“Help for Sisters”: A Look at Crowdfunding Campaigns with Potential Links to Terrorist and Criminal Networks

“Help for Sisters”: A Look at Crowdfunding Campaigns with Potential Links to Terrorist and Criminal Networks
11th June 2020 Audrey Alexander
Audrey Alexander
In Insights

Terrorist and violent extremist groups have long used charitable giving as a means to amass and disguise support for their causes and members. The problem persists today, though the online environment, social media, and various financial technologies afford new, easy-to-access opportunities to those willing to donate money through online campaigns. In the cases of some fundraising efforts, it can be hard to determine the authenticity of various donors and facilitators, and whether they have legitimate links to terrorist networks. Ultimately, however, the continued proliferation of crowdfunding campaigns among pro-Islamic State (IS) online networks alone suggests that the matter deserves more attention from policymakers, practitioners, and academics.

This article focuses on a handful of fundraising efforts for IS-affiliated persons held in Kurdish-run detention facilities in Northeastern Syria, particularly foreign women in camps like al-Hol. Capital raised through crowdfunding initiatives may seem inconsequential compared to other revenue schemes utilised by IS. Still, it is crucial to recognise how pop-up financial networks enabling IS-affiliates inside and outside these facilities can contribute to instability. In a recent report to Congress, the Lead Inspector General to Operation Inherent Resolve, citing the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), explained “that [IS] retains a smuggling network in the camps, bringing in supplies and moving family members in and out” of the facilities. The report continued describing dynamics, noting that “female [IS] members continued to conduct operations—such as attacks against camp security personnel—in Al Hol using funds received via wire transfers.” These activities are made possible by the movement of finances, and open-source investigations show that crowdfunding initiatives are one of the many channels through which money was collected and brought into these facilities.

The nature of crowdfunding campaigns can vary in numerous ways. A few different factors pertain to things like the platform an initiative utilises, the scale of operations, and the purpose of the fundraiser (whether real or projected). Other variants arise from a campaign’s targeted base of donors, the demographics of those receiving contributions, and the legitimacy of the campaign facilitator(s). Concerning the last point, some schemes look relatively legitimate in that they appear to act in the way they suggest they will, and there is some evidence indicating that the campaign facilitator connects donations or services with the intended recipients. Other fundraising efforts might be scams to defraud or compromise donors, though it can be difficult to confirm either way. Realistically, given that other actors within IS-affiliated financial networks have acted against the interests of those they claim to help, like smugglers for instance, at least some of the crowdfunding campaigns are likely inauthentic. Some researchers even point to examples where IS media warns supporters about the pitfalls of such fundraising efforts.

Entities within Syria appear to facilitate some fundraisers and money transfers. One campaign promoted on Telegram (“Fukku al-Asirat” [Free the Female Prisoners]) is allegedly linked to al-Qaeda supporters operating in Idlib, and reportedly raises funds to help facilitate the smuggling of women and children detained in the camps. This campaign is particularly interesting because it seems to blur boundaries between al-Qaeda affiliates and IS detainees. One scholar speculates that the initiatives’ motive for smuggling IS-linked personnel from the camps could be either monetary or serve as a way to compete with IS and win over recruits. In any case, there are other records and accounts of money transfers coming to foreign women in the detention facilities from various places in Syria, including areas in the Northwest. Ultimately, however, it is hard to discern which transfers from within the country are the product of fundraising efforts versus other methods.

Beyond the more proximal financial networks, a range of evidence suggests that there are also transnationally oriented fundraising schemes. A report to Congress citing the DIA confirms this phenomenon, noting that “residents of the camps have received financial support from external [IS] supporters outside of Syria.” Though some of these funds may come from sympathetic family members or friends who remain in contact with foreign IS affiliates, supportive crowdfunding networks also appear to play a role. To offer an example, an investigation by the Rojava Information Center, which was reviewed by The Independent, revealed a campaign launched around mid-2019 called “Justice for Sisters.” The campaign reportedly used an “intermediary in Germany” to solicit donations for women in detention facilities, namely al-Hol camp. The initiative posted content in German, English, and Arabic, relying on Telegram and PayPal to promote its effort and collect funds, making the campaign more accessible to an international audience. The administrator(s) of the “Justice for Sisters” accounts also offered some rudimentary operational guidance to donors about how they could help the campaign evade detection and avoid account shut-downs.

