[The FOIA documents cited in this article can be viewed here]
Obama administration officials have been on the receiving end of much-deserved criticism for the decision to grant a one-time license to allow payment of taxpayers money to the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA), a U.S. designated terror-financing charity in Sudan, once closely linked to Osama bin Laden.
However, as a July 2018 investigation by the Middle East Forum uncovered, World Vision, a large but controversial international Christian aid charity, was the primary recipient of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant that ultimately ended up funding ISRA. World Vision deserves much of the blame, but so far, its actions have escaped serious scrutiny.
Newly available information strongly suggests that World Vision was waylaid by the Sudanese regime, one of only four U.S. designated state-sponsors of terrorism in the world, into doing its bidding. What's more, to protect itself from bad publicity, World Vision has gone to great lengths to deceive the public about its actions.
World Vision's response to the July 2018 revelations that it funded ISRA comprised a carefully worded statement claiming: World Vision found no evidence on the Treasury's website that ISRA was a designated entity; World Vision's association with ISRA was a one-time occurrence; and that World Vision took immediate action the second it discovered ISRA was a designated entity. All three of these claims are misleading.
World Vision stated that "At the time of selection, there was no indication that [ISRA] had any possible ties to an alleged terrorist-supporting organization." This does not hold up to even moderate scrutiny. ISRA had been a designated charity since 2004. The first page of a Google search for "Islamic Relief Agency" reveals plenty of information about the Sudanese charity's terrorist links. Additionally, former Congressman Mark Siljander, a frequent traveler to Sudan who has signed public declarations both authored and promoted by World Vision, went to jail for lobbying for ISRA's U.S. branch, using stolen USAID money. Siljander's conviction for lobbying for IARA/ISRA was widely reported in the media.
World Vision states that a search on the Treasury Department's Sanctioned List Search, they "searched the blocked parties lists for 'Islamic Relief' in 'Sudan,' the searches produced no results." Yet upon typing "Islamic Relief Agency," or just "Islamic Relief," ISRA appears as a designated entity. Moreover, searching Treasury's broader website for "Islamic Relief Agency" or "ISRA" yields immediate results.
How many times has World Vision failed to take a more in-depth look at the Treasury Department's website, or simply type ISRA's name into Google? We know that World Vision's relationship with ISRA was not a one-time transaction and a one-time payment authorized by a special license, but part of an ongoing relationship that was integral to their work in Sudan. Indeed, in World Vision's grant application for work in the Blue Nile region of Sudan, submitted to USAID on January 21, 2014, World Vision explicitly discussed having "prior working experience" with ISRA, its local implementing partner for the grant.
As World Vision noted in its grant application to USAID, a partner such as ISRA was necessary because of restrictions placed on NGOs by the Sudanese regime. As one USAID official noted in a May 2015 email, ISRA is "Well connected to the (Sudanese) Government." In other words, the Sudanese regime sought to ensure that the regime and its partners ultimately controlled access to sensitive regions, and to force Western NGOs to work through regime-approved groups.
The regime's behavior does not surprise experts in the region. Former Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, the Charge D'affaires in Sudan from 2007-2009 told the Middle East Forum that the Sudanese regime has a "sophisticated understanding" of the processes NGOs go through and what is needed to manipulate them into doing what the regime wants. "The Sudanese regime prefers Islamic, and moreover, Islamist, charities like ISRA," said Fernandez. "One possibility could be that the regime wanted to tie up World Vision, or perhaps normalize ISRA in spite of the terror finance designation."
In fact, the Sudanese government was directly involved in World Vision's project. World Vision's grant application indicated that at least four Sudanese governmental agencies were all involved, while the regime's Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) would oversee the project. When the U.S. government ordered USAID to temporarily suspend payments to ISRA, HAC established a committee to investigate World Vision's "hostility," to the Sudanese regime, while regime newspapers reported that World Vision might face "expulsion." U.S. officials speculated these developments were direct responses to the U.S. government's actions.
