European Eye on Radicalization
Follow the Money Into a Maze
Foreign funding of Islamist groups is one of the most contentious, sensitive and opaque problems in countering extremism.
Terrorist money is not the issue here – it has been hunted down worldwide since 9/11. Outside that target zone, though, some socially divisive religious centers and activities in Europe have been generously funded by foreign donors, entirely legally and with little or no hindrance.
At worst, backing extremists amounts to unwelcome and knowing interference in the security affairs of the host country. At best, mistakes can be made innocently and then rectified. In a complex and vast maze between the two, freedom of religion and speech make any adjudication difficult.
Transparency is another problem. In some cases, even substantial donations are not publicly disclosed. In addition, beneficiaries may shield extremist activities with a smiling public face which wins friends in local politics and policing.
Since some Gulf countries are to the fore in this field, there are also crucial diplomatic, trade and security relationships in play. Turning blind eyes in return for foreign policy advances, big investments, and close intelligence cooperation is an obvious temptation, or a very easy choice, as “realists” supporting business as usual hold.
The UK Stance – Say Little
Prime Minister Theresa May and the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
If you would like to learn about foreign funding of Islamist extremism in the United Kingdom, the government is not prepared to help you in any depth. The government has carried out a formal review, but it has little to say to the public. A short statement to Parliament in 2017 of fewer than 600 words on this complex topic was the open result of the review.
The statement did note that there is concern, but the scale and reach of foreign funding is limited:
For a small number of organisations with which there are extremism concerns, overseas funding is a significant source of income. However, for the vast majority of extremist groups in the UK, overseas funding is not a significant source.
Training overseas was flagged:
Overseas support has allowed individuals to study at institutions that teach deeply conservative forms of Islam and provide highly socially conservative literature and preachers to the UK’s Islamic institutions. Some of these individuals have since become of extremist concern.
Some action was promised:
The Charity Commission will be introducing a requirement on charities to declare overseas funding sources. The Commission has been discussing this issue with charities over recent months.
Directly raising issues of concern, supported by evidence, with specific countries as part of our wider international engagement on countering extremism and violent extremism.
Opposition parties were quick to claim that the government was covering up the truth to preserve its Gulf relationships. This prompted the Home Office to issue a clarification, where it made this claim: “Contrary to suggestions by some media outlets, diplomatic relations played absolutely no part in the decision not to publish the full report.”
Another exchange in Parliament in 2017 made it clear that the government will not be drawn on key details:
Asked by: Jim Shannon To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, whether the meeting between officials from his Department and their Qatari counterparts on 7 June 2017 included discussions about that country directing financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK via UK-registered charities.
Answering member: Alistair Burt | Foreign and Commonwealth Office The UK and Qatar have a close bilateral relationship that allows us to discuss a range of issues. There have been no recent discussions between officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with their counterparts from Qatar about this subject.
This is part of a pattern. The UK has formally reviewed the Muslim Brotherhood as well and in 2015 it issued a carefully worded statement rather than the full report, which remains classified.
Qatar and the UK – the Practicalities
Considering the case of Qatar, the UK certainly has good practical reasons to maintain friendly relations. Qatar had invested £35 billion in the UK by 2017 and has pledged another £5 bn in the coming years, in the face of Brexit.
Qatar is now said to own more property in London than the Queen. Its holdings include The Shard, which is Europe’s tallest skyscraper, financial headquarters buildings in Canary Wharf and the City of London, Claridge’s and other top hotels, the fabled department store Harrods, and the former US Embassy in Mayfair, which is being converted to a luxury hotel.
On the export front, in September 2018 the government announced a £5 billion deal with Qatar for 24 Typhoon fighter jets. The Defence Secretary hailed the deal:
It’s a massive boost to the British defence industry, helping to support thousands of jobs, and it will help us further build the trust between the UK and Qatar to tackle the challenges we both share, support stability in the region and deliver security at home.
