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The Golden Chain - Woman studies a wall board covered with photos of A-Quaeda members
Last updated November 2015

The Golden Chain

As hundreds of new charities pop up around conflict zones, charities must think carefully about where how they make funding decisions.

These isles are no stranger to terrorism. The IRA, in its many forms, brought its armed struggle to Britain during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It is a relief that former combatants now work so hard on establishing peace and reconciliation, especially with the young. But there are now new threats and we seem unable to prevent them or to comprehend the motivations of those who carry them out.

The ODI (Overseas Development Institute) reported earlier this year that British humanitarian NGOs have criticised counter-terrorism laws for undermining their aid operations, and British Muslim charities have argued that they have been disproportionately affected by such laws. Banks have placed restrictions on the services they offer to various organisations working in conflict zones like Syria and Gaza, while others have been hard hit by allegations of links to terrorism.

The Charity Commission for its part has issued an alert against charities that divert cash to fund terrorism and pledged to take action against trustees and charities that suspect this and fail to report it. It follows several cases where UK charity assets have allegedly ended up in the hands of proscribed terror groups. If that is so, then it is clear and entirely correct advice.

The nice-sounding Benevolence International Foundation was a charitable trust based in Saudi Arabia – and a front for al-Qaeda. The list of 20 main financiers of al-Qaeda, composed by Osama bin Laden in 1988 and dubbed by him ‘the Golden Chain’, was found in the charity’s Bosnia office when it was raided in March 2002.

So the outcome of the recent CAGE judicial review case could have been illuminating, as it considered the role of grant-making foundations funding unpopular causes and non-charitable organisations and could have aired the arguments on whether charitable funds had been used to promote or justify terrorism. All subjects worthy of examination you may think. Prepare for disappointment. Such matters must, for the time being, return to the saloon bar for analysis.

The advocacy group brought the review against the commission after the regulator sought and received assurances from Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which had previously given CAGE £271,000 in funding, that it would never fund it again.

The assurances were demanded by the commission after CAGE said Mohammed Emwazi, the alleged Islamic State executioner known as Jihadi John, had been a “beautiful young man” who had been radicalised by the attention of the UK security services. Emwazi is believed to have beheaded several hostages and glorified his misdeeds on video. The comments, inappropriate though they were, did not - to the frustration of many - constitute a criminal act. The point is now somewhat moot as the vman in question has been eliminated by a drone strike in Syria.

Back in the more sedate confines of the High Court, CAGE withdrew its judicial review after the commission agreed to issue a statement that said: “Trustees must be free to exercise their fiduciary powers and duties in light of the circumstances that exist at the time, if acting properly within their objects and powers and in the best interests of the charity.

“The commission recognises that it has no power to require trustees to fetter the future exercise of their fiduciary duties under its general power to give advice and guidance. In consequence, there is no obligation on the trustees of the JRCT to fetter the proper and lawful exercise of their discretion in the future.”
Sara Pantuliano, director of the ODI’s humanitarian policy group, said that in many cases charities needed to enhance their due diligence. “We have seen this a lot when you had many new charities popping up to support work in Syria. Five hundred appeared in a matter of months.” She pointed out that UK terror legislation was extremely broad and that charities had to act if they had “suspicions that fundraising was used for terrorism”.

A rather more deserving recipient of praise than the likes of CAGE has been identified by The Irish Times. By day, Muhammad Al-Hussaini is a fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute. Growing up in London with “the privilege of a plural environment”, he says he had “close English, Irish, Jewish and other boyhood friends, who are like brothers to me.”

Somehow he became interested in, then besotted by Irish music, in particular sean nós singing, a renowned exponent of which, Iarla Ó Lionáird can be heard in the film Brooklyn. Al-Hussaini says he was captivated. His “magical voice caused me to reflect on how closely the Arabic-Islamic musical tradition and recitation of sacred scriptures, in which I have been trained as an imam, so remarkably resembles the heavily ornamented style of traditional Irish language song.”

Not everyone in his community has been impressed. Some critics believe songs that speak of unrequited, or lost love demean the status of an imam: “I have had my ears tugged on a few occasions,” he says, downplaying the difficulties. He says “When I sing I feel I am reciting sacred verses in Irish. It really feels like that. In our hearts, we are all Irish.”

In these troubled times it is heartening to find people prepared to stick up for democratic values, especially those blighted by terrorism such as the Irish and Muslim communities.

In 2014 an estimated 32,658 lives were lost to terrorism. For charities the message is clear. Do not become part of bin Laden’s golden chain.

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