Early on in the post-9/11 war on terrorism, the federal government and specifically the Treasury Department, recognized the threat that charities posed as a mechanism to raise and funnel funds to terrorist organizations.
To a great extent, the federal government focused its terrorism financing investigative efforts on these charities because they were able to document the export of millions of dollars to suspect “front” organizations in areas of the world of national security concern. Charitable organizations in the Middle East have a history of providing funding to Islamist militant efforts. They were, for example, a strong source of support to mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some have also been documented as sources of funding for ongoing Islamist terror organizations.
This week’s conviction of five former organizers of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity operating in Dallas, for funneling more that $12 million to Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, is clearly the most significant victory in this effort to crack down on terror financing through charitable groups.
While a clear victory, the history of this case also shows how difficult such prosecutions can be. The case was investigated for fifteen years and took two long trials to reach a verdict. The first trial ended in a mistrial last year.
The federal government’s focus on Islamic charities has been an issue of major concern in the American Muslim community. While the Special Agent in Charge of the New York Field Division for ICE/DHS, I attended multiple community outreach events with the Muslim-American community in Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens and Staten Island, NY. Participants voiced concerns at each of these events that the federal government was “targeting” Muslim American charities without specific proof that the contributions went to support terrorism.
Although the Holy Land Foundation convictions will not convince everyone of this proof, it is a clear step forward. Many in this community were aghast to learn that any part of their charitable donations might be used to support terrorism. The Holy Land Foundation conviction shows that, in some cases, this is indeed what is happening – even in charitable organizations based in America. (And while it is important to acknowledge that some portions of Islamic charitable funds are being directed to support terrorism, it should also be understood that all charitable organizations should not be tainted.)
These cases are some of the most difficult to investigate and prove in federal law enforcement as it is near impossible to trace the money from the streets of the United States directly to the hands of terrorists overseas. My compliments to the investigative and prosecutorial team that put the case together and produced enough evidence to convict. Other similar high-profile cases resulted in acquittals, dead-locked juries and convictions for lesser charges.
Millions of dollars were exported to support the terrorist activities of Hamas. Millions of dollars of precious federal resources were spent to prosecute the organizers responsible for this activity. The case sends a clear message that the United States will not allow the charitable community to be co-opted by terrorist organizations to further their violent agenda.