Islamic Relief (IR), a large international aid charity founded by prominent members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has long taken an aggressive approach to its detractors. The most recent example is found in a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, penned by Islamic Relief's CEO, Naser Haghamed, who trumpets the fact that IR's headquarters, Islamic Relief Worldwide, is challenging Israel's terror designation of the charity in an Israeli court.
This counter-offensive is meant to distract from the growing realization by government, media, academic and lawmakers that this charity, despite taking tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, is an extremist organization that serves as the flagship institution of one of the world's leading Islamist networks.
Haghamed's piece, concerning IR's two-month old decision to challenge Israel's designation, is conspicuous in its timing. The initial announcement that IR would challenge Israel's designation came days after one board member was forced to resign for making blatantly antisemitic statements, and yet a full six years after Israel first designated the charity.
Immediately after IR's announcement, the offending board-member was replaced by a long-time IR official who, it turned out, had himself made not just anti-Semitic, but openly pro-terrorist statements. The resulting media furore, led by The Times¸ led to the resignation of the entire board.
But this time the anger in the United Kingdom - where IR was founded and its headquarters are based - was particularly striking. Along with major media coverage in its home base, IR's extremism this time earned the rebuke of high-powered officials across Europe, and even in the U.N.
IR is still reeling from the media firestorm. But the hits keep coming. Last week, a report published by King's College London's International Centre for the Study of Violence and Radicalisation and Political Violence, and written by Dr. Damon L. Perry, a British government-backed expert on domestic extremism, devastated the Islamist charity's oft-repeated claims of moderation, citing and corroborating research by the Middle East Forum that uncovered clear collaboration between IR branches and proxies for the terrorist organization Hamas, as well as its officials' contact with terrorist groups and other extremists.
The Middle East Forum, the International Centre for the Study of Violence and Radicalisation and Political Violence and the Israeli government are hardly the first to point out IR's extremist ties. The German government has openly stated that Islamic Relief has "significant ties" to the Muslim Brotherhood, with a Swedish government report reaching similar conclusions. In April, Italy's Regional Council of Lombardy passed a resolution denouncing Islamic Relief for hosting radical preachers. The United Kingdom's Charity Commission has investigated IR's habit of hosting preachers with a long history of hate speech. In the United States, an administration official recently denounced the charity.
IR is also designated in the United Arab Emirates, while the Bangladeshi government has banned IR from working with Rohingya Muslim refugees because of concerns the charity radicalizing vulnerable Rohingya refugees. And a government-sponsored commission in Tunisia has reportedly accused Islamic Relief of financing jihadists across the Libyan border.
Despite this deluge of accusations and evidence, Haghamed's opinion piece went to great lengths to discuss IR's dedication to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and listing countries around the world where it operates its noble mission. In other words, he claims, IR is a "victim" both of terrorists, and of vindictive Israeli bureaucrats.
Haghamed writes that "I am a humanitarian, not a lawyer." And yet his piece comprises carefully worded lawyerly language that clearly, intentionally, dodges issues raised by Perry's report, which highlights issues IR's critics have been warning about for years. For example, Haghamed argues that the true reason for Israel's designation is "not that we materially support Hamas but rather that our humanitarian work makes Hamas look good in the eyes of the local population, and that this is tantamount to supporting terrorism."
This is simply untrue. While Israeli authorities have been typically tight-lipped about specifics, there are numerous examples of IR's subsidies for Hamas. Perry's report, for example, discusses IR's support of the Al-Falah Benevolent Society in Gaza, labelled by intelligence analysts as one of "Hamas's charitable societies". Journalists describe the charity as a "complementary arm of the government". Other media reports describe the head of Al-Falah, Ramadan Tamboura, as a "well known Hamas figure."
Another Hamas-run organization discussed by Perry is the Gaza Zakat Committee (IZS), which has been supported by IR for 23 years. IZS is run by a well-known Hamas cleric, Hazem Al-Sirraj, who studied under Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. A decade ago, Al-Sirraj was the keynote speaker at a Hamas conference in Gaza for the "sons of Hamas," including Hamas "founders, scientists, politicians and academics." These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive.
Haghamed's implausible case thus rests on a duplicitous premise. He writes that "Multiple sign-off in our financial systems protects against any individual with an agenda spiriting money away." In other words, Haghamed is arguing that unless IR money is given directly to Hamas's terrorist operations, it is not, in fact, going to support terrorism.
But the very point about the Islamist terror finance industry is not that money funds terror directly, but that extremists in the West take advantage of the fungibility of terrorist network's finances. These finances include "legitimate" functions, often based around welfare and charity, that are nonetheless designed to support their overall violent goals. The U.S. Treasury guidelines emphasize this fact, stating: "The risk of terrorist abuse facing charitable organizations...cannot be measured from the important but relatively narrow perspective of terrorist diversion of charitable funds to support terrorist acts. Rather, terrorist abuse also includes the exploitation of charitable services and activities to radicalize vulnerable populations and cultivate support for terrorist organizations and activities."
IR also goes out of its way to deny is that has any ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Haghamed protests that "I attend every board meeting, every senior management team meeting, and I can personally vouch that no external organisation influences or controls Islamic Relief." This is a line that Islamic Relief has used repeatedly in the past.
Haghamed's argument deserves points for clever wording. After all, why would any "external" Muslim Brotherhood attaché need to control IR when its own founder, Essam al-Haddad served as a senior official in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? Haddad rose through the ranks for years before spending several years as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council - its top executive authority. Haddad resigned only to become foreign minister to Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt before he was deposed. Haddad now sits in an Egyptian jail. At his trial, the Egyptian government accused him, among many other charges, of "financing terrorism by using global charities such as Islamic Relief."
Haddad is hardly the only senior IR leader with such obvious affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its violent affiliates. IR's other co-founder Hany El-Banna, gave an interview to Hamas's official radio station as recently as 2016, in which he urged a "strong coalition" between civil society organizations and the Hamas government. In fact, the Middle East Forum's major report on IR has uncovered the ties to Muslim Brotherhood institutions of many other IR trustees and officials around the world.
Perry's report also cites George Washington University's Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, who says that his own research on IR "showed a pattern in which prominent trustees and upper‑level management embrace material that is strongly anti‑Semitic, and supports Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood."
Provided the Israeli Government puts up a competent defense of its actions, IR's challenge to its designation in Israel is likely to fail. But the timing of this, coming during a moment of crisis for the charity as its blatant antisemitism and deep ties to international Islamist movements are being exposed in mainstream media outlets, reveals that IR is deeply worried that its decades-long obfuscation is coming to an end.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan, when serving as Solicitor General in the Obama administration, famously explained: "Hezbollah builds bombs. Hezbollah also builds homes ... when you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs." Make no mistake: Islamic Relief helps Hamas build homes.
Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project. Sam Westrop is director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project.