The UK also imports substantial amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar. In 2017, Qatar dominated the LNG UK import sector with an 87% share of all supplies, according to the business information group S&P Global. The Qatari volumes in 2017 were enough to cover 14% of the UK’s total natural gas consumption on the year.
The Nectar Trust
Even without government assistance, Qatar’s funding of religious groups in the UK can be profiled. As is often typical in this field, there is some controversy, but overall the record is mixed.
The Nectar Trust is a place to start. It is a registered UK charity backed by Qatar Charity. It was established in 2012 and originally called Qatar Charity UK. Its name was changed to Nectar Trust in 2017.
Nectar Trust is a big financial operation. It received £27.8 mn from Qatar Charity in the financial year to March 2017, more than five times the funding of £5.1 mn in 2016. The UK charity only expended £11.6 mn of its funding in 2017 and ended the year with £20.6 mn in cash.
Nectar Trust provides grants in Europe and elsewhere in the world, not the UK alone. In Europe and the UK, restricted funds for “multi-purpose” community center projects led available funding in 2017 with £9.3 mn, followed by “educational support” in the same region with £8 mn .
The Trust says the community centers provide education services, social and cultural event venues, prayer halls, libraries, sports facilities, restaurants and offices. The stated aims of the projects include “development of the community”, “positive integration”, and support for “interfaith programs”.
The Trust is backing centers in Sheffield in the UK, Strasbourg and Mulhouse in France, Milan in Italy, Hamburg and Munich in Germany, and Norrköping in Sweden.
In 2017, the Telegraph published a critical review of Yousef al-Kuwari, at the time the chief executive of Qatar Charity UK. It noted that he was a founder of Islamweb, a site featuring anti-Western social separatist messages, antisemitism, and support for jihad against Israel. The article also noted that al-Kuwari was previously head of information technology at the Qatari Ministry of Endowments.
Qatar Charity brushed off the article with these words for the newspaper:
Qatar Charity said that during Mr al-Kuwari’s time as Islamweb chairman “he was not involved in the development or moderation of the website’s content or in its daily management.
“The views and contents expressed in the website do not reflect the views of Mr al-Kawari and cannot be attributed to him. They certainly do not reflect the views of and cannot be attributed in any way to QCUK.”
Mr al-Kuwari is no longer a trustee of the Nectar Trust.
The Emaan Trust
The Emaan Trust, a registered UK charity, is the Nectar Trust’s center project partner in Sheffield. Emaan gratefully notes Qatari support on its website.
It is also backed by Kuwait. One of the Emaan Trust’s 13 current trustees is Mutlaq al-Qarawi. He is described as a “Kuwaiti Government Official” in the Trust’s latest annual report to the UK Charity Commission.
The Telegraph focused on two Emaan trustees: Khalid al-Mathkour, described as “chairman of Kuwait’s sharia council” and Emaan’s own “honorary chairman”, and Essam al-Fulaij, called “a Kuwaiti government figure” who had made “several visits to Sheffield on behalf of Kuwait”.
The newspaper revealed that al-Fulaij had made a number of antisemitic remarks in Kuwaiti newspaper articles and a video. He had said that “the Jewish people are the ones controlling the world”, called on Christians and Muslims to stand up against this “Monster”, and claimed that “international Zionists and Mossad” carried out the 9/11 attacks in the USA, adding a claim that no Jews were in the World Trade Center buildings on the day of the attacks.
The Emaan Trust and Essam al-Fulaij parted company on the back of the newspaper’s findings, the report stated:
The Emaan Trust said it and Dr Al-Fulaij had “by mutual agreement, agreed that Dr Al-Fulaij will cease to be a director and trustee” because “some of Dr Al-Fulaij’s personal views are incompatible with the workings and objectives of the Emaan Trust, and in particular in serving the wider community in Sheffield.”
Emaan’s chair Khalid al-Mathkour was profiled in the report as an apparent Muslim Brotherhood supporter:
The report also cites a March 2014 article in the Kuwait Times which stated that Dr Al-Mathkour was “a member of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood’s charitable arm, the Social Reform Society” and “follows the Brotherhood’s ideology”.
