Archive for the ‘Columns, essays, & pure opinion’ Category

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Al-Shabaab profits from Somali telecom sector

August 18, 2014

Without a stable central government, Somalia’s telecommunications network has been unregulated for decades.  This has allowed for tremendous growth and fairly low prices for phone and Internet access in Somalia compared to neighboring countries.

However, this has also created a Wild West atmosphere of clan elders and businessmen in Mogadishu cutting deals with international—often Saudi-backed—telecommunications providers like Arabsat.  Arabsat is based in Saudi Arabia and is owned by the Arab League.  In addition to providing phone coverage, Arabsat’s satellites host television broadcasts by well-known hate channels Al Manar and Al-Aqsa.

The government of Somalia has made attempts recently to begin taxing and regulating the telecommunications industry, but the bigger factors at play are the taxes you don’t see.  Some evidence suggests that informal licenses are granted by warlords or businessmen in exchange for bribes paid behind the scenes.

Reporting from the Gulf News earlier this year went even farther, suggesting that the warlords allow the telecoms to over-charge customers so they can pocket the difference or pay off al-Shabaab too:

…By persuading other telcos worldwide to clip the ticket for them, these [Somali telecommunications providers] groups has [sic] become wealthy enough to avoid attempts by government and the regulatory International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to rein them in.

Not only do these groups exploit vulnerable customers charging them often beyond their means and disproportionate to costs, there are also suspicions that some sponsor the terrorist scourge, Al Shabaab.

By negotiating with foreign companies to charge above the usual rates and to put money collected into overseas funds, these “companies” avoid tax — and have sufficient clout to offer deals to favoured factions, or fund groups they believe will deliver a government suited to their economic or ideological aims…

There are also rumors of relationships between, or at least pressure exerted by, al-Shabaab on several specific Somali telecommunications companies including Hormuud Telecom.  RBC Radio reported this year that, “Al Shabab has closed down Hormuud Telecom Company’s branch in Jilib town, Middle Jubba region after the company failed to pay $50,000 which Al Shabab demanded from local companies,” and added that, “Extorting money from private business companies and aid agencies operating in Somalia is seen as the biggest source of investment for Al Shabab’s war with the government.”  Some sources have gone further, describing Hormuud as “al-Shabaab’s messenger” or “the phone of death” taking its cues from al-Shabaab.

In October 2011, Hormuud was allowed to remain in operation while two rival companies were closed by al-Shabaab.  One of those rivals, Nationlink Telecom, eventually reopened after allegedly paying $30,000 to al-Shabaab to resume operations.  An al-Shabaab member told the Somalia Report that non-cooperative companies would be forced to close “until their managers agree to pay taxation for the war against the infidels as well as the crusaders.”

While it is possible that some of the claims about the telecommunications business in Somalia have been exaggerated due to clan or business rivalries, former al-Shabaab commander Mohamed Farah Al-Ansari confirmed the role of extortion against Somali telecommunications companies in funding al-Shabaab in an interview with Voice of America last year.

There are enough grounds for concern that international investors and corporations would do well to examine any business deals with Somali telecommunications companies with the utmost caution.  Similar to the risks of doing business with the money transfer company Dahabshiil, the taint of al-Shabaab is simply too strong to ignore.

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Muslim leaders decry bank account closures

August 15, 2014

Outraged by the decision of HSBC to close the accounts of clients who may be at risk of laundering money, evading sanctions, or financing terrorism, one of the trustees of the Ummah Welfare Trust (UWT) has called for a boycott by “Muslim brothers and sisters” and “their contacts” against the British bank.

The Federation of Student Islamic Societies also condemned the closure, saying it sets the precedent that such accounts can be “closed, without reason, at any time.” The Daily Mail notes that several Muslim Britons have taken to social media outlets to call HSBC’s decision “racist,” while the targets of the closures have blamed “Islamophobia.”

These knee-jerk and vitriolic responses are similar to the reaction of prominent individuals like Olympic medalist Mo Farah, who claimed that an attempt by Barclays to end a business relationship with one remittance company last year could mean “death to millions of Somalis,” and from U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) who screamed, “It’s wrong to close off the lifeline!” during a protest against banks in Minnesota that ceased remittance services to Somalia in late 2011.

Can we not have a civil and intelligent conversation about why the accounts have been closed, and what regulatory pressures brought this to bear, without spoiling for a confrontation and casting HSBC’s leaders as a bunch of ignorant bigots?

The targets of the closures purport to be upset that they were not given an adequate explanation for the account closures. But that’s a catch-22. If HSBC had disclosed the reasons for its suspicions—if hypothetically it had said that UWT operates two programs in Gaza that are administered by Hamas operatives—then UWT would probably claim that the disclosure was baseless and defamatory, and that the matter should have been handled in private.

Or if HSBC had maintained the accounts, HSBC’s leadership would be hauled before Congress again and asked to explain why it still operated accounts on behalf of controversial entities like the Finsbury Park mosque and UWT.

