Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jun. 24, 2016, 7:23am

In line with a growing trend of legal actions seeking damages after terror financing by state and non-state actors, St. Francis of Assisi, a California-based NGO that assists refugees in the Middle East, filed a lawsuit on June 13th against Kuwaiti high profile terrorist financier Hajjaj al-Ajmi, prominent Kuwaiti bank Kuwait Finance House, and its Turkey-based subsidiary, Kuveyt-Turk Participation Bank. The Californian group claimed that donations solicited through Twitter campaigns organized by Al-Ajmi were funneled through Kuwait Finance House and Kuveyt-Turk Participation Bank into the hands of ISIS fighters who persecuted Assyrian Christians and forced them to flee Syria and Iraq and seek shelter in refugee camps. Although indirectly, the lawsuit brings attention to the origin and history of the al-Nusra Front, stemmed from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s plan for an Islamic State in the Levant and deeply intertwined with Gulf money. The enduring financial commitment of Kuwait and Qatar to the “al-Nusra cause” leaves room for discussion about the potential political cost that the jihadist group – al-Qaeda’s affiliate and a dominant player in the Syrian and Iraqi theater – will pay in the future, faced with few strategic decisions about its future partners in the region.

The Defendants

Hajjaj Al-Ajmi is known to have devoted fundraising efforts and material support to a number of terrorist and Islamist groups – especially al-Nusra, his primary beneficiary – since 2012, when his name started to appear on several sanction lists (Switzerland, Australia, Canada, EU, US, UN, Hong Kong, and Israel). For al-Nusra, Al-Ajmi launched a number of successful and aggressive social media campaigns aimed at raising funds, and has served as a conduit for donations to facilitators in Syria, reportedly in exchange for leadership positions to be granted to Kuwaitis. If Hajjaj Al-Ajmi’s name is historically associated with al-Nusra, no recent record of Kuwait Finance House and its subsidiaries’ support to the group has surfaced, although the bank’s past makes its alleged support of the jihadist group realistic. Kuwait Finance House was listed by the State of Florida as a scrutinized company for conducting activities in Sudan since 2009, and is therefore prohibited from contracting with a state or local governmental agency. The bank has an opaque history of ties and interactions with banks that were revealed to have supported Hamas and al-Qaeda’s cause, and owns 62% of Kuveyt-Turk Participation Bank, which counts the controversial Islamic Development Bank among its shareholders.

A Common Matrix for ISIS and al-Nusra

The decision to target ISIS rather than al-Nusra by the Californian NGO may have been dictated by many factors, not least the intention to leverage the most effective terrorist brand on the market to tackle and increase the resonance of the long-standing problem of Christians’ persecution and displacement since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In fact, the link between al-Nusra’s financiers and ISIS is fully justified by al-Nusra’s history. Born from the leadership struggle that led to the 2013 split of the jihadist group established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Al-Nusra reportedly relied on ISIS’ sources of funding in its early phase, until the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda grew bitter.

Al-Nusra’s fundraising apparatus has proved resilient over the past few years, associating more traditional systems – hawala donations, ransom payments, banks and charities funneling private contributions – to more innovative strategies – such as crowdsourcing campaigns through social media. In particular, Kuwait and Qatar-based financiers – who, more than others, have profusely sponsored al-Nusra’s jihadist enterprises since the very beginning –produced some of the most creative fundraising solutions.

Gulf Money and Social Media

Al-Ajmi, for instance, was one of the game changers in al-Nusra’s financial strategy. The Twitter handle he set up in June 2012 for the “Popular Commission in Support of the Syrian Revolution” worked as a conduit to solicit donations amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars by mid-2013 directed towards purchasing weaponry and artillery for Gaza, Yemen, and Syria. In mid-2013, Al-Ajmi activated a second fundraising campaign – “Mobilization of the People of Qatar Campaign for the Levant” – active until its US terrorist designation in August 2014 caused his Twitter account to be suspended. Naturally, Al-Ajmi immediately created a new account that resonated through the zealous assistance of his associates and followers. However, even more popular than Al-Ajmi’s Twitter account was his Instagram account, his privileged platform to engage his 1.3 million followers by spreading al-Qaeda and al-Nusra propaganda as well as one of his sources of income after the UN and US terrorist designation and his resulting asset freeze.

