The Arab Spring and the funding of Salafism in the MENA region

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The Arab Spring has given rise to a vibrant Salafi movement in the MENA region, with moderate groups often engaging in formal politics, while more radical groups have been responsible for violent episodes. In the wake of the 2011 revolts in North Africa, a number of analysts and observers have tried to clarify the identity, origin, and constitution of those groups. Salafism is not a united movement, and includes different factions ranging from political parties to religious authorities, missionary groups and Jihadist fighters. Yet, questions remain about how do Salafi groups raise money and support themselves. What are the possible sources of financing for Salafis groups? The range of sources varies and includes both the use of legal and illegal activities to raise funds. What is most important is that funds derived from illegal activities, by covert funding or by money laundering, are mixed with funds raised from ordinary legal activities, such as donations through NGOs and charities, as well as sales and acts of commerce using front companies.[i] Therefore, it is extremely difficult to identify which portion of the resources is collected to undertake humanitarian work and regular business, and which portion is instead diverted to the Jihadist cause.

Behind the rise of Salafism in North Africa lie some of the richest Gulf countries, particularly oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which is currently being challenged by Qatar and Kuwait in the run for regional leadership. These countries are an example of state sponsorship of Jihadism. For instance, Saudi Arabia finances Salafi groups in North Africa and Mali in the form of what many analysts refer to as ‘exported Wahhabism’, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam practiced and promoted by the monarchy’s family.[ii] Similarly, Qatar faces allegations of fuelling Mali’s crisis by providing Salafists with material and financial support, aid, and food, particularly through the organization Qatari Red Crescent and other Qatari NGOs working inside Mali.[iii] Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are infamously well-known for having established a network of institutions committed to the spread of radical Islam and Salafism, including madrassas, Wahhabi-oriented schools and Islamist charities around the world. The Syrian Islamic Front is the latter example in which government-linked NGOs in Qatar supported the group with money, food and medical aid.

Since 2011, Salafi groups that entered formal politics have received more direct help from Gulf donors and patrons.[iv] Moreover, several Salafi political forces benefitted from considerable social support and did incredibly well in elections. This is the case of the Al-Nour party in Egypt, which gained many of its votes through Salafi-sponsored charitable work: helping the poor, giving support to widows, young men and women, and undertaking dawa – the preaching of Islam.[v] A steady stream of funding from the Gulf supported Salafi candidates during the campaign, providing Egypt’s Ansar al-Sunna with almost $50 million from religious foundations in Qatar and Kuwait.[vi]

Private donations to Islamist charities and NGOs are probably the main source of funding for Salafi groups who divert some part of the money to the cause of Jihad. Typically, non-profit charitable associations receive substantial donations from members of the Gulf monarchies or wealthy businessmen. In Egypt, two of the largest Salafi organizations – Gamey’ah Shar’iah and Ansar al-Sunna – are registered NGOs operating at the societal level by offering health-care services, literacy classes, and free food, along with preaching.[vii] As stated by the Egyptian Minister of Islamic Endowments Hamdy Zakzouk, both organizations receive significant funding from Saudi Arabia and healthy donors from the Gulf.[viii] Nonetheless, numerous Islamic charities have been listed by the US Treasury Department as sponsors of international terrorism, such as the Saudi Red Crescent, the Islamic African Relief Agency and the Kuwaiti charity Revival of Islamic Heritage Society.[ix] The characteristics of these charities, which consist in raising funds from different sources, transferring them with great flexibility worldwide, and allowing their staff to move freely across countries, put their resources at risk of misuse for criminal and terrorist activities.[x] In spite of the efforts made by the US and the international community in tracking the origins of funds, many NGOs and charities are still responsible for the sponsoring of extremist groups in MENA countries, such as Tunisia and Syria.[xi] The Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia is a Salafi organization committed to missionary work and a variety of social services, including distributing food and clothes, and providing medical aid. However, in carrying out its work, the organization reaches out to strategic locations – like cafes and universities – with the aim of promoting the Salafi doctrine via the distribution of religious literature. Furthermore, a substantial amount of resources are collected by charity organizations through Zakat, a system of wealth redistribution toward poor and deprived Muslims, and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Shariah commands that one of the recipients of Zakat is ‘those who are working in God’s way’, including those fighting for Allah, thus legitimizing the funding of Jihadist activities such as buying weapons, and paying fighters’ salaries.

