Humanitarian Assistance Has a Terrorism Problem. Can It Be Resolved?


Humanitarian assistance had a tough year in 2018. Under the Trump administration, the United States — the world’s leading provider of foreign assistance — ended all funding to the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, even as it sought to increase its overall humanitarian assistance budget by 21 percent for FY 2019. Battles over humanitarian assistance also continued to play out in Syria, where many have decried the Assad regime’s refusal to provide consistent access for relief efforts. Others have accused humanitarian assistance initiatives of propping up the regime, even though opposition-controlled areas in Syria have also benefited from aid. That an array of political and military actors can leverage humanitarian assistance to their benefit poses a dilemma for humanitarian organizations and the governments that fund their work.

But there is another equally pressing dilemma for the humanitarian assistance community to confront. The United States has directed more than $8.6 billion toward Syria-related humanitarian assistance. It has done so largely through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) which funds non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public international organizations such as United Nations agencies like the World Food Programme and the refugee agency UNHCR. By using these organizations as intermediaries, U.S. humanitarian assistance can reach areas where a direct government response is difficult or unwelcome. However, providing humanitarian assistance indirectly has created a serious national security problem: Millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars intended to help those in need may have accidentally benefited terrorist groups.

Humanitarian assistance can fuel terrorism in three main ways. First, insufficient oversight of funds or recipients means that terrorists can inadvertently benefit from aid. Second, terrorist groups can tax, steal, or divert aid for their own ends. Third, terrorists can become directly involved in charitable organizations and influence the distribution of aid.

Addressing the possible links between humanitarian assistance and terrorism is complicated. Bureaucratic red tape, in combination with stringent U.S. laws, can slow the delivery of much-needed aid. Adding additional layers of oversight can seem unreasonable when lives hang in the balance. Confusion about who, exactly, can receive U.S. foreign assistance and how individuals’ identities should be verified makes it harder for organizations to comply with U.S. counter-terrorism legislation.

More broadly, though, there remains a culture clash between humanitarian organizations, whose work transcends national boundaries, and the state-based systems of oversight and accountability that seek to regulate them. In a system that also faces serious sexual exploitation and fraud scandals, the numerous incidents in which humanitarian assistance has benefited certain armed groups reinforces the need for reflection and reform.

The New Humanitarian Dilemma

Modern humanitarianism is based on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Humanitarian organizations do not take sides in a conflict and typically offer services to both civilians and belligerents, regardless of their political allegiance. These groups operate impartially, offering aid to the individuals who need it the most.

These laudable principles have played an essential role in gaining access to populations in need. But the belief that humanitarian organizations operate independently of the broader political processes associated with a conflict is increasingly being challenged. Today, crisis-driven interventions are no longer the short-term operations that once characterized humanitarian relief. Tellingly, across its 10 largest operations, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been on the ground for an average of 36 years.

Conflict-driven humanitarian crises, as in Somalia, Yemen, and Syria (to name only a few), often occur in complex security environments where armed groups and terrorists thrive. Organizations often obtain access to populations in need by paying off armed groups that control transit routes — a system of taxation that is often formalized. For example, al-Shabaab’s Humanitarian Coordination Office reportedly forced aid agencies operating in areas of Somalia under its control to pay “registration fees” of up to $10,000.

To make matters worse, the influx of NGOs and foreign assistance that accompanies a humanitarian crisis can provide cover for criminal activity as terrorist groups infiltrate existing organizations or establish their own to obscure terrorist financing activities behind the veil of charity.

While humanitarians certainly do not condone terrorism, some advocate for a system that does not draw a distinction between terrorists and everyone else. This position conflicts with the legal architecture surrounding counter-terrorism that has evolved since 9/11. This architecture has in turn had the unintended consequence of restricting humanitarian organizations’ freedom of operation. This conflict between the aspirational and the operational must be resolved if the current humanitarian system is to work effectively.