This is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and damned for the manner in which you did or didn’t do it.

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Money and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

August 11, 2014

In 2007, the Islamic State of Iraq was seen as “the richest of the insurgency groups” in Iraq with $1 billion to 1.5 billion “collected in revenue by the group through foreign donations, enforced taxation and confiscation of the property and funds of Iraqis.” But the U.S. surge and ISI missteps significantly damaged the jihadist group’s ability to raise funds.

Seven years and three names later, ISIS amassed a $2 billion comeback and took control of large swathes of territory in northern Iraq including Mosul and 35 percent of Syria.

ISIS’s financial recovery has been marked by a slight shift away from reliance on local extortion networks (although those are still in effect), improved organizational and financial management by ISIS leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.

The most important elements of ISIS’s funding are sadaqa (voluntary donations) from Arab donors in the Gulf; sales and tolls collected on sales of oil from fields under its control; and increasingly through money made by controlling key infrastructure.

Here’s a rundown of ISIS’s main funding channels:

Sadaqa from private donors

Fundraising is aided by contemporary marketing methods

Oil

  • ISIS controls 60 percent of Syrian oil including the lucrative Omar field
  • In Iraq, ISIS controls Butmah and Ain Zalah oil fields, the refinery in Baiji, and oil and gas resources in Ajeel in northern Iraq
  • ISIS sells or collects a portion on black market sales to Turkey, Iran, and in Syria itself
  • Revenue estimates for ISIS range from $1 million to $3 million daily

Dams

  • In addition to oil, control of key infrastructure such as the dams in Mosul, Fallujah, and Tabqa present increasingly significant revenue potential for ISIS.
  • Professor Ariel Ahram notes this is already occurring at Tabqa, where ISIS is involved in selling electricity.
  • New York Times reporter Tim Arango says that possession of the Mosul dam can enable ISIS to “use it as a method of finance” through extortion schemes to continue their operations.

Other sources

  • Isis has seized arms from Iraqi depots, including U.S. weapons given to Iraqi forces, plus weapons smuggled from Turkey and Croatia
  • The collection of ransom money has sustained ISIS throughout its existence
  • Antiquities smuggling

Incidently, little is being done by the Gulf states to curtail the flow of donations to ISIS because they either want an independent Sunni state carved out of Iraq or to replace Iraq’s Shia-led government with Sunnis. Washington should designate Saudi Arabia and Qatar as state sponsors of terrorism, but it won’t because of diplomatic considerations.

Without interdicting the donations and the contraband oil, U.S. airstrikes will have limited effect on ISIS’s coffers.

This piece is also published at Terror Finance Blog.

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U.S. Bank backs out of Dahabshiil deal

August 3, 2014

Minnesota banks stopped providing remittance services to Somalia in late 2011 over concerns about the risks of terror finance and money laundering. U.S. Bank, a subsidiary of U.S. Bancorp, considered a partnership with Dahabshiil to reinstate money transfer services to Somalia, but cancelled those plans earlier this year.

Minnesotans for a Fair Economy reported in April that:

U.S. Bank officials informed representatives of Minneapolis-based Dahabshiil, a Money Service Business (MSB) that serves the Somali community, that it would not conduct remittances to Somalia…

Community leaders have met with U.S. Bank officials many times since the last Minnesota bank ceased conducting the transactions. Such a meeting took place just two weeks ago.

“On behalf of our community, I am very disappointed by this decision to back out of our agreement,” said Mohamed Nor of Dahabshiil.

U.S. Bancorp explained its decision by saying, “”Unfortunately, because of some items identified in the independent review of Dahabshiil and the inherent risks of doing business in Somalia, we are not able to open an account as we had hoped.”

U.S. Bancorp should be applauded for its sensible decision. There are simply too many questions about the financial relationship between Dahabshiil and the terrorist group al-Shabaab to proceed with business partnerships between Dahabshiil and Western financial institutions.

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Nunn’s validation of Islamic Relief USA reveals system-wide failure

July 30, 2014

While she ran the Points of Light Foundation, U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn (D-Ga.), authorized MissionFish, a Points of Light donation processor, to pass contributions from eBay customers to charities of their choice, including Islamic Relief USA (IR-USA). The Nunn campaign refers to this authorization as “validation;” in other words, Points of Light had researched the charity and validated it for inclusion on MissionFish’s list of eligible charities.

The Nunn campaign argues that $33,000 donated by eBay shoppers passed through Points of Light to IR-USA does not constitute a donation by Points of Light to IR-USA. That is disingenuous because what actually happened is that Points of Light received these ear-marked donations and then cut a check themselves to IR-USA. Points of Light benefits from the transaction because it increases the appearance of their overall charitable volume. The eBay customers would not have been able to donate funds to IR-USA while completing their purchases online if MissionFish had excluded the organization on their menu of options.