Commenting on Saudi Arabia’s decision to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, he is quoted as saying: “It is not right to accuse the Brotherhood of terrorism without evidence. I have nothing to do with them and I do not interfere in anybody’s affairs – my concern is my country Kuwait, its Amir and stability.”
For its part, the Emaan Trust insisted it opposed extremism and took due care in its work:
The Trust stated that it does not believe that any of the trustees are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Trust takes all possible precautions to ensure that no extreme views are propagated within the Trust, as such views would run entirely contrary to its principles of inclusion and interfaith dialogue and understanding.”
The day-to-day running of the trust was carried out by “local trustees”, who outnumber those from abroad, and other staff.
It was “not previously aware” of the allegations against Dr Al-Mathkour and “is urgently investigating.”
Khalid al-Mathkour is still listed as a trustee and chair of the Emaan Trust by the UK Charity Commission.
Ahmed al-Rawi is another trustee of Emaan. In the past, he has been a leader of the Federation of Islamic Organizations In Europe (FIOE) and the Muslim Association Of Britain (MAB). Both groups are widely seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2004, al-Rawi reportedly signed a declaration by Muslim Brotherhood figures and their allies that called for “Arab and Muslim peoples and all religious authorities and liberation forces everywhere to oppose the occupation and savage crimes in Iraq and Palestine, by providing all kinds of material and moral support to the honourable resistance … until God’s victory comes.” The declaration was also signed by the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Abderrezak Bougara is another Emaan trustee. He is also a trustee of the MAB Charitable Trust, an arm of the Muslim Association of Britain.
In September 2018, it emerged that Aiman Mohammed Saeed, another Emaan trustee, had pleaded guilty to charges of handling stolen goods. He used his Sheffield shop to sell mobile phones that had been stolen from their owners. Saeed is no longer an Emaan trustee.
The Emaan Center in Sheffield
The West London Islamic Cultural Centre
The West London Islamic Cultural Centre, formerly known as Al Muntada, is a large Salafi mosque that also offers education, youth activities, and family counselling. The mosque has a long record of hosting known hate preachers.
In 2017 the mosque filed a complaint with the press regulator IPSO about a newspaper profile that called it “hardline”, said it was linked to mosques suspected of radicalizing young people, and claimed it was backed by Qatari money. IPSO rejected the complaint.
The WLICC center in London
Cage and Mend
Aimen Dean famously infiltrated al-Qaeda for MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service. He still tracks extremism today. In October he was interviewed by the anti-extremism group Quilliam in a podcast. He was critical about Qatari funding in the interview, saying Qatari money goes to:
…groups and associations that are really active in two things. First, subverting and frustrating the governments’ counter-radicalization and counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policies. While at the same time propagating the narrative of victimhood, you know, the Islamophobia that you always hear about.
Dean added that Qataris support Cage and Mend, two of the UK’s most notorious Islamist groups.
Cage infamously described the Islamic State executioner Mohammed Emwazi as a “beautiful young man” when they worked with him in London before his departure to Syria. He was already a subject of interest for the security services at the time. Cage is dedicated to frustrating the counter-terrorist and counter-extremist efforts of the police, the security services and the government.
Mend is a political agitation group with multiple links to extremists. Its character is perhaps best shown by its vicious attacks on liberal Muslims, profiled earlier this year by European Eye on Radicalization.
An old adage holds that “there are no friends in international relations, only interests”. Wizened diplomats and ministers desperate for good economic news in Brexit Britain may well see Qatar in a coldly realistic positive light, even if some in the country deem certain Qatari activities questionable.
Some in Europe would like to see all foreign funding of religious institutions banned. Considering the wider context and the UK’s strong tradition of religious freedom, this appears unlikely in the UK.
At the very least, though, one can argue that more government transparency is in order, though this too is not likely to be forthcoming.