When Humanitarians Inadvertently Aid Terrorism

Humanitarian aid organizations face legitimate difficulties exercising sufficient oversight of local partners and employees due to ongoing hostilities, difficult terrain, and other environmental factors. But some groups fail to engage in minimal levels of oversight, putting their efforts at risk. Between January 2012 and March 2018, USAID provided $2.6 billion in funding to public international organizations and an additional $2 billion to NGOs operating in Iraq and Syria. A partial audit by USAID’s Office of the Inspector General of funds given to public international organizations revealed that the agency provided nearly $700 million in awards without an adequate system in place to ensure that members of terrorist groups would not be beneficiaries. As of January 2018, official investigations resulted in the blacklisting of several dozen individuals and organizations and the suspension of at least $239 million in program funds in the region.

Organizations receiving U.S. government funding occasionally seem oblivious to the potential terrorist ties of employees or sub-grantees. For instance, a Norwegian Refugee Council contractor killed along the Israel-Gaza Strip border in April 2018 was an alleged member of Hamas, a group that routinely blurs the line between charity and terrorist financing.

Other recipients of American funding have run into difficulty identifying groups with ties to barred terrorist organizations. When such instances come to light — like World Vision’s payment of $125,000 to the Islamic Relief Agency in Sudan, a group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda — publicly available details are often murky (World Vision says it couldn’t find the Islamic Relief Agency in Treasury Department listings of banned groups). But such associations do real damage to humanitarian organizations. Allegations of terrorist links were used to undermine support for the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue organization operating in Syria.

Humanitarian aid organizations may also come under direct pressure from terrorist groups who can coerce aid workers into redirecting assistance. In February 2018, USAID suspended a $44.6 million food aid program in Syria after an Inspector General investigation revealed that local employees of an unidentified U.S.-funded NGO — acting under duress — provided food kits to members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a successor to the al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra. Shortly thereafter, a prominent American NGO ended its operations in northwest Syria and fired 27 employees. This incident occurred amid a wider effort by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to consolidate territorial control in northwest Syria, including moves to supervise the informal currency exchanges that are critical for NGOs’ ability to pay local partners.

When Humanitarians Knowingly Aid Terrorists

While poor oversight and terrorist diversion of assistance can be addressed through improved policy and enforcement, some humanitarian organizations more actively contest the principles underlying U.S. counter-terrorism policy.

In April, Norwegian People’s Aid — a private organization that describes itself as “the labor movement’s humanitarian organization for solidarity” — settled a case investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and USAID’s Inspector General. The case alleged the organization had falsely certified that it had not provided material support to Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. According to the Department of Justice, Norwegian People’s Aid provided training on political organizing to terrorist group members through a series of “Youth of Today … Leaders of Tomorrow” workshops held in the Gaza Strip between 2012 and 2016. These workshops allegedly allowed terrorist group members “to alter their behavior in order to become more attractive to youth and, thereby, benefit from increased youth support.” As part of the settlement, the humanitarian organization also admitted to providing mine clearance training and services to members of the Iranian military from 2001 to 2008, which could have prohibited the group from receiving U.S. funds due to Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Other cases more closely resemble direct material support for terrorism. In August 2016, Israeli prosecutors charged a manager of World Vision’s Gaza branch for allegedly funneling $43 million in funding over a period of six years to Hamas’s military wing. Some of the funds were purportedly used by Hamas to dig cross-border tunnels, though this remains disputed. In 2010, the United Nations investigated the World Food Programme’s operations in Somalia following reports of corruption, piracy, and the diversion of food aid to al-Shabaab. The United Nations identified a food aid fraud scheme in which approximately 30 percent of food aid was diverted to local personnel employed by the World Food Programme, 10 percent went to the contracted ground transporter, and 5 to 10 percent went to al-Shabaab. The intended beneficiaries only received a fraction of the available food aid. The scale of the diversion, combined with increased pressure from al-Shabaab, led the World Food Programme to temporarily suspend operations in southern Somalia.

Protecting Aid

It is surprising how often cases like these continue to crop up. The business model and reputation of many humanitarian organizations depends on their ability to receive U.S. funding, which requires complying with U.S. law. This, in turn, requires them to differentiate between enemy combatants and civilians in need of humanitarian aid. Organizations often have self-reporting mechanisms or internal audit units in place to safeguard against aid diversion and fraud. Yet in many cases, these systems fall short.

