America gives foreign aid and supports various international bodies with the best of intentions. And yet, international aid, by its nature, usually goes to war-torn areas and places with terrorist insurgents and similar groups. And there is a growing consensus among foreign policy and national security practitioners that, as professor Jessica Trisko Darden of Virginia Commonwealth University put it, "Humanitarian aid has a terrorism problem."
Indeed, in 2019, I documented seven specific instances where funds from the United States Agency on International Development went to organizations that, at minimum, do business with terrorist groups and, in some cases, were actually designated by the U.S. government as terrorist entities.
Humanitarian aid organizations have a terrorism problem.
Here's an example: In 2018, Jammal Trust Bank in Lebanon was granted $250,000 by USAID, with USAID celebrating its partnership in multiple Facebook posts. In 2019, Jammal Trust Bank was designated as a terror-financing entity by the Treasury Department for supporting Hezbollah and subsequently collapsed. While it was not designated at the time of the grant, diplomatic and intelligence officials had been raising the issue of Jammal Trust for over a decade. It clearly should not have been a USAID partner.
Examples like this just scratch the surface. As Darden pointed out in a 2019 article, a partial audit of the billions of USAID dollars that went to Iraq and Syria between 2012 and 2018 showed "nearly $700 million in awards without an adequate system in place to ensure that members of terrorist groups would not be beneficiaries." Another investigation led to dozens of organizations being banned from receiving funds and nearly $250 million in funding suspended. One can only guess how much went out the door to terrorists before these investigations were done.
This problem has not abated and has almost certainly continued to grow. Indeed, last year, international aid behemoths World Vision and Save the Children were both caught partnering with the Palestinian Children and Youth Institution, an organization headed by a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.- and EU-designated terrorist group. And this month, Relief International's chief executive was placed on administrative leave after she authorized payments through an intermediary to an as-of-yet unnamed armed group. Unsurprisingly, World Vision, Save the Children, and Relief International are partners of USAID.
Congress is starting to realize the need for increased scrutiny.
Congress is starting to realize the need for increased scrutiny. Last December, Sen. Chuck Grassley, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, issued a report chastising World Vision for partnering with the Islamic Relief Agency, a designated terrorist entity in Sudan, from 2013 to 2015 and using funds from not only USAID but also the United Nations, which is also funded by the U.S. taxpayer, and other sources. Grassley's efforts are commendable, particularly as this was an especially egregious example. But more needs to be done.
Luckily, late last year, Rep. Jack Bergman, along with Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Mike Johnson, and Joe Wilson introduced the International Spending Transparency Act to create a unit within the State Department to audit funds that go to multilateral and international organizations, with the goal of ensuring funds aren't going to designated terrorist organizations or various hostile governments, such as Iran, Syria, or China. This unit would be part of the State Department's Office of Inspector General, and it would be required to turn in an annual audit to Congress. They reintroduced this bill for this Congress in January.
Inspectors general are internal officers in administrative agencies. They are lawfully removed only for cause and work to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse. While they have far from a perfect record, they make a legitimate difference in the operations of government. Grassley, whose oversight of World Vision led to some reforms in USAID and (to some degree) World Vision, is considered a "patron saint" of inspectors general and fiercely protects their independence precisely because he knows that effective oversight matters.
This legislation, at minimum, will bring more information to Congress and the public.
While this legislation alone would not fix the problem, it's a good first step. It would, at minimum, bring more information to Congress and the public concerning the massive amount of money that goes from the U.S. to various international aid organizations and other organizations, such as the U.N. (which, as we have seen, can fall into the terror trap itself). If a partial audit just of aid to various Syrian and Iraqi groups can identify hundreds of millions of dollars potentially going to terrorists, an annual audit could not only uncover more but also work to deter it in the first place.
Parts of the international aid community will undoubtedly resist increased scrutiny, as some think that even existing constraints on funding terrorist groups are too strict, wanting instead to focus only when there is a clear "diversion" that funds terrorism directly. But money is fungible and, as then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan said, "When you help Hezbollah build homes, you help Hezbollah build bombs." There can be no distinction between the two.
In the long run, international aid must improve its trustworthiness in order to operate as effectively as it must. Funding terrorists, even when it seems well intentioned, creates more problems in the long run. Bergman's bill is a great step toward shining sunlight into this area, and it has the potential to make a significant difference.