U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his national security strategy last month, reinforcing his America First platform and calling "Jihadist terrorists" one of the "primary transnational threats" facing Americans. To counter this threat, Trump promised, "We will disrupt the financial, material, and personnel supply chains of terrorist organizations."
As a part of this ongoing effort, the president has established a terrorist financing targeting center in partnership with Saudi Arabia, and issued sanctions against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for providing material support to terrorist entities. Yet if Trump truly seeks to put America first, he should start by targeting the Islamist charities at home that subsidize the Islamist terror networks overseas.
Some Americans may be familiar with a Michigan-based charity named LIFE for Relief and Development. Founded in 1992 in response to the Gulf War, LIFE is headquartered in Southfield, Michigan, and claims to provide "humanitarian aid to people regardless of race, gender, religion and cultural background." LIFE recently put on a 12-city fundraising tour in which "Arab Idol" superstars Ameer Dandan and Ahmed Fahmi — along with a professional Arab folk dancing troupe — performed in charity concerts from Los Angeles to New Orleans.
While Islamist charities offer a legitimate range of charitable services and humanitarian relief, their underlying function often seems to be providing financial and logistical support to worldwide terrorist networks. Genuine humanitarian relief appears to provide the window-dressing these nonprofits need to continue funding terrorists in places ranging from the Palestinian territories to Pakistan.
LIFE appears to be one of the worst offenders — maintaining a credible reputation despite its troubling connections to Islamist extremists. It claims to "distribute over $452 million in humanitarian aid and relief to over 45 countries," but the issue lies in where exactly the money goes. LIFE has partnered with the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), a group suspected of financing terrorism. Moreover, the same handful of Islamist administrators rotate through key positions within nonprofits; for example, LIFE CEO and board member Abdallah Boumediene simultaneously served as ANERA's executive director for several years.
Some of the money shared with these terror financiers comes from financial contributions to LIFE made by corporate giants, including recent donations from charitable foundations by time-honored American companies such as Verizon, General Electric, and Progressive. What does all this money end up funding?
Rogue executive: Dr. Hany Saqr
LIFE board members selected retired physician and former Ohio State professor Dr. Hany Saqr as their current chief executive, despite his connections to radical Islam and a publicized history of philanthropic mismanagement. The FBI obtained a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) phone directory in 1992 that conspicuously listed Saqr as an executive committee member, and phone records from Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk show that he was frequently communicating with Saqr at a time when the terror group was receiving as much as 30 percent of its funding from sources in the U.S.
Though he lacks any formal training in Islamic theology, Saqr was the imam at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center (NICC) in Columbus, Ohio, which stood at the center of a controversy involving a 17-year-old Muslim girl who converted to Christianity and fled from her parents in 2009 because of their extremist ties to this mosque. A 35-page memorandum filed in a Florida family court claims that the Islamic center represented a "clear and present danger" to Fathima Rifqa Bary and cited Saqr personally in order to justify the minor's flight from her parents. The affidavit states that, "The leader of the mosque, Dr. Hany Saqr, was previously an imam for another area mosque at the same time the largest known Al Qaeda cell in the U.S. since 9/11 was operating out of the mosque."
In addition to his radical associations, Saqr has a history of mismanaging charities that should have excluded him from taking on similar responsibilities with LIFE. After a vote of no confidence, Saqr was unceremoniously ousted as chairman of the American Islamic Waqf, a 501c3 nonprofit which owned and managed by the aforementioned NICC. Fellow board members later issued a temporary restraining order against Saqr for fear that the former executive would "pose the substantial risk of causing donations intended for AIW and NICC to be misdirected to Saqr's control, which could be highly problematic with respect to the Internal Revenue Service for both donors and AIW."
Hamas blockade runner Khalid Turaani
Persistent anti-Israel agitator Khalid Turaani preceded Saqr as CEO at LIFE, and his resumé leaves no doubts as to his Islamist inclinations. Turaani was among 400 radical Islamists from Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad to attend the notorious "Jerusalem Conference" held in Beirut, Lebanon in 2001. As a result of this jihadist convention, competing terror groups pledged to unify around the goal of establishing Islamic control of Jerusalem before formally declaring that, "The only decisive option to achieve this strategy is the option of jihad in all its forms and resistance."
