been openly working with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror group responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks. In the past, Helping Hand's parent organization, the JI-founded Islamic Circle of North America, has run events with known ISI agents.
It's time for the Indian government and its law enforcement agencies to focus closely on these radical groups and counteract their influence. Where exactly in Kashmir is the money raised by Western Islamist charities ending up? Are these Islamist charities linked to the ISI? Do they continue to work with other South Asian jihadists?
India must shut down charities using programs of benevolence as a fig leaf for terror and extremism.
Over the past few years, the Indian government has taken some bold steps in the battle against domestic extremist groups. However, while India has woken up to the threat of Islamism's local violent cheerleaders, the government and security services risk overlooking Islamist movements' quieter, international underpinnings – a pernicious global network providing financial, logistical and ideological support, led by registered charities from the West using programs of benevolence as a fig leaf for terror and extremism.
Ultimately, if the threat of Islamism in India is to be tackled, then charities such as Muslim Aid and Helping Hand for Relief and Development must be proscribed.
Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.