Qatar, as well, has hosted large scale fundraising campaigns soliciting support for the procurement of weapons, food and supplies for al-Nusra in Syria, and “Madid Ahl al-Sham” was one of the most effective. The private, Qatar-based, purported charity was once cited by members of the al-Nusra Front as “one of the preferred conduits for donations” in August of 2012. Reportedly involving over 50 young Qatari volunteers, the campaign worked under the aegis of the Qatar Centre for Voluntary Work, an organization supposedly established by the Qatari government in 2001 and supervised by the Qatari Ministry of Culture.

Requests for donations advertised via social media featured the names of the campaign coordinators – Saad bin Saad al-Kabi and Abd al-Latif al-Kawari – and Qatar Islamic Bank account numbers to deposit funds. At the time it sanctioned both individuals as terrorists for their prominent role in fundraising on behalf of al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in Pakistan, in August 2015, the US Treasury argued that Kabi had set up several donation campaigns in Qatar in response to al-Nusra officials’ request for money and had facilitated ransom payments on two occasions. Kawari, instead, directly coordinated “Madid Ahl al-Sham” from January 2013 to mid-2014, and extensively cooperated with a number of terrorist designated al-Qaeda facilitators and financiers to transfer funds from Qatar-based donors to al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Efforts in support of the Madid Ahl al-Sham campaign expanded significantly over the years, and were actively promoted by other actors who tended to be primarily concentrated on fundraising for al-Qaeda – such as Eid Charity and several other Qatari terrorist financiers. The Qatari-base campaign attracted direct endorsement by a variety of prominent individuals – from Sheikh Wagdy Ghoneim, an Egyptian cleric who was forced to leave the United States by immigration forces after alleging Ghoneim participated in fundraising activities for terrorist organizations, to Abdulaziz bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, a wealthy Qatari convicted in absentia of funding international terrorism by a Lebanese court and tied by blood to the current Qatari Minister of State for Defense.

In June 2015 the US described Madid Ahl al-Sham fundraising efforts as a channel for support to extremists in Syria and the charity was reportedly closed down by Qatari authorities in the same year.

Funds for Leverage

So far Qatar has passively supported an atmosphere that encourages fundraising for terror groups, but especially through its conspicuous ransom payments to al-Nusra and through the Madid Ahl al-Sham efforts, Qatar’s support for the jihadist group has reached the dimension of a non-official state sponsorship. Kuwait, on the other hand, has knowingly hosted private donors that openly raised money for the anti-Assad cause, facilitated by the country’s strategic location and by the lax attitude towards terrorist finance. Several former Sunni-members of the Kuwaiti Parliament who wish to see the collapse of the Bashar Al-Assad’s Shiite Alawite government even traveled to Syria to meet with rebel fighters and express their support.

According to the International Institute for Counterterrorism researchers Shaul Shay and Ely Karmon, the evolving Syrian war scene – especially in light of the failing peace process, of the setback suffered by ISIS, and of the aggressive Russian offensive – presents al-Nusra with a crucial political choice between disengaging from al-Qaeda, founding an independent emirate in competition with ISIS, or aligning with the latter. In the long run, the enduring relevance of Qatari and Kuwaiti money to al-Nusra’s fundraising apparatus may condition future political choices of the jihadi group. Traditionally, Gulf States have been strong advocates of the necessity for al-Nusra to disavow al-Qaeda in return for financial and material aid. Once the ties with al-Qaeda are severed, Gulf countries may more easily and more overtly support the group freed from the nefarious aura of the qaedist legacy. English journalist Robert Fisk recently observed that Qatar has “gone a long way to clean up Nusra’s reputation and to present it as the real moderate “opposition” in Syria, supposedly deserving of international support. The time to leverage its loyalty to al-Nusra may be approaching.

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