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Pentagon Report: NGOs ‘Knowingly Diverted’ Millions in U.S. Aid to Al-Qaeda Group in Syria

Fighters from a coalition of Islamist forces celebrate on May 19, 2015 after taking the Al-Mastumah base in the Syrian city of Idlib, the second provincial capital to fall from government control. The capture is a blow to the Syrian regime and raises the prospect that the city will become …
OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “knowingly” siphoned off millions in American taxpayer-funded humanitarian assistance into the coffers of the al-Qaeda wing in Syria, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) reported this week.

In post-Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate Syria, the al-Qaeda-linked Ha’yat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group has surfaced as the strongest jihadi group in the region.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon OIG’s Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the official name of the U.S. mission against ISIS, revealed:

Since late 2017, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] OIG investigations have uncovered numerous instances of possible or confirmed diversions to armed groups in Idlib Governorate in northwestern Syria, including Ha’yat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.

One investigation found that an NGO’s employees knowingly diverted thousands of USAID- funded food kits worth millions of dollars to ineligible beneficiaries (including HTS fighters) and submitted falsified beneficiary lists. The investigation resulted in USAID suspending the program and the NGO terminating the employment of dozens of individuals from March to May 2018.

The USAID watchdog agency has reportedly shared its findings with senior USAID, State Department, and National Security Council staff, ultimately triggering widespread systemic changes to the aid agency’s humanitarian assistance in Syria.

According to the DOD IG, its counterpart at USAID also found that the al-Qaeda-affiliated HTS group has infiltrated NGO recipients of U.S. aid, something the agency is actively investigating.

The USAID IG failed to identify the NGOs in question and the specific amount diverted.

The Pentagon IG noted:

USAID OIG also investigated diversions of assistance to HTS in another NGO’s programs, which OIG suspected was perpetrated by NGO staff affiliated with the terrorist group. Although the investigation is ongoing, the implementer voluntarily suspended portions of its programs, adapted its program to the changing risk environment, and terminated some employees.

HTS jihadis have reportedly forced some NGO workers into diverting U.S. funds.

The Pentagon IG found:

In August 2018, USAID OIG referred its findings on the risks of humanitarian assistance being diverted to armed groups in northwestern Syria to USAID and briefed senior USAID officials. These risks included systemic coercion by HTS of NGO employees to assist in diversions; imposition of taxes, duties, and fees on USAID implementers and beneficiaries; HTS control of local councils and IDP [internally displaced persons] camp management that assist USAID implementers in identifying eligible beneficiaries; and implementers failing to adequately mitigate the threat to USAID programming from these armed group.

As a result of the USAID IG’s findings, the Trump administration had refused to approve aid in HTS-controlled areas as of October 2018.

“USAID also updated its risk analysis based on OIG findings and is engaging more closely with the U.S. interagency to mitigate risks from programming in northwest Syria,” the Pentagon watchdog agency added.

HTS mainly operates in its northwestern Syrian stronghold of Idlib province, where a deal reached between pro-opposition Turkey and Russia, dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ally, has failed to push the jihadi group out.

Several analysts have determined that the al-Qaeda branch in Syria is the terrorist group’s most robust wing.

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