Over the last few months, a small cluster of interwoven accounts on Instagram appears to promote a similar, if not overlapping, series of crowdfunding campaigns to support women in detention facilities. Anecdotal observations suggest that the “Justice for Sisters” Instagram account, which posts some of the same content associated with the abovementioned “Justice for Sisters” campaign, links other players in the network. The “Justice for Sisters” account is one of most overtly pro-Islamic State accounts in the group, and other researchers have noticed and described concerning materials posted by the user. The network consists of at least five accounts that tend to promote each other’s content in their Instagram account bios, posts, comments, or stories. Altogether, they tend to post most content in German, but sometimes share text in English, Russian, and Arabic, suggesting that they have the potential to engage a wide audience. Here, they are referenced and summarised as account A, B, C, D, and E:

  • Account A is the “Justice for Sisters” Instagram account.
  • Account B is the “ummthabitx” Instagram account. The content posted by the user indicates that it is clearly pro-Islamic State and closely overlaps with some of the materials posted by account A. Furthermore, in the caption of a January 2020 post by account A described “ummthabitx” as a “sister” in Idlib that will send incoming donations to al-Hol camp.
  • Account C is the “help_for_sisters_” Instagram account, which positions itself as a charity that makes donations for “sisters in need.” In the past, the profile has posted links to several PayPal fundraisers and Telegram channels. This account also appears to have some association with an initiative called “Free Akhwat,” as it regularly posts content directing viewers to corresponding accounts and channels on Telegram.
  • Account D will not be explicitly named in this article, pending further analysis, though its role in the network is suspect. At first glance, the account looks more like a lifestyle blogger or influencer, but it promotes other players in this network with a degree of regularity in its stories. In the past, account D also shared several PayPal fundraisers that look similar to those disseminated by account C. Lastly, in addition to sharing links to a handful of Telegram channels, account D has also promoted the “Free Akhwat” initiative.
  • Account E will not be explicitly named in this article, pending further analysis. The account appears linked to a legitimate charity based in a European city, and open-source information suggests that the account administrator has a history of local and international charity work. Photos on the account indicate that the account administrator has visited camps in Syria or maintains close connections with personnel who operate within the detention facility. In a way, this account is confusing because it almost seems as though the charity or its administrator are not entirely aware of potentially problematic behavior associated with accounts A and C. As recently as 31 May 2020, the account posted that it was under scrutiny by officials and challenged allegations that the organisation has links to a terrorist organisation.

The ultimate aim of these accounts is unclear, but there is reason to be wary based on their actions. For example, accounts C and E regularly share posts that indicate that the organisations are collaborating in their efforts to provide aid and money to foreign women in al-Hol. These posts feature pictures of women, who appear to be in the camps receiving resources (usually cash), holding signs that attribute the donations to the organisations associated with the Instagram accounts C and E. It is also interesting to note that two of the four Instagram accounts (C and D) have previously provided links to two different PayPal fundraisers. However, the name of the person organising both fundraisers is the same, suggesting they may share contacts or administrators. Details on the Telegram account associated with account C also indicate that there may be ties to the administrators of account D.

Although the intricacies of this Instagram network are somewhat beyond the scope of this article, its existence, among other questionable linkages like it, indicate that crowdfunding schemes and international fundraisers can garner money.  From there, resources may trickle into Syria, and fall into the hands of enduring IS adherents. A report citing the U.S. Department of Treasury, which was released early this year, confirmed that IS was working to rebuild fundraising networks. Though crowdfunding efforts may only draw a modest amount of money, such could help members holdover to fight another day.

This article only skims the surface of how IS affiliates might benefit from crowdfunding initiatives in a fairly specific context, but this issue is not unique to IS sympathisers. Some policymakers might argue that crowdfunding platforms are responsible for preventing the abuse of their platforms, and thus, tasked with disrupting nefarious uses of their tools. This policy prescription may sound appealing, but crowdfunding and other financial technology platforms cannot realistically curb this problem in isolation. Aside from the fact that fundraisers and donors can always switch to alternative platforms, as demonstrated in research by the Rojava Information Center, the clandestine nature of the crowdfunding activities can make it hard to detect campaigns without more context. Since the information necessary to deconstruct these networks is usually embedded across multiple institutions in the private and public sectors, like technology providers, banks, and government agencies, key stakeholders must pool their resources and collaborate to create a more complete picture of the problem.