Consortium Against Terrorist Finance May 9, 2016, 8:54am

This week The Guardian announced that the humanitarian aid organization “Help for Syria,” far from being a “grassroots organization,” is in fact a counter-terrorism effort funded by the UK government. Secret documents uncovered by The Guardian revealed that the UK government has been funding “Help for Syria” in an effort to dissuade potential recruits from joining ISIS or from travelling to Syria as aid workers. The government mission is, allegedly, to encourage British citizens to work for Syria from inside the UK rather than leaving the country. And according to The Guardian, this secret government-led effort is a cause for some concern because of its lack of transparency. Language from the article suggests that something ominous is afoot: “A government propaganda unit has been covertly running a humanitarian campaign that helps funnel aid to Syrian refugees.” While it may seem strange to use such sinister words as “propaganda,” “covertly,” and “funneling aid,” in reference to a campaign that aims to provide shelter, water and education to Syrian refugees, the fact is that many people are up in arms over what some are calling Britain’s “cold-war” tactics.

A college graduate, hired to spread the word of the campaign on university campuses, labeled the effort “quite devious” after she discovered that the campaign was government funded, and accused the Home Office (the UK government department for immigration, drugs policy, crime, counter-terrorism and police) of “going behind people’s backs.” Still others suggest that the government is trying to manipulate the country’s Muslim population, even though only about 1/4 of the 24,000 people who engage with “Help for Syria” identified as Muslim.

According to human rights layer Imran Khan the main problem with the “Help for Syria” campaign is the fact that it creates a lack of trust between the government and its Muslim citizens: “If the Government wants its Muslim citizens to listen to it, it needs to be trusted. And to be trusted, it needs to be honest. What is happening here is not honest, it's deeply deceptive.” Khan claims further that “the Government needs to stop thinking of young British Muslims as some sort of fifth column that it needs to deal with.” The authors at Open Democracy claim that issues with the covert government organization “Help for Syria” span beyond just creating distrust within the UK’s Muslim population. Indeed, for them, the discovery constitutes a desire to “covertly engineer the thoughts of its citizens.”

Open Democracy posits that the Home Office has, through “Help for Syria,” covertly funded dozens of campaigns that present themselves as both “independent” and “community based” such as: “My 2012 Dream,” “Return to Somalia,” “Faith on the Frontline,” “Families matter,” “Imams online,” “Not another brother,” “Ummah Sonic,” “The fightback starts here,” “Open Your Eyes: Isis Lies,” “The truth about Isis,” and “Making a Stand.” At issue for the authors at Open Democracy is the fact that these organizations are misrepresenting themselves: “When democratic governments start using community groups and NGOs to disseminate government propaganda and hoodwink the public into believing they are authentic ‘grassroots’ campaigns, it damages everyone in civil society. Democracy requires clear lines between the security state and the police on the one hand, and civil society, public and social services on the other.” But is the government trying to hoodwink its citizens through “Help for Syria?” Just what is “Help for Syria,” anyway, and how does it work? These are questions that few detractors, who complain about the lack of transparency, actually take time to answer.

Contrary to the assertions made by the authors at The Guardian or those of human rights lawyer Imran Khan, there is nothing on the “Help for Syria” website that particularly targets Muslims, there is no religious language or calls to do one’s religious duty, and there is nothing here to suggest that the website targets men of a particular age range. The site mostly contains facts and figures about the state of Syrian refugees and the main photos constitute either small, male, elementary-aged school children or everyday British citizens placing clothes into plastic bags. The website asserts that “Help for Syria” is “an online resource providing advice and guidance for anyone who wants to raise money and aid for Syria.” They clearly state, “We are not a charity, and cannot accept donations. Our purpose is to offer advice on how to organize fundraising events here in the UK to help the displaced Syrian people.” This propaganda machine, aimed at covertly influencing the minds of British citizens, wants to offer advice on how to organize a bake sale. The site does not present itself as an established organization with an agenda for fundraising; rather it is a website that encourages citizens to start their own grass-roots organizations to raise funds - organize a run, throw a dinner party, or hold a yard sale. And if you simply want to donate money, there is a webpage dedicated to promoting those charities that are actually reputable.

It is possible to, with The Guardian, look at these charities, and begin to suspect that they too are in on the government plot to manipulate citizens into helping Syrian refugees, but that seems cynical. If for nothing else, the Home Office’s creation of a website that elucidates those charities that are quality tested should be applauded. In this day and age, philanthropists need to ensure that the charity they support will not end up using donated funds to finance terrorists in Syria.  

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