U.S. Treasury Department documents obtained by the Middle East Forum through a Freedom of Information Act request shed new light on the terror-finance scandal that first erupted last year concerning the Obama-era United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the international evangelical charity, World Vision.
These new documents reveal that not only was World Vision funding Sudan-based Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA) — which has extensive links to Osama bin Laden — with grants from USAID. World Vision was also funding ISRA with grants from the United Nations (U.N.). The documents also disclose that once World Vision’s relationship with ISRA was exposed by a whistleblower from the Swiss-based intergovernmental organization, International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Vision mounted a full-court press to strong-arm the Treasury Department into allowing the relationship to continue unabated. This effort involved high-ranking members of Congress, who advocated for World Vision, as well as threats of lawsuits aimed at the Obama administration’s Treasury Department.
When this scandal initially broke last year, all that was known was that in 2014, World Vision had subcontracted charitable work in the hotly contested Blue Nile region of Sudan to ISRA, which was designated as a terrorist entity in 2004 for giving millions of dollars to Osama bin Laden and raising funds for Palestinian-Arab suicide bombings. Initially, this arrangement appeared to be a one-time event. But it soon emerged that World Vision had “prior work experience” with ISRA and had used “other funding streams” to fund projects with the terror-linked charity. Previously, the source of these revenue streams was unknown.
But according to a May 2015 “Case Summary” written by U.S. Treasury officials, World Vision gave ISRA $323,928 for the controversial project paid for by USAID, Irish Aid, and the U.N. — with the U.N. likely paying the lion’s share.
Unfortunately, the U.N.’s relationship with ISRA is not entirely new. ISRA, also known as the Islamic African Relief Agency, previously enjoyed “consultative status” at the U.N. It lost this status in 2006 after the United States highlighted its links to al-Qaeda. Since then, ISRA has repeatedly attempted to regain consultative status — a request repeatedly deferred because of unanswered U.S. government questions about ISRA’s shady activities. The U.N. has regularly employed ISRA as a partner over the last decade. In 2013, it listed ISRA as a participant in its “Work Plan” for Sudan. And in 2014, the U.N. partnered with ISRA and the Sudanese government on three projects in West Darfur.
That the U.N, which was aware of its member-states’ concerns that ISRA was a terror financing organization, also specifically partnered with World Vision to fund ISRA, was previously unknown.
Additionally, the aforementioned “Case Summary” document strongly suggests that World Vision was not fully candid with Treasury about its existing relationship with ISRA. According to this document, World Vision disclosed that it began using ISRA as a sub-grantee in 2013. However, as previously reported, World Vision Austria’s public 2013 Annual Report explicitly states that at least two projects with ISRA stated well before 2013, one as early as April 2011.
That World Vision began working with ISRA in 2011 should come as no great surprise: This was the year South Sudan was partitioned from Sudan, and the Sudanese government, then headed by radical Islamist Omar Al-Bashir, began requiring international NGOs to work with local partners in hotly contested regions of Sudan. It should also be unsurprising that a genocidal Islamist regime would require partnership with a bin Laden-linked organization like ISRA — a group to which Al-Bashir was particularly close. Before his ouster, in fact, Al-Bashir personally attended ISRA’s board meetings.
Why did World Vision choose not to disclose the extent of its relationship with ISRA to Treasury while seeking its license? This misrepresentation could have serious consequences for World Vision — even now, years later. The license granted on May 5, 2015 to World Vision to pay ISRA in spite of the terror designation explicitly stated that if the license was granted “as a result of willful misrepresentation, it may, at the discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury, be declared void from the date of issue, or any other date.”
It is also noteworthy just how much pressure World Vision placed on Treasury to obtain a favorable result. Newly available Treasury documents demonstrate that high-ranking staff for Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), then-ranking member and now chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, continually reached out to Treasury on World Vision’s behalf.
In addition, the new tranche of Treasury documents casts clear, additional doubts on World Vision’s denials that it knew ISRA to be a designated terrorist organization. The documents show that World Vision admitted to Treasury that it was aware of organizations sharing ISRA’s name on the designated terror list — but World Vision also claimed that the Sudanese branch of ISRA was somehow not designated. However, extensive media coverage and clear statements on Treasury’s website patently show, all branches of ISRA were tied to its organizational headquarters in Sudan.
Despite multiple statements from Treasury warning World Vision not to work with ISRA, the evangelical charity continued to demand the government permit the partnership and allow World Vision to offer taxpayers’ money to the terror charity. Along with pressure from its friends in Congress, World Vision warned that it was planning legal action. World Vision’s threats and impatience flummoxed Treasury, with one exasperated Treasury official stating that it was “hard to fault us with our response, that’s for sure.”
Ultimately, World Vision got its way. It successfully pressured Treasury to issue a license for a one-time payment to ISRA. But it seems World Vision’s relationship with ISRA did not end with that one-time payment. A World Vision job posting in December of 2015, 11 months after World Vision reported to USAID that it had stopped working with ISRA, specifically listed partnership with ISRA as part of the job description. Given that we now know that the U.N. was a source of other World Vision projects with ISRA, this raises an important question: Did World Vision continue to fund ISRA projects, perhaps through European subsidiaries, using U.N. grants or undisclosed private donations? Does it still do so?
Furthermore, questions also need to be asked about the IOM's role in this drama. While USAID documents clearly indicate an IOM official alerted USAID — and purportedly World Vision, as well — to ISRA’s status as a U.S.-designated terrorist funding organization, further emails from World Vision to USAID officials indicate that the whistleblowing individual from IOM was no longer in his job only months after he raised the issue, and that new IOM leadership “does not have an issue with (ISRA).” We asked IOM if it fired the whistleblower. It failed to respond.
Nearly a year after this important issue was first made public, we have uncovered many answers to questions that public officials, the international aid community, and existing donors to World Vision have all been asking. However, these answers only generate even more questions. Those committed to supporting responsible aid programs and fighting the scourge of terror finance should not stop asking questions. Only when they are answered can this sort of behavior be brought to full account.
Cliff Smith is Washington Project Director at the Middle East Forum. Sam Westrop is the Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.