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Checking it twice

World Vision’s link to a terror-sponsoring Islamic charity shows the need for transparency in a season of giving

Checking it twice

An FBI agent questions a woman during a search of the offices of the Islamic Relief Agency in Columbia, Mo., in 2004. (David Eulitt/The Kansas City Star/AP)

This Christmas season I’ve been asked to #GiveLuv and #doublethelove and more. The time from Giving Tuesday to New Year’s Eve represents for many U.S. nonprofits a make-or-break fundraising opportunity. Punching a button in tangible support of a good cause helps both giver and receiver.

But problems arise with the ease of internet giving, and one is accountability. Willing donors see slick appeals in their social media accounts, give, and go away. Behind the campaigns, it’s harder to know how the nonprofits manage their money, and whether the message matches the work.

World Vision—with more than $1 billion in revenue last year—is among the largest international nongovernmental organizations and widely known as a Christian humanitarian group. It got some bad press this year over reports it subcontracted relief work to an Islamic charity—a decade after the Treasury Department designated the group a sponsor of terror.

That relief work represents a small fraction of World Vision’s overseas assistance. But World Vision did not disclose the violation—and apparently has a longer-standing relationship with the group.

The terror ties of Islamic Relief Agency are well-known. The group raised millions for al-Qaeda.

According to emails and other documents obtained by Middle East Forum under the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. officials ordered World Vision to suspend all activities with Islamic Relief Agency once they learned the subcontractor was a designated terrorist group. But World Vision appealed for “an urgent license” to pay the group.

Further, it’s apparent World Vision through its European affiliates established a close working relationship with Islamic Relief Agency—a Khartoum-based charity that once opened a U.S. office and used it to raise millions of dollars for al-Qaeda.

Middle East Forum stumbled upon the World Vision contract work and payments to Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA) while researching other charities. ISRA was slated to receive $200,000 as part of a $723,000 grant funded by USAID to World Vision in 2014, part of a larger ongoing World Vision effort to improve sanitation and increase food supplies in Blue Nile state—a heavily embattled area with thousands of displaced Sudanese.

In its grant application, World Vision assigned to Islamic Relief Agency a nonexistent identification number. The DUNS number, a universal numbering system all contractors doing business with the U.S. government must have, is something Islamic Relief Agency does not have as a specially designated terrorist entity. The number used in the paperwork, Middle East Forum discovered, didn’t match any group.

Despite the irregularities, USAID in 2014 under the Obama administration approved the grant. It and World Vision learned several months later—through a third party whose name is redacted in documents—of the terror designation, and notified the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). By early 2015, the U.S. government ordered World Vision to stop paying ISRA and working with it under the contract.

World Vision appealed to OFAC for a license to pay an outstanding $125,000 balance for work it said was completed. World Vision general counsel Tim Burgett said the Sudanese government threatened “expulsion from the country” if World Vision failed to pay ISRA. After consulting with the State Department, OFAC granted the license.

The terror ties of Islamic Relief Agency—also known as Islamic Africa Relief Agency and by acronyms ISRA, IARA, and IRA—are long-established and well-known. Headquartered in Khartoum, the group financed terrorist operations in Sudan, Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, according to U.S. Justice Department records.

From an office opened in Columbia, Mo., ISRA from 1991 to 2003 raised millions for al-Qaeda. Besides obtaining laptops and other equipment for Osama bin Laden, in 1997 ISRA purchased and delivered to al-Qaeda the satellite telephone used to direct the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people.

The United States sanctioned ISRA in 2004, and the group became more widely known in America after it paid former Michigan congressman Mark Siljander to lobby for its removal from the terror list, funneling money through nonprofits, including the Fellowship, a Christian organization that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Siljander pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent, and a court sentenced him to a year in jail in 2012, along with four ISRA workers. ISRA’s U.S. office was not completely shut down until 2017 under direction of the U.S. Attorney in Missouri.

As Sam Westrop of the Middle East Forum points out: “Obama-administration officials knowingly approved the transfer of taxpayer dollars to an al-Qaeda affiliate, and not an obscure one but an enormous international network that was often in the headlines.”

In a statement posted online following Middle East Forum’s initial report on its findings, World Vision said “there was no indication that IRA had any possible ties to an alleged terrorist-supporting organization.” It said a search for the group in the OFAC list produced “no results.” But the OFAC listing for ISRA (or IRA) is easily searchable online, and U.S. guidelines require contractors to certify subcontractors do not appear on blocked-party lists. 

Sudan is one of only four countries named a state sponsor of terror by the United States, a designation limiting trade and foreign assistance. World Vision has to register with Treasury’s OFAC office just to operate in the country. ISRA also is closely linked to President Omar al-Bashir, who attends the group’s board of trustees meetings in Khartoum. Bashir has faced since 2008 an International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes.

At the time of the contract in question, World Vision operated a $49 million budget in Sudan serving 1.5 million people. In response to questions from WORLD, World Vision said it “categorically denies that it ever knowingly worked with an organization linked to terrorism. We strongly condemn any diversion of funds intended for humanitarian efforts, or any act of terrorism or support for those activities.” The group declined to answer questions about the full extent of its work with ISRA, including when it began and ended.

Besides operating projects under USAID grants, World Vision carried out at least two other projects in Blue Nile under UN auspices from 2011 to 2013. According to a 2013 World Vision report from its Austria office (in German), the agricultural projects were in partnership with Islamic Relief Agency, “a local NGO with which World Vision has prior working experience.”

Islamic Relief Agency appears to be World Vision’s sole local partner for projects in Blue Nile, and emails suggest the Sudanese government required working through ISRA. A program manager position for World Vision projects in Blue Nile funded by the European Commission lists Islamic Relief Agency as one of its “key government stakeholders.”

The job listing names ISRA six times—citing ISRA involvement in funding proposals, paperwork, staff training, and joint meetings. The listing is dated December 2015—11 months after World Vision said it had “discontinued any future collaboration with IRA.”

Taking a lesson from the Siljander case, ISRA showed itself willing to launder money through nonprofits, and willing to use American entities to attempt to influence U.S. policy. Now shuttered in the United States, it’s plausible ISRA with its close ties to President Bashir may try use U.S. groups working in Sudan.

During the same time of the World Vision contracts in question, President Bashir waged a successful campaign with the Obama administration to ease U.S. sanctions. What began under President Obama was ratified under President Donald Trump: In 2017 Trump lifted a long-standing trade embargo and other restrictions despite objections from leading experts on human rights and terrorism.

Sudan in 2017 began paying Washington lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs $40,000 per month to convince the United States to lift sanctions permanently—and now is applying similar pressure to be removed from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list. U.S. officials have identified three key conflict areas where they want to see progress as a condition for removal—and one is Blue Nile.

A longtime aid worker in Blue Nile, who is not named for security reasons, told me most Western aid groups base work out of southern Blue Nile rather than the north precisely to avoid entanglements with Khartoum, which is “heavily involved” in recruitment, screening, and staff selection for international aid groups there. The population, the aid worker said, developed “a distrust of these organizations,” risking food becoming a weapon, where the government may limit humanitarian aid to pro-regime areas only.

In this climate, it’s not hard to see how aid groups can become pawns in this process, pressed to secure contracts benefiting Khartoum’s terror cronies as a condition for continuing to have a stake in a conflict zone.

Donors at home—and taxpayers—shouldn’t have to submit to such pay-to-play schemes. Beyond glossy inducements to individual giving, they deserve better disclosure from groups like World Vision about funding sources and overseas partners.