And yet an examination of the Treasury’s own website that listscharities designated for terrorist fundraising shows a precipitous drop since Obama came into office. Between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the February 2009 designation of the Tamil foundation, the U.S. designated eight major U.S.-based charities for terrorist fundraising. These included al-Qaeda fronts such as the U.S. branch of the al-Haramain Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation. In this period, the U.S. government also blacklisted groups that raised money for the Palestinian terror group Hamas, including the Holy Land Foundation, and for the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, like the Good Will Charitable Organization.
While the Obama administration has not designated any U.S. charities since its first month in office, it has nonetheless continued to squeeze not only al-Qaeda but also Hezbollah and Hamas. On Wednesday, Daniel Glazer, the assistant secretary of Treasury for terrorist financing, told the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies that his office has waged a campaign over the last five years to keep Hezbollah out of the international financial system.
Some experts say the U.S. has stopped designating U.S.-based charities in part because terrorist groups have determined it’s too risky to set up a philanthropic front in the U.S. these days. “Our enforcement efforts did have an effect on the ability of groups to openly organize and use non-governmental organizations as fundraising mechanisms for designated terrorist organizations,” Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism under George W. Bush, told me.
Zarate is in a position to know. He is one of the architects of the U.S. government’s post-9/11 policy on counter-terrorist financing. He said the days of major charity designations like the Holy Land Foundation “are over in part because it is now understood the U.S. government will look closely and not sympathetically on any groups that are set up to mask or to hide funding for terrorist organizations.”
While Zarate and other experts I spoke to said it would be a mistake to assume that no terrorist groups would try to set up fronts to raise money in the U.S., the nature of the business has nonetheless changed. “ISIS doesn’t have to create a U.S. NGO, they run a war economy,” said Zarate. “Al-Shabaab, they are taxing people, they are engaged in other kinds of illicit trade.”