Omar Al-Bashir, the now-deposed Islamist dictator of Sudan, is most likely heading to the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. However, the work of dismantling the “Islamist Deep State”—of sham charities and other institutions that he set up to keep his genocidal regime in power—is ongoing. Yet newly available documents show that just a few years ago, not only did the Obama administration fund one such charity, the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA or IARA), but sought to overturn its designation based on vague claims of unfair persecution made at the United Nations.
ISRA was designated as a terrorist funding charity in 2004 because of its connections to Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it purchased the satellite phone used to direct the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. ISRA also lost its “special consultative status” at the United Nations as a result of the U.S. designation, which was not subsequently re-granted because of ISRA’s apparent unwillingness or inability to answer questions repeatedly posed by the United States about its activities.
Nonetheless, ISRA became a key “local implementing partner” for the U.S. international aid charity World Vision, in spite of U.S. sanctions, because of its closeness with Bashir. Through World Vision, ISRA was consequently the recipient of taxpayer dollars from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as from the United Nations.
Previously unreported, however, is that ISRA continued to lobby at the United Nations, claiming that it had been wrongly targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department simply because it was Islamic. Shockingly, senior officials in the Obama administration were keen to accommodate the bin Laden funding charity.
Emails obtained by the Middle East Forum under the Freedom of Information Act clearly show that Jeremy Weinstein, deputy ambassador to the United Nations under U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers, sent an email to John Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department, asking:
“An NGO (the Islamic African Relief Agency) continues to argue publicly at the U.N. that they have been wrongfully designed by the United States Department of Treasury, that they are a small Islamic NGO involved in humanitarian work, and that they are being unfairly targeted because they are Islamic (section redacted). We understand that OFAC has not reviewed this case since the designation was made in 2004. Would it be possible to initiate a review without a formal request from IARA?”
This last sentence is remarkable. The law has a specific process by which sanctioned entities can appeal. Specifically, it states that anyone on the special designated terrorist list “may seek administrative reconsideration” by submitting specific new information to the Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury, and details the way in which this must be done. There is no provision for a unilateral re-evaluation of a terrorism designation.
USAID knew this. Further documents show that ISRA’s executive director approached USAID officials for “advice” about being delisted. The USAID official correctly said that “it’s not my job to assist” ISRA in getting off the list, and he referred the question to Daniel Streitfeld, a career foreign-service officer at State Department, who added that “they will need to appeal their case directly with OFAC.” Streitfeld provided a link to get the process started, as well as a link to the relevant law, warning that “it’s not an easy process at all,” and advised ISRA to seek the advice of counsel.
However, when Weinstein reached out to Treasury, he clearly expressed a desire to circumvent the usual process. John Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Asset Control at Treasury, responded:
“We received word of U.N. interest in this matter a week ago, and we’ve already asked our investigators to review the case, the underlying evidence, and any newer evidence that we might have.”
The rest of the extensive discussion, unfortunately, is redacted. But this much is clear: Senior Obama administration officials unilaterally sought, and conducted, a review of ISRA’s terrorist status, based only on vague complaints made at the United Nations. This review seems to contradict the prescribed method under law, which requires ISRA itself to petition for a review.
While the Obama administration ultimately did not lift ISRA’s designation, they did, as previously reported, knowingly authorize a payment of more than $120,000 from World Vision to ISRA and failed to take any action against the charity for getting involved with ISRA in the first place, instead simply issuing a caution. World Vision, for its part, appears to have continued to work with ISRA for months afterward; a European job posting later that year mentioned liaising with ISRA as part of the job description multiple times.
Now, ISRA seems to have been shut down. Its Facebook page has published nothing since September 2019, while its website has been removed and even its domain name is now available for purchase. The current Minister of Religious Affairs in Sudan, Nasreddine Mufreh, recently confirmed that his office is “tackling corruption and Islamic groups with possible ties to terrorism.”
Yet just a few years ago, the Obama administration went out of its way to help this same terrorist charity in multiple ways, even though it has failed to answer questions posed by previous U.S. officials about its terror ties.
President Ronald Reagan’s maxim was “Trust, but verify.” The Obama administration and World Vision did the former and decidedly failed to do the latter.
Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. You can follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
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