Along with charities, a variety of front companies are set up to gather funds. Legal businesses operate within the legitimate economy, thus avoiding the detection of their fundraising by security authorities and intelligence services.[xii] Nonetheless, part of the resources comes also from illegal and criminal activities like drug trafficking and arms smuggling, raising the issue of money laundering. Particularly challenging in this sense is the Hawala, an alternative remittance and money transfer system based on an extended network of family relations and regional affiliations, primarily located in the Middle East and North Africa.[xiii] The Hawala constitutes an alternative method of money transfer to the traditional financial channels and is legal throughout the world. Still, what is referred to as ‘Black Hawala’ – in opposition to ‘White Hawala’ – is declared to facilitate money laundering in association with illegal activities, including terrorism, through the anonymous transfer of money.

In sum, concerns remain about the duplicity of the work undertaken by Salafi NGOs and charity organizations. On the one hand, humanitarian work and social services are provided by Salafi organizations acting in the name of religion and increasing the base of support for their activities. On the other hand, it is difficult to identify to what extent part of the funds collected by the same organizations are diverted to the violent, Jihadist cause. Moreover, it is made harder to discern among the multiple functions performed by the organizations, which can range from legal to illegal. The Zakat and the Hawala constitute two separate, legal, methods of fundraising that often escape the control of security authorities. Finally, the spread of Salafist extremist groups becomes all the more difficult to counter when these groups are directly or indirectly sponsored by several Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.


[i] Camelia Popa, Livie Uzlau, Corina-Maria Ene, The Financial Support and Administrative Needs of Terrorist Operations, Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Oeconomica, Faculty of Sciences, “1 Decembrie 1918” University, Alba Iulia, vol. 2(14)

[ii] Marc Daou, How Saudi petrodollars fuel rise of Salafism, France 24

[iii] Ségolène Allemandou, Is Qatar fuelling the crisis in north Mali?, France 24

[iv] Marc Daou, How Saudi petrodollars fuel rise of Salafism, France 24

[v][v]Khalil al Anani, “Egypt: The New Puritans”, in Robin Wright (ed.), The Islamists Are Coming, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2011.

[vi] Mara Revkin, « Anatomy of Egypt’s Salafi Surge », Atlantic Council, December 2011.

[vii] SALAFISM ON THE RISE IN EGYPT CAIRO 00000202 001.2 OF 004, Passed to the Telegraph by Wikileaks, February 2011.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Shariah Finance Watch, Need to Know the Zakat Rules in Saudi Arabia ? Just ask KPMG : http://www.shariahfinancewatch.org/blog/2012/04/01/need-to-know-the-zakat-rules-in-saudi-arabia-just-as-kpmg/; Treasury Executive Order 13224 http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/documents/terror.pdf

[x] MENAFATF , Best Practices Concerning Charities, http://www.menafatf.org/images/UploadFiles/CharitiesEng.pdf

[xi] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Aaron Y. Zelin, Uncharitable Organizations, France 24

[xii] International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Financing Terrorism : the Role of Front Companies and Registered Charities

[xiii] Interpol, https://secure.interpol.int/Public/FinancialCrime/MoneyLaundering/hawala/default.asp

Photo credit: Epsos

About Author

Anna Lavizzari

Anna Lavizzari is contributor at the International Security Observer. Anna holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva and a MA in International Conflict and Security from the University of Kent in Brussels, where she will start a PhD program in September 2013. Her research interests include political Islam, Salafism, and foreign and security policies in the MENA region. She gained experience as a Research Assistant at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs focusing on the security policy within the Mediterranean and North Africa region. She is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish.

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