The rise of armed jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and others in regions of conflict has created growing challenges for global humanitarian aid efforts to deliver relief assistance to residents of these areas. The threats include the killing of relief workers, the stealing of aid shipments, or jihadist groups using aid to either pressure local people or to fund conflicts.
A 2016 report on the problem revealed that in 2015 there were five regions of conflict that had seen the highest concentration of attacks against civilian relief operations, namely Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. These attacks include kidnappings, killings, disappearances and bombings. Although South Sudan is an exception since the conflict there is largely a domestic ethnic conflict, the other conflicts include armed jihadist actors of a variety of religious beliefs and loyalties.
Although jihadist attacks against relief organisations are a way of manipulating humanitarian aid similar to the actions of other non-religious warring parties in conflict areas, the attacks have an added facet to them. The jihadists have bolstered their terrorist actions against relief agencies, especially foreign ones, by using an extremist rhetoric that views these organisations as tools for religious conversion, weakening or infiltrating Muslim communities. This makes it important to understand the jihadist hostility towards foreign aid organisations in particular and how it has acted in regional conflicts.
The term foreign relief agencies usually applies to organisations that provide humanitarian assistance, especially civil society groups primarily established in Europe or the US and carrying out humanitarian missions around the world. These include the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRC), the International Rescue Committee, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) among others, as well as UN organisations holding UN relief funds.
The jihadists are groups or individuals who resort to violence or armed combat as a means for change, with the aim, they say, of raising the banner of Islam. They quote religious scripture from the Quran or the Prophet’s sayings (hadith), which constitute what one of their ideological theorists, Abu Musaab Al-Suri, has described as the “jihadist creed”. The goal of this in his view is “applying God’s law, installing a Muslim imam, and establishing an Islamic state.”
According to this view, as well as the deployment of concepts such as Islamic governance, loyalty, disavowal and others, the jihadists embrace a divisive principle known as the “House of Islam and the House of War”. The former area is under the control of Muslims where Islamic Sharia Law is applied, while the latter is made up of areas under the control of non-Muslims, either Western governments or their allies, and is not ruled by Sharia.
This outlook forms the ideological basis adopted by several armed jihadist groups, whether active globally or regionally, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shebab Al-Mujahideen in Somalia and IS and its clones in Syria and Iraq, notwithstanding their different names and fields of operation.
Humanitarian action, including foreign aid, is categorised under the “House of War,” which the jihadists oppose even though aid is charitable work providing assistance on the basis of impartiality. It is the expression of a human bond that is blind to religious, linguistic or other differences between those receiving or giving assistance.
The jihadist logic that is hostile to foreign relief takes advantage of religious interpretations about aid. While Islam as a religion focuses on Quranic scriptures on charity for the poor and needy through donations and almsgiving, this general concept can be based on doctrinal conditions depending on the sources of such aid and whether it is Muslim or non-Muslim.
For example, the Saudi Salafi thinker Abdel-Aziz bin Baz allows Muslims to assist non-Muslims according to certain criteria and only if they are not fighting Muslims for religious reasons or expelling them from their homes. This is based on the Quranic verse from the surat al-mumtahanah (60:8) which says that “God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just.”
Responding to inquiries about aid, the Salafi sheikh Abdullah bin Jibreen has said that Islamic charities should only assist Muslims and not non-Muslims, believing any hardship suffered by these groups can be understood as God’s punishment of them.
However, if assistance comes from non-Muslims to Muslims, some religious commentators allow this on condition that there is no war against the faith of Muslims and that the aid does not include anything forbidden. Accordingly, some thinkers, including sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi, argue that it is permissible for Muslims to receive such assistance, especially in the light of the conflicts around the globe. The Palestinians receive aid from the UN (UNWRA) for humanitarian reasons, for example.
Although the intention here is not to evaluate the evidence for these jurisprudential opinions, in general they link accepting relief, especially from non-Muslims, to whether there is a conflict against Muslims or not. Since the jihadist groups classify Western countries in the House of War category, however, they view foreign relief agencies that receive funds from Western governments as being the “civilian face” of countries with which they are at war.
There is thus a link in jihadist ideology between civilian relief and parties at war regarding foreign workers delivering humanitarian aid in conflict areas becoming the targets of bombings and kidnappings under the pretext that they are missionaries or are indirectly supporting the war efforts of Western countries.
As a result, the Taliban killed several aid workers from a Christian agency called the International Assistance Mission in August 2010 under the pretext that they were in fact religious missionaries. It also justified killing civilians, including Western aid workers, in 2012 by saying that they were not really civilians since they were “contributing to the foreign occupation” of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still active even after being ousted from power, is one of the most dangerous places for foreign aid workers, followed by Syria, South Sudan, parts of central Africa and Pakistan.
HISTORICAL IMBALANCES: Blending the historical and current contexts on foreign aid with these religious views has resulted in a negative outlook on foreign relief, since Western colonialism has in the past been linked with Christian missionaries providing humanitarian aid to the poor.
More importantly, the current imbalance of power between the West and the Islamic world makes the former dominate the funding of humanitarian aid flowing to conflict areas. A 2015 report shows that humanitarian funding in 2014 reached $24.5 billion, with the largest donors being the US, the UK, the EU, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Canada. The recipient countries included several Arab and African countries fraught with conflicts, including Syria, Occupied Palestine, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. Major Western organisations have more influence and a larger share in funding humanitarian aid compared to domestic or national agencies.
