Non-profit humanitarian agency World Vision United States improperly transacted with the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA) in 2014 with approval from the Obama administration, sending government funds to an organization that had been sanctioned over its ties to terrorism, according to a new report.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) recently released a report detailing the findings of an investigation his staff began in February 2019 into the relationship between World Vision and ISRA.
The probe found that World Vision was not aware that ISRA had been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2004 after funneling roughly $5 million to Maktab al-Khidamat, the predecessor to Al-Qaeda controlled by Osama Bid Laden.
However, that ignorance was born from insufficient vetting practices, the report said.
“World Vision works to help people in need across the world, and that work is admirable,” Grassley said in a statement. “Though it may not have known that ISRA was on the sanctions list or that it was listed because of its affiliation with terrorism, it should have. Ignorance can’t suffice as an excuse. World Vision’s changes in vetting practices are a good first step, and I look forward to its continued progress.”
The investigation was sparked by a July 2018 National Review article in which Sam Westrop, the director of the Middle East Forum’s Islamist Watch, detailed MEF’s findings that the Obama administration had approved a “$200,000 grant of taxpayer money to ISRA.”
Government officials specifically authorized the release of “at least $115,000” of this grant even after learning that it was a designated terror organization, Westrop wrote.
According to the Senate report, World Vision submitted a grant application to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to carry out its Blue Nile Recovery Program on January 21, 2014. The proposed program sought to provide food security, sanitation equipment, and health services to areas hard-hit by conflict in the Blue Nile region of Sudan.
USAID awarded World Vision a $723,405 grant for the program. The next month, ISRA agreed to provide humanitarian services to parts of the Blue Nile Region for World Vision, according to the report. The two organizations had also collaborated on several projects in 2013 and 2014.
World Vision only discovered ISRA was sanctioned after the Evangelical humanitarian non-profit discussed partnering with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on a separate humanitarian project in Sudan. In performing a routine vetting of World Vision and its partners, IOM discovered ISRA’s sanctioned status and reached out to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Compliance Team to confirm.
After receiving confirmation from OFAC, IOM rejected World Vision’s offer to collaborate, the report says.
World Vision’s legal department was notified of ISRA’s potential status as a sanctioned entity in September 2014 and immediately halted all payments to the organization while it investigated.
The non-profit sent a letter to OFAC on November 19, 2014, asking for clarification regarding ISRA’s status, and requesting that, in the event that ISRA was sanctioned, it be awarded a temporary license to finish out the organizations’ existing contract.
Two months later, Treasury responded, confirming that ISRA is sanctioned and denying the request for a license to work with the organization, as that would be “inconsistent with OFAC policy.”
One month later, World Vision submitted another request for a license to transact with ISRA to pay them $125,000 for services rendered, lest it face legal consequences and potential expulsion from Sudan.
On May 4, 2015, the Obama administration’s State Department recommended OFAC grant World Vision’s request for the license to transact. The next day, OFAC granted the license to pay ISRA $125,000 for services rendered, and later sent the non-profit a “cautionary letter” making it aware that its collaboration with ISRA appeared to have violated the Global Terrorism Sanction Regulations.
The report said the investigation “did not find any evidence that World Vision intentionally sought to circumvent U.S. sanctions by partnering with ISRA.”
“We also found no evidence that World Vision knew that ISRA was a sanctioned entity prior to receiving notice from Treasury,” the report adds. “However, based on the evidence presented, we conclude that World Vision had access to the appropriate public information and should have known how, but failed to, properly vet ISRA as a sub-grantee, resulting in the transfer of U.S. taxpayer dollars to an organization with an extensive history of supporting terrorist organization [sic] and terrorists, including Osama Bin Laden.”
The report calls World Vision’s system for vetting prospective sub-grantees “borderline negligent” and says the organization “ignored elementary level investigative procedures.”
World Vision spent weeks after being informed by IOM of ISRA’s sanction status investigating the claim and was unable to reach a conclusion, relying upon “what could only be described as flawed logic,” the report says.
The report accuses World Vision of attempting to eschew blame, and notes that IOM “was able to quickly vet ISRA and determine their status as a sanctioned entity.”
“Had World Vision employed the same due diligence and similar methods employed by IOM, taxpayer dollars would not have exchanged hands with an organization that is known to fund terrorist organizations,” it said.
While World Vision has instituted additional screening methods, “the Finance Committee staff has reservations” about its ability to avoid similar situations in the future, the report says.
“World Vision has a duty to ensure that funds acquired from the U.S. government or donated by Americans do not end up supporting terrorist activity,” it says. “Particularly concerning to this Committee is World Vision’s attempt to shift the blame to the federal government for their own inability to properly vet a subcontractor. A more robust and fundamentally sound system of screening and vetting is needed to restore the public’s trust that contributions made to World Vision are not funding illicit organizations.”
“Moreover, although we find no reason to doubt World Vision’s assertion that the funds in their entirety were used by ISRA for humanitarian purposes, that money inevitably aids their terrorist activities,” it concludes.
World Vision said in a statement that it “takes our compliance obligations seriously and shares Sen. Grassley and the committee staff’s objective for good stewardship.”
“We appreciate the acknowledgement that the committee staff’s report to the chairman ‘found no evidence that World Vision knew that ISRA was a sanctioned entity prior to receiving notice from Treasury,’” it added. “Terrorism runs counter to everything World Vision stands for as an organization and we strongly condemn any act of terrorism or support for such activities.”
by Brittany Bernstein