IR-USA donates millions of dollars each year to Islamic Relief Worldwide, a UK-based organization that has been banned by Israel for aiding Hamas, and whose leadership is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. A Department of Justice official has implicated IR-USA for being a conduit for the flow of money from America to terrorist groups abroad. Russian intelligence indicates that IR-USA funds militants in the North Caucasus—the region where the family of the Boston marathon bombers originate. Nunn and Points of Light could have discovered several of the red flags about IR-USA, many of which had already cropped up before validation occurred, by conducting due diligence research or even a basic Internet search.

Unfortunately, Points of Light isn’t the first organization to legitimize IR-USA. IR-USA work has been acknowledged by Hillary Clinton’s State Department, the Obamas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it maintains 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.

These politicians and agencies have been willing to overlook questionable practices by IR-USA because of their eagerness to demonstrate cooperation with Muslim Americans and Islamic charitable sector. The embrace of IR-USA was exacerbated by IR-USA’s fraudulent representation of itself as a larger charity than it actually was by hyper-inflating the valuation of their deworming drug stockpiles. Although the value of deworming drugs may sound like a technical, minor point, it is not. IR-USA basically perpetrated a fraud for several years by overstating the value of the drugs which made up 75 percent of their assets. Bigger institutions like USDA and Points of Light are likelier to partner with bigger charities, which IR-USA seemed to be. If IR-USA had reported a truthful value of its donations and assets, it may not have been viewed as a big enough charity to attract institutional partners like these.

A major charitable bundler like Points of Light had the resources to discover the disturbing truths about IR-USA’s connections to Hamas and its fraudulent financial statements prior to validation. It’s time that federal agencies and institutional donors started paying less attention to warm-and-fuzzy statements by politicians about what a great partner a certain charity is, and pay more attention to the results of basic due diligence research. Until then, and until there are changes at the highest levels of the IRS and the Department of Justice, and a willingness to confront IR-USA for its history of misrepresentations, we will probably see decisions like Nunn’s repeated again.

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Central American gangs cash in from extortion

July 29, 2014

Guatemalan crooks net $61 million annually

Contributing to the exodus from the Northern Triangle to the U.S. border, gangs and copycat criminals are shaking down Central American businessmen for hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Guatemalans alone are being hosed for $61 million a year according to that country’s interior ministry.  Shares of the extortion proceeds are sent up the chain of command to key regional gangs including Barrio 18, Mara Salvatrucha, and Los Paisas, which perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Previous attempts to bring the extortion rackets under control have been unsuccessful.

The violence and extortion problem contribute to the flight of illegal immigrants toward North America.  Human smuggling “coyotes” have successfully recruited children to make the trip, telling them that they would be granted legal status in the U.S. based on the Obama administration’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” policy.  Besides, there are few opportunities locally other than joining up with the gangsters and extortionists.

The U.S., Mexico, and Northern Triangle countries have to take the extortion developments very seriously.  It’s not just political and it’s not just about illegal immigration.  Unchecked extortion can be a key driver in spinning a society out of control.

The amount of money involved is a growing and significant factor.  The Central American gangs don’t have as much money yet as the FARC in Columbia, but they’re getting closer to that level.

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Islamic Relief Worldwide programs staffed by Hamas

July 18, 2014

Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) activities in the Palestinian territories are run by Hamas operatives, according to Israeli officials.

The way it works is that IRW, a British-based charity, raises substantial funds from institutional donors, government funding, and zakat from individual Muslim donors. IRW also receives money from its affiliates around the world, including millions of dollars in gifts from Islamic Relief USA (IR-USA).

IRW then sends money to field offices and partnering organizations in the Palestinian territories. Israel’s Shin Bet security service says that several of the offices and projects that are carried out with IRW funding are being conducted by Hamas personnel.

IR-USA, a charity publicly cited by Obama appointees as a valued and trusted aid group, is privately tagged by Justice Department sources as the successor to the Holy Land Foundation, which was shuttered during the Bush administration for funding Hamas. The Clarion Project (h/t to Rushette) notes that IR-USA receives support from bigtime donors and enjoys close ties to the Obama administration.

Israel should share what information it can with the UK in order for the British to 1) strip IRW of its charity status and, 2) shut down IRW. There is no time to waste with the useless UK Charity Commission. This case should be dealt with at higher levels.

Canada Revenue Agency, which has been extremely successful in taking prompt action to remove the tax-exempt status from terror financing charities, should also review Islamic Relief Canada’s projects.

The U.S. should follow suit, and should strip IR-USA of its tax-exempt status, since IR-USA money is ultimately going toward Hamas projects, and not toward the charitable purposes for which 501(c)(3) status is intended.

Any banks providing services to IRW and IR-USA should take note of these developments, and minimize their own risks and exposure to terrorist financing by closing their accounts (as UBS already did in 2012) with these “charities.”

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