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Kavitha RajagopalanBack to OpinionKavitha Rajagopalan

Charitable donation or material support for terrorism?

When you think of a terrorist act, what comes to mind? Under the “material support bar” placed by the Bush administration after 9/11, a terrorist act can be committed unintentionally — even by diminutive aunties going door-to-door in their Midwestern neighborhoods to raise money for favorite charitable causes. Aunties like Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, two of the 14 people indicted last week by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of channeling funds and fighters to the militant Somali group, Al Shabab.

Hawo Mohamed Hassan, left, and Amina Farah Ali, leave the U.S. District Court after appearing at a hearing on August 5, 2010. Photo: AP/Craig Lassig

Days after the indictments were made public, Ali and Hassan stood up in a Minnesota courtroom, packed with supporters from the Somali community, and declared their innocence. They did not go door-to-door in their Rochester, Minnesota, community to raise money for Al Shabab to kill people, they say, but rather to support food and humanitarian aid to the people of impoverished, war-torn Somalia, who have for so long remained abandoned by the international community.

We may not know the true nature of these and the remaining 12 indictees’ intentions and activities for some time to come, but these indictments, and the not guilty pleas of these two women, once again shine a bright light on how we define and prosecute terrorism.

Terror, it turns out, is a multifaceted business. Terrorist organizations may wage more than war, and terror supporters may not always be sympathetic to terrorist acts.

When Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, winning 76 of 132 parliamentary seats, Middle East watchers and analysts made shocked sounds and grim pronouncements about the future of Palestinian society. Hamas, largely known for its ongoing guerilla war with Israel, was and still is one of the most infamous organizations named on the U.S. government’s watchlist of terrorist organizations.

But within the Palestinian territories, Hamas is also know for its extensive humanitarian and community development program. More than any other local group, Hamas has gained legitimacy in many Palestinian villages for its programmatic work, its institution building and its social services, as described in Sara Roy’s controversial piece published in the July 2007 Middle East Policy Journal.

Like Hamas, many militant organizations come to power in societies damaged by war, crippled by poverty and lacking any meaningful, internationally recognized government. Some of these organizations view themselves as leaders of nationalist struggles in the dual business of state-building and war-waging. Some, like the Irish Republican Army, eventually become internationally recognized political parties. Others, like Hezbollah, keep their hands dipped in both pots.

By all recognizable indicators, Somalia is a failed state. It has been without a government for decades, and, until 74 people died in Al-Shabab’s July 12 attacks in Kampala, Uganda, there was little international media attention given to the widespread violence and disarray rampant in much of the country. The Somali diaspora, as it were, has had few if any legitimate channels through which to attempt to support and rebuild its devastated homeland.

Which brings us to immigrant communities, scattered in their flight from violence and poverty, like the Somali community in Rochester, Minnesota, or Palestinian communities all over the world. Roy’s article describing Hamas’s social services program was published just as federal prosecutors brought charges against the Holy Land Foundation, the largest Islamic charity in the U.S., for funneling money to support Hamas. Also named as unindicted co-conspirators in the case were the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America, both widely respected, moderate national organizations primarily engaged in advancing Muslim civil liberties, community outreach and public dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S. All three of these organizations have received massive amounts of contributions from U.S. citizens who wish to support humanitarian efforts in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, and in conflict zones in the Balkans or Turkey. Although the U.S. Department of Treasury’s list of organizations that Americans shouldn’t do business with is publicly available, it is safe to assume that most of the Holy Land Foundation’s supporters were not supporters of terrorist or militant activities.

Our and other governments often seem to be waging the war on terror using an outdated model of war, in which entire states and their societies are at war with one another. But guerilla enterprises, like those undertaken by the militant groups identified as terrorist organizations, often function in complicated ways, in networks of isolated individuals or groups connected by thin threads, funded or surrounded by people who do not see themselves at war with our society or state. The umbrella definition of terrorism makes all people connected by multiple degrees of separation complicit in violence. And the fallout of the war we are waging sometimes lands on the wrong target — on the innocent, on the innocently complicit, and sometimes on the victims themselves.

In September 2006, Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, issued a detailed report on how many persecuted peoples from places like, for example, Colombia and Burma, were being denied refuge, resettlement or asylum in the U.S. under the material support bar. Some examples of financing terror in the report include ransom paid by kidnapping victims to criminal militias or contributions made by persecuted ethnic minorities to local organizations with militant wings.

Certainly, attacks on innocent civilians must be unequivocally condemned and prevented. There is no excusing the destructive acts and violent doctrines espoused by organizations like Hamas and Al-Shabab, and many scholars on Islamist militant organizations have suggested that social services might serve to manipulate a vulnerable, desperate population. But until the international community can find meaningful and legitimate ways to support organic and locally driven humanitarian, reconstruction, community development and institution-building in failed states or war zones, the social services wings of these otherwise militant organizations operate in a sort of vacuum.

As we urge our government and the international community to develop more effective strategies for preventing and combating terrorist attacks, we must be sure that those strategies target only those actually responsible for militant violence. This may mean recognizing that some organizations that do great harm may also be doing good, and ensuring that there are strong humanitarian aid and community development alternatives to those undertaken by these organizations. And ensuring that the people we hold responsible for militancy and violence are not the very victims of militant violence.