Published June 19, 2008
An Islamic charity with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban is now collaborating with an unlikely new partner: UNICEF, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund.
UNICEF has signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a Saudi charity of massive scope that keeps branches in more than 20 countries and has over 100 offices worldwide.
According to UNICEF, it will be teaming with the charity’s domestic Saudi branch to “promote children’s rights, health, equality and education,” in the oil-rich kingdom — but the organization has been doing more than just charity work.
The U.S. Treasury Department has designated the IIRO’s branches in the Philippines and Indonesia as terrorist entities for funding and supporting terrorist groups that have killed hundreds in East Asia. The Philippine branch was founded by Usama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifah, and has long had ties to Al Qaeda.
The U.N. itself says that both the Indonesian and Philippine branches of IIRO are tied to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and has singled them out for an asset freeze, arms embargo and travel ban on members of the groups.
But that hasn’t stopped the U.N. from recognizing the Saudi office as a legitimate relief group, nor has it stopped UNICEF — or other U.N. agencies — from working with it in the past.
According to Chris de Bono, UNICEF’s chief of media, “UNICEF does not and will not engage with” the two East Asian branches. Its new partnership is with the main Saudi branch only, and UNICEF will coordinate relief primarily for children living within Saudi Arabia, de Bono said.
The U.S. government also noted the distinction between the head office and the international branches.
“We are monitoring the situation closely, but we also understand the difference between the IIRO main headquarters and its branches,” Carolyn Vadino, deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N., wrote in an e-mail to FOX News.
“It is the two branches in question that are designated and have ties to terrorists and at this time we have been assured that they are separate entities,” Vadino wrote.
But some critics are not convinced the distinction is so clear.
“We have to look a lot harder at whether or not an organization that’s headquartered in one country is really disconnected from operations which bear the same name in other countries and are referred to as branches,” said Anne Bayefsky, senior editor of Eye on the U.N., a watchdog group.
According to the Treasury Department, the head of the IIRO’s Eastern Province branch has been directly funding the two terror-tied branches — straight from his office in Saudi Arabia.
Abd Al Hamid Sulaiman Al-Mujil, who runs the Eastern Province branch, has been called the “million dollar man” for his support of Islamic militant groups, and the Treasury Department says he has provided donor funds directly to Al Qaeda.
According to UNICEF, there isn’t yet a financial relationship with the IIRO, but joint programs launched in the future could change that. That has some critics worried about a potential for money to make its way into the wrong hands.
“The risks involved in funding terror are sufficiently great that UNICEF officials and other U.N. officials who accredit this organization are called upon to assure themselves that there are no ties,” said Bayefsky.
The IIRO's Indonesia branch was discovered by FOX News to still be operating despite being on the U.N.’s own terror list. Questions to the Indonesian mission to the U.N. have gone unanswered.
And while UNICEF’s Gulf-area office vetted the Saudi charity’s domestic office in June, it would not confirm whether it had investigated the Eastern Province branch or its sources of financing.
Bayefsky told FOXNews.com that even such vetting might not be enough.
“One has to remind oneself over and over again that the United Nations has no definition of terrorism,” she said. “It’s very hard to investigate and object to links to terrorist groups when you don’t know what [terrorism] is."