Indonesia’s World Human Care in spotlight after US designation
US says WHC working ‘under the guise’ of providing humanitarian aid in Syria, but channels funds to hardline groups.
Last month, the United States Department of the Treasury announced it was sanctioning the Indonesian charity World Human Care (WHC) under an executive order on “terrorism” financing.
The group is accused of raising and providing funds to hardline groups in Syria “under the guise of humanitarian aid”, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said on its website. It said that WHC is linked to the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI).
MMI was designated as a “terrorist” organisation by the US in 2017.
“MMI’s ‘charitable organization,’ World Human Care, has been used as a front to raise funds to support violent extremist activity,” the statement said.
“While World Human Care has engaged in some legitimate humanitarian activities, the main objective of the organization was to serve as a cover to raise funds for MMI sympathizers in Syria.”
According to Rizka Nurul, a researcher at Ruang Obrol, an online platform that focuses on deradicalisation in Indonesia, WHC is a philanthropic organisation created by MMI and has been officially registered as a charitable foundation with the Ministry of Law and Human Rights in Indonesia since 2014.
The Indonesian government and its National Counter Terrorism Agency, known as BNPT, have yet to comment on the designation.
“I’m not sure what caused the United States to take this step,” Nurul, who has studied MMI, told Al Jazeera. “It may be because the group were carrying out activities in Syria and potentially violating international regulations by doing things like building refugee shelters in conflict areas and allegedly cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front is an armed group fighting against Syrian government forces in Syria’s war. It is sanctioned by the UN Security Council and listed as a “terrorist” group by the US and Russia.
MMI was founded in 2000 by Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the hardline group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which claimed responsibility for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people.
Prominent members of MMI have included Muhammad Iqbal, aka Abu Jibril, who was thought to have been involved in planning the Bali bombing, the attack on the Jakarta Stock Exchange, and the Christmas Eve church bombings of 2000. Jibril famously told a crowd at a rally in 2005 to “Destroy America and its allies,” and “Kill those who desecrate Islam”.
According to Nurul, WHC works in Indonesia and Syria, ostensibly providing assistance in the form of basic necessities to Syrian refugees and internally displaced people. It also works establishing refugee camps around Idlib near the Syrian-Turkish border, builds mosques, undertakes fundraising activities and provides “mediators” in the field.
According to Nurul, one of these mediators was allegedly Abu Jibril’s sixth child, his son Ridwan Abdul Hayie, who reportedly died in Syria in March 2015 when he was fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra and shot by a Syrian tank.
“Legitimate humanitarian aid providers strive to provide essential, life-saving humanitarian assistance in Syria and elsewhere. Actions by entities such as World Human Care are deplorable not only for their support for terrorist organizations but also because they do so by abusing the work and reputation of genuine humanitarian aid providers worldwide,” OFAC said.
The US government sanction came into force on February 3, the same day it announced that it had located and killed the leader of ISIL (ISIS), Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, during a raid on the apartment where he was staying in Syria.
“In early 2016, World Human Care transferred money to Syria not only for humanitarian needs but also for weapons and fighters there. In one instance, World Human Care sent funds and equipment to a Southeast Asian foreign terrorist fighter in Syria,” OFAC said.
The statement added that WHC had undertaken fundraising events near Jakarta “to raise funds that would be transferred to al-Qa’ida-linked elements in Syria”.
Commenting on the accusation, Deny, a spokesman for WHC based in Jakarta where he drives an ambulance for the organisation, told Al Jazeera the group was aware of the OFAC designation.
He did not deny the allegation outright but said that the funds WHC sent to Syria were for refugees and orphans, and that all money raised by the charity was used to help those in need.
“Let the United States issue a statement … A superpower like America can arbitrarily make accusations like slandering Iraq about weapons of mass destruction which has yet to be proven. The United States has destroyed Iraq and other Muslim countries, so what will it do to WHC️?”
Deny, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, added that the organisation was seeking confirmation about the implications of the sanction from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
In February, the secretary general of WHC, Luki Abdul Hayyi, told BenarNews that the group was “surprised by the report which was based on old data, because WHC is not affiliated with MMI.”
“We have never funded terrorists,” he added.
According to OFAC, as a result of the sanctions, “all property and interest property of the entity … that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, must be blocked and reported to OFAC.”
“OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within the United States … that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Wildan, a former fighter who travelled to Syria in 2013 as part of a humanitarian mission and who trained with the ISIL (ISIS) group, said that he had never heard of WHC but that it was possible for some humanitarian organisations operating in Syria to remain neutral.
“As far as I’m aware, those kinds of groups existed but they were all licensed organisations,” he said.
“They were not affiliated with any other groups and would work mostly in the refugee camps. They didn’t enter any of the conflict areas, but remained on the fringes.”
Wildan, who was convicted of “terrorism” on his return to Indonesia and jailed for five years, worked mainly in ISIL (ISIS)-run hospitals and with children, and says he did not plan on “joining ISIS”. He is now out of jail, having been released after a customary remission in his sentence.
As part of her research, Nurul has identified people online who went to Syria with WHC.
She told Al Jazeera that, while it was difficult to verify the exact nature of WHC’s work, several accounts on Facebook that claimed to be WHC members in Syria had posted content that fits a pattern seen with other hardliners.
Some posts suggested they were ready to die in Syria, while others included photos of conflict areas and content on “enemy fighters”, she said.
“There have been suspicions from the beginning about some of the members in Syria, which is not surprising given their affiliation with MMI and Jabhat al-Nusra.”