This imbalance in funding international humanitarian work has been manipulated by some Western powers to achieve their political goals in regions of conflict, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This has angered the humanitarian organisations themselves, one famous incident being when the international aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a statement in 2004 condemning flyers handed out by Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan telling locals that providing information about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was essential if they wanted the aid to continue. This undermined the principle of the impartiality of humanitarian aid and subjected aid workers to attacks.
Other contributions to the hostile image of foreign aid by the jihadists include the emergence of Islamic charities assisting Muslim communities and confronting what they view as disguised missionary work in Muslim countries. This model was bolstered by the Gulf oil boom of the 1970s, emerging Islamist expansionism at the time, and later major transformations in the region, such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year, and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
During these events, the concept of “Islamic charity” versus “Western charity” was born, as the commentator Abdel-Rahman Ghandour has put it in a study on contemporary Islamic missions. There are now many Islamic humanitarian organisations on the world stage, among them the World Islamic Call Society (Libya), the International Islamic Relief Organisation (Saudi Arabia), the Africa Muslims Committee (Kuwait), renamed Direct Aid in 1999 and the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Iran).
Islamic charity has gained the momentum through these agencies to resist the Western bias, whether through charitable support for the Palestinian cause or aid to Bosnian Muslims during the 1990s. It also indirectly contributed to the emergence of the “Arab Afghans,” Arab jihadists fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, who later returned to their countries after charitable work in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As terrorism gained traction around the world in the 1990s, some Islamic relief work was accused of funding terrorist activities, according to the US administration at the time, especially after suspicions that two aid groups had been involved in the attack on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998. This idea was further entrenched after the 9/11 attacks in the US, after which some restrictions were placed on the activities of Islamic relief work, especially funding. This bolstered the hostile image of foreign relief being painted by the jihadist groups, since it seemed that the West was fighting Islamic charity using security pretexts.
All these factors forming the outlook of the jihadists on foreign relief have contributed to their current views. The jihadists are suspicious that foreign relief is not impartial, making them prefer Islamic aid. The former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden issued a video after the flooding in Pakistan in 2010 accusing the Arab and Islamic countries of not doing enough to assist Pakistan, for example, and expressing his dismay that the UN had been much faster in its aid response despite “its hostile positions towards our nation” and its lack of “religious connections to Muslims in Pakistan”.
But the Islamic charities have not escaped the suspicions of the jihadists either. The Shebab Al-Mujahideen group in Somalia has accused some Islamic relief agencies operating in areas under the group’s control of working on behalf of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), causing them to stop their operations in 2012.
Moreover, even if the jihadist groups agree to the delivery of foreign aid, they seek to impose religious rules on it. For example, the Shebab Al-Mujahideen insisted that foreign humanitarian agencies operating in the Somali capital Mogadishu could not employ women, show their insignia, or celebrate Christmas and other Christian festivals.
The same thing happened with the International Red Cross when it delivered aid to areas under IS control in Iraq in 2015. The agency had to remove its insignia and not employ foreign aid workers. These incidents comply with criticisms levelled by Osama bin Laden about how female aid workers in Islamic charities in Pakistan had “flaunted their looks” after the 2010 floods.
The same thing has been true for the jihadist Al-Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb (AQAM) group, which justified killing a US aid worker in Mauritania in 2008 as a response to US strikes against Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Libya, a jihadist group called the Abdel-Rahman Martyrs Brigades accused the IRC of distributing bibles, which in the group’s mind justified an attack on the agency in 2012. The agency responded by explaining that the word “cross” in its name (International Committee of the Red Cross) did not have religious connotations and it was operating according to global humanitarian values.
IS killed a British aid worker with a French relief agency in September 2014, and it threatened to behead another if Britain participated in the International Coalition against IS in Syria and Iraq.
COUNTER APPLICATIONS: It is ironic that despite the jihadist animosity towards foreign aid, they have used it to bolster their own resources and relations with local supporters, however.
Aid can alleviate the burdens on civilians in areas of conflict. Shebab Al-Mujahideen imposed a tax on Western humanitarian agencies in 2009 in Somalia of $20,000 paid every six months in return for operating licences.
In 2014 and 2015, IS in Syria and Iraq used aid arriving in areas under the group’s control as a means of shoring up local support and lessening the burdens on the group’s own shoulders. It appeared to be handing out the aid after removing the insignia of the humanitarian agencies that had provided it. The WFP expressed concerns that IS symbols could be placed on food shipments delivered to Syria after they were stolen from the warehouses of the Syrian Red Crescent. The same thing happened in the Al-Obeidi Refugee Camp in the Iraqi province of Al-Anbar.
The hostile rhetoric against foreign relief agencies by the jihadists is the product of their religious isolationism based on obsolete stereotypes that bolster conspiracy theories about the West and confuse them with humanitarian issues. They ignore the fact that international relief agencies do not necessarily represent the governments backing them, but are instead an expression of global humanitarian conscience even if there have been violations, whether by the agencies themselves or those funding them.
But amid this general jihadist trend hostile to foreign relief, there have been several exceptions. Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi (aka Assem Taher Al-Barqawi), a leading theorist of jihadist Salafism, recounts in his book Stances on the Fruits of Jihad: Between Ignorance of Islamic Law and Ignorance of Reality how the IRC contributed to ending his isolation and supplied him with religious books during his imprisonment in the 1990s in Jordan.
He denied that missionary work was being carried out by the agency, as suspected by some Islamist currents, urging that the IRC should not be attacked.
The writer is a researcher on African affairs with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya, a quarterly political science magazine published by Al-Ahram.