One major challenge is the absence of an international consensus regarding the designation of terrorist organizations and the criminalization of terrorist financing. For instance, Norway does not maintain a national list of sanctioned terrorist organizations. In 2006, it withdrew its support for the European Union’s terrorist list and has since largely relied on the United Nations’ Sanctions Lists, which exclude groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. In comparison to other major donor countries, the United States stands out for its extensive list of terrorist groups and sanctioned entities and individuals, as well as its strict enforcement of terrorism financing regulations.

There is also no coherent oversight system for humanitarian organizations writ large, be they large international organizations such as the United Nations or small NGOs. Regulations and enforcement can vary widely based on the aid donor or the country receiving aid. Public international organizations, in particular, are not consistently subject to U.S. guidance on terrorism mitigation. In contrast, the United Kingdom’s international aid agency publishes detailed risk assessments of its partner organizations to inform funding and oversight decisions. A similar system, in combination with other risk mitigation tools, would be an easy way to improve the current U.S. approach.

In addition, relatively few tools are available to enforce existing U.S. regulations. Public international organizations and their assets enjoy immunity from suit, from any form of judicial process, and from related searches — just as foreign governments do. To bring a criminal prosecution against a NGO, the Department of Justice has to show beyond a reasonable doubt that an organization actually intended to support a foreign terrorist organization. Such evidence is difficult to gather in the conflict environments where much humanitarian assistance is provided. By contrast, in civil cases under the False Claims Act, the Department of Justice needs only to demonstrate that the defendant showed reckless disregard in providing false information for the purposes of obtaining U.S. funding. But by pursuing civil cases under the False Claims Act and accepting settlements, the government may fail to impose significant enough costs to shift organizations’ behavior. Punishments that can be meted out in civil cases range from financial penalties to suspending or debarring a particular organization or individual from receiving future government funding.

A more robust partner vetting system, like the one piloted by USAID in Kenya, Lebanon, and elsewhere, represents a step forward by requiring USAID awardees and sub-awardees to report their key individuals, including the identities of principal officers and program managers. But special vetting procedures were already in place for Syria, highlighting the need for ongoing and proactive oversight. An added step would be for the Inspector General Offices of the State Department and USAID to use regionally based staff to verify reported information through spot checks. A BBC investigation into a British humanitarian organization demonstrated the importance of on-the-ground verification when it found significant evidence of support for Hamas in the local Palestinian charities funded by the organization.

Rethinking the Humanitarian System

Ultimately, the solution may lie not in more red tape, but in a deeper shift in the way humanitarian organizations conceive of their work and how the counter-terrorism community sees the role of humanitarian organizations.

To require groups to vet every aid beneficiary for terrorist ties would be to challenge the core humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality by forcing organizations to deny assistance to some individuals. As Peter Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross argued, “humanitarian organizations do not exist to endorse, to legitimize, to help authorities further their political objectives.” By fully embracing this view, organizations reject a more strategic view of humanitarian assistance that requires an assessment of who the recipients are and what political actors they support.

Humanitarian organizations may need to take oversight more seriously or risk further eroding American support for foreign assistance. At times, this might mean making the difficult decision to withhold aid from areas controlled by terrorist groups. The United States and Britain recently directed aid groups to stop using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria to deliver humanitarian assistance to Idlib, parts of which are controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Carefully considering the risks posed by terrorist diversion of aid and making operational decisions based on that risk acknowledges the reality that humanitarian assistance has strategic implications without accepting that humanitarian organizations can be used as pawns.

Now is the time to seek a middle ground between the noble principles of humanitarian assistance and the operational realities of the counter-terrorism mission. This requires accepting that, in many conflict-affected areas, the delivery of humanitarian aid is shaped by political realities and not by need alone. The longer that both state and non-state actors are able to manipulate humanitarian assistance — including where and to whom it is provided — the more intractable conflicts may become.


Jessica Trisko Darden is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service. She is the author of “Aiding and Abetting: U.S. Foreign Assistance and State Violence” to be published by Stanford University Press in Fall 2019.

Image: Fitsum Aregawi, USAID