Halfway across the world, we're still tied to conflict

Demonstrators protest outside parliament against airstrikes on Syria, in London, on Dec 2, 2015. Photo: EPA

Too often while eating outside, I have been approached by people asking me to donate money. They often come armed with letters from government departments, presumably to prove their authenticity.

But when even an august organisation such as Jakim (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) or a well-to-do foundation such as YAPEIM (the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation) can come under scrutiny, it makes me wonder how reliable somebody who approaches me off the street can be.

Despite the world’s gung-ho attitude since last month’s Paris attacks – earlier this week, the British Parliament voted to increase air strikes in Syria – many anti-terrorism experts recognise that it is more effective to cut off terrorist funds than to try bombing them out of existence.

In a Q&A session currently being widely circulated online, a former American counterterrorism analyst said, “No organisation can survive without financial support. If you want to truly gut an organisation, get rid of its donors and revenue streams” (tinyurl.com/p9dq36j).

Much of the money Daesh (aka IS or Isis) currently earns is through the illegal sale of oil (estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars annually). Daesh also gets between US$35mil and US$45mil (RM147mil and RM189mil) a year through kidnapping for ransom, and up to US$40mil (RM168mil) through wealthy donors. (The Washington Post; tinyurl.com/zromb5q.)

The issue about finances is relevant to Malaysia because we have been in the past cited as a channel for terrorist funds.

Between 1993 and 1996, several companies were established by Al Qaeda in Malaysia, dealing in industries like biotech and palm oil. The director of one of these companies was arrested in 2001 for allegedly purchasing 21 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be used in terrorist attacks in Singapore.

This same man also established a company that hired Zacarias Moussaoui, obtained a US visa for him and was going to pay for flying lessons. When Moussaoui was arrested in 2001, he admitted to being a member of Al Qaeda and pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill American citizens as part of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. (CNN; tinyurl.com/mol5tu5.)

A third company in Malaysia had Hambali (the former leader of Jemaah Islamiyah) on its original board of directors, and was implicated in a plot to destroy 11 American jetliners over the Pacific in 1995.

I’m not sure how many Malaysians know of this part of our history. Fortunately, Bank Negara has been working hard to identify and stop similar situations, not the least through the implementation of the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act 2001.

Unfortunately, much of the money is moved around through informal that are not affected by these laws. Charities, for instance, can provide ideal cover for illegal cash.

One example of a charity linked to terrorism is the Saudi-based Islamic International Relief Organisation (IIRO). In 1988, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law established several charities in the Philippines, as well as a branch office of the IIRO. These charities did much good work by running orphanages and pharmacy dispensaries for the poor.

However, they were also connected to terrorism in intelligence reports: “The IIRO, which claims to be a relief institution, is being utilised by foreign extremists as a pipeline through which funding for the local extremists are being coursed through.” (Christine Herrera, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Aug 9, 2000.)

Allegedly “only 10 to 30% of the foreign funding goes to the legitimate relief and livelihood projects and the rest go to terrorist operations”.

Here is the interesting point: Although the Philippines government shut down suspected charities, representative offices in Malaysia and Indonesia continued to keep the IIRO operational there.

It is with this background in mind that we should scrutinise money flows in this region. Pay particular attention to Middle Eastern connections – though I suspect those involved are savvier than to be so obvious.

Many who dealt with the charities were unaware of their true nature, and since the help they gave was genuine, the charities were gratefully welcomed into the community. Once a link was established, the terrorists would use it as a conduit to flow money out – or worse, flow ideas into the community to radicalise it.

Very few would willingly donate to terrorist organisations directly. But nobody can expect you or I to be able to tell which charity is safe and which is dangerous; we can, however, hope that the government can help us determine which is which. At the very least we should hold public bodies accountable for how they spend our money. We can and should audit them so that these agencies are transparent and can be trusted.

The stakes right now are literally about life and death. It seems strange that giving a few ringgit at your local coffee shop could be connected to such high stakes, but we have to be aware that in this modern age, being half a world away from conflict does not mean you’re disconnected from it.

(Main source of information in this column: “Funding Terrorism In Southeast Asia: The Financial Network Of Al Qaeda And Jemaah Islamiyah” by Zachary Abuza in Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal Of International And Strategic Affairs, Vol 25, No. 2, August 2003, pages 169-199; available from jstor.org.)

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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