Turaani attended the conference in his capacity as executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ). Addressing his fellow Palestinians at a 2002 AMJ conference, Turaani said, "Allah will allow you to conquer the land of Palestine... Its men, its women, and its servants are in a state of jihad until the Day of Judgment."
Unregistered Iraqi agents
The first major blow to LIFE's operations came long before Saqr became chief executive. On September 18, 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained search warrants to examine LIFE's financial transfers from the Middle East by "obtaining, secreting, transfer, concealment and or expenditure of money by LDR [LIFE]." The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force raided five locations, including the main Southfield office and the homes of prominent LIFE leaders.
The various computer records, videos, and tax statements seized during the raids eventually led to stiff penalties for the organization. After years of litigation, LIFE executives agreed in 2015 to pay a fine of $780,000 because they "knowingly and willfully formed a conspiracy for the purpose of transferring funds from the United States to Iraq ... " DOJ documents called the sanctions violations "an egregious case" and accused LIFE of conducting unauthorized funds transfers to Iraq totaling $236,000.
Targeting the home of LIFE founder and board member Mujahid Al-Fayadh, federal officials discovered more than $134,000 in cash, $75,000 of which was stuffed into a plastic shopping bag. Agents also collected Iraqi military decorations, a computer, photographs, videotapes, and fundraising materials from Al-Fayadh's home.
Another target of the 2006 federal sweep was Muthanna al-Hanooti, former executive director of the infamous Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as LIFE public relations coordinator. Al-Hanooti was indicted in March 2008 and sentenced to one year in federal prison for his role in attempting to influence Congress on behalf of the Saddam-era Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS). The indictment details how al-Hanooti received $34,000 from IIS to pay for three U.S. Congressmen known to be opposed to sanctions to visit Iraq in 2002. For his services, al-Hanooti was compensated with 2 million barrels of oil from the United Nation's Oil for Food program — profits meant to feed Iraqi families living under strict international sanctions.
Front lines of the war on terror
LIFE officials were also accused of supporting the Iraqi insurgency and endangering U.S. troops. According to a coalition spokesman, in 2004, LIFE's offices in Iraq were subjected to "a cordon and search operation" in which "12 computers and 20 boxes of files were confiscated."
This negative publicity had an effect: Comerica Bank shut down all seven of LIFE's bank accounts and invoked Section 314(b) of the Patriot Act, which requires banking institutions to share information within the financial sector related to "money laundering or terrorist related activity."
Similarly, Bank of America scrutinized LIFE's account activity after receiving a tip from the FBI and found transactions that were "not consistent with expected activity, unusual activity in the form of unknown sources of cash deposits, activity inconsistent with the activities of a charity, and expenditures [which] appear to be personal in nature."
Citing discrimination, LIFE sued Bank of America in 2012 for closing their accounts. Four years later, a six-member jury ruled in favor of Bank of America in a case that was closely watched by Muslim advocates and civil rights groups.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Treasury stopped prosecuting fraudulent domestic charities altogether, leaving a major financial pipeline and source for international terrorism funding unguarded. Given that President Trump has prioritized terrorism during his first year in office, he must not neglect domestic forms of illicit financing, starting with Michigan's LIFE for Relief and Development.
LIFE's Islamist board members have colluded with a foreign espionage unit, violated international sanctions against a rogue state, diverted oil profits meant to feed needy Iraqi families, and even supported Iraqi militants waging war against American soldiers. U.S. banks refuse to work with the charity after identifying shady financial practices, and LIFE's current chief executive executed a hostile takeover of a nonprofit that he financially ruined. Yet, LIFE goes on, under the stewardship of a Muslim Brotherhood paragon who keeps the most brutal Hamas leaders on speed-dial.
What could possibly go wrong?
Benjamin Baird is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.