At no point did World Vision appear to regard its partnership with ISRA as a serious problem. Documents acquired by the Middle East Forum reveal that, in July 2014, World Vision was warned that ISRA appeared to be designated, by a third party considering a partnership with World Vision prior to discovering its involvement with ISRA. But World Vision waited for four months before seeking "clarification" from the U.S. government about ISRA's designation status. USAID, knowing World Vision had been warned, was perplexed when the request was made. One frustrated USAID staffer asked ""(A)m I having deja vu or did we already deal with this organization and issue of (Islamic Relief Agency)?"
Subsequently, World Vision pressured U.S. government officials to let it resume its partnership with ISRA. After OFAC confirmed in January 2015 that ISRA was designated, World Vision argued there was "ambiguity" in OFAC's answer. Mark Smith of World Vision complained that ISRA "had performed excellent work" for World Vision in the past, and that "putting contractual relationships in limbo for such a long period is putting a significant strain" on World Vision's relationship with the Sudanese regime. He further threatened of World Vision's "intention to restart work with [ISRA] and to transact with [ISRA]" if OFAC did not respond within a week.
Perhaps even more troubling is the issue of the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS), a number given to all organizations authorized to receive U.S. federal funds. Before World Vision's project with ISRA was approved, USAID specifically reminded the evangelical charity that ISRA would require a valid DUNS number, and that it was World Vision's responsibility to check.
World Vision explicitly recognized its responsibility in this area. In a letter dated January 6, 2014, World Vision responded to USAID's instructions, saying, "Acknowledged. World Vision will ensure that Islamic Relief Agency has a DUNS number before we issue a subaward. As part of our internal policy, we take reasonable steps to ensure that we do not fund debarred or suspended organizations or individuals."
Somehow ISRA obtained an (apparently fraudulent) DUNS number, which does not correspond to any organization in the Government's System for Award Management (SAM) database. It is unclear who created this bogus DUNS number. Since a designated charity cannot get a valid DUNS number, it is reasonable to assume that the number was created by someone trying to circumvent the law. Either way, World Vision officials explicitly admitted it was their responsibility to ensure that ISRA had a valid DUNS number and did not do so.
World Vision obtained a license to pay ISRA $125,000. But this was not the first payment World Vision has made to ISRA, even concerning this particular venture. Documents submitted by World Vision to USAID disclose that the charity had previously transferred $39,759 to ISRA as an "initial advance." This payment was not authorized by the license and thus appears illegal. USAID officials deemed this payment "unfortunate," but seemed satisfied that USAID had not reimbursed World Vision for this particular payment. Further, an email from World Vision to USAID in January 2015 states that ISRA has worked under "other funding streams that WV utilizes."
There are numerous questions that need to be answered. What is the nature of World Vision's "prior working experience" with ISRA and how did it come about? How much money over the years and what other forms of support were given to ISRA? Why did World Vision initially fail to alert authorities to the fact it was partnering with a designated terrorist group? Why did World Vision persist in lobbying for its partnership with this Bin Laden-linked terror group to continue? What role did ISRA and World Vision's interactions with the Sudanese regime play in all these decisions?
World Vision's belief that the Sudanese regime would shut down its operations for refusing to pay ISRA may be valid. But the nature of the regime, how it operates, and what it seeks to do, should have been obvious to World Vision from the start. The best that can be said is that World Vision fell into the regime's trap and, once inside, did whatever it could to try to get out while saving face with the regime and its allies.
World Vision has enabled and funded terror financiers. So far, nothing has been done to hold it accountable – not by Congress, the executive branch, nor, in any significant way, by the media or its donors. This needs to change. World Vision's public relations teams work hard to portray a saintly charity merely striving to feed hungry children. This carefully crafted image undoubtedly makes it hard for politicians and journalists to ask the tough questions. But it also makes it even more important that they do.
Cliff Smith is the Washington Project Director of the Middle East Forum. Sam Westrop is the Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.