Under the administration of President Barack Obama, the Treasury Department stopped blacklisting domestic charities that collect funds for terrorist organizations, Eli Lake of Bloomberg View reported on Thursday.
Lake explained that targeting charities that front for terrorist organizations was a “key tool” of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism after 9/11. During the Bush presidency, the Treasury targeted eight such charities located in the United States, including “al-Qaeda fronts such as the U.S. branch of the al-Haramain Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation. In this period, the U.S. government also blacklisted groups that raised money for the Palestinian terror group Hamas, including the Holy Land Foundation, and for the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, like the Good Will Charitable Organization.”
In contrast, the only charity to be designated under the Obama administration was the Tamil Foundation, which funded the Sri Lankan terrorist organization the Tamil Tigers. The group was blacklisted in February 2009, a month after Obama’s inauguration.
Lake presented some possible reasons for the drop in such designations, including that “terrorist groups have determined it’s too risky to set up a philanthropic front in the U.S. these days.” Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism during the Bush administration, told Lake that “enforcement efforts did have an effect on the ability of groups to openly organize and use non-governmental organizations as fundraising mechanisms for designated terrorist organizations.”
Zarate added that a number of terrorist groups have developed other funding mechanisms, so using a U.S. charity may not be as vital to their functioning as it once was.
Another possibility offered by Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counter-terrorism analyst and deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury, is that the designation of charities was of limited use, as the charity could contest the designation. “When an authority does find an entity worthy of this kind of attention, the first inclination is not to designate, which has limited consequences, but rather to investigate and prosecute,” said Levitt, who now heads the intelligence and counter-terrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
However Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury and current vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, raised concerns that the drop in designations may mean that charities that finance terrorist groups are escaping scrutiny. Schanzer observed that the Treasury now views itself as more of a “global intelligence shop,” and targets actors such as Iran and the Islamic State while leaving domestic charities to the FBI. But Schanzer expressed concern that “the FBI may be overwhelmed with direct threats to the homeland, thereby relegating domestic terrorism-finance cases to a third- or fourth-tier priority. Is anyone taking the threat of domestic terrorism finance as seriously as the Treasury did back in its heyday? I don’t know.”
Schanzer testified before Congress last month that seven key members of the Holy Land Foundation are now involved with American Muslims for Palestine, a group that is funding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel on U.S. campuses.
Lake concluded by observing that “raising money for anti-Israel activism is not the same as raising money for suicide bombers,” but now that Hamas has developed other sources of funding, that “remnants of [Hamas’s] former charity are free to raise funds for the war of ideas against the Jewish State at American colleges.”
[Photo: George Kelly / Flickr ]