Mubarak Alajji, a Qatari teacher, posted on Twitter in June that his campaign to aid Syrians caught up in the civil war had collected more than $170,000. He then went there to see how the money was used.
“Some goes to bakeries and hospitals, to operate those hospitals and pay the doctors,” he said by phone last month. “Some goes to the mujahedeen,” the Arabic word for holy warriors. “We support whoever defends Muslims.”
Alajji is among many Sunni Muslim citizens in oil-rich Gulf Arab states who are backing rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as the war splits the Middle East along sectarian lines. Kuwaiti citizens alone have raised about $150 million, said former opposition lawmaker Waleed Al-Tabtabai, who helps collect funds.
Money is pledged, raised and sent through methods including social media, bank transfers and Bitcoins, according to fundraisers and security and political analysts. It’s often sent to neighboring countries such as Turkey and funneled from there into Syria using the same routes that many fighters take.
Gulf aid is helping to counterbalance the money Assad gets from allies such as Iran and Russia, which opponents say he also uses for indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Some private funds are fueling similar violations, according to Human Rights Watch. The group last month reported a massacre of Alawite villagers in August, in which Islamist extremists, including al-Qaeda allies, killed at least 190 civilians in the Mediterranean province of Latakia.
The report traced part of the financial support for the campaign to Hajjaj al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti national, adding there was no evidence that he or the other donors were aware of the atrocities that the militants committed.
Al-Ajmi had announced on Twitter a campaign to raise funds for the Popular Committee to Support the Syrian Revolution to help “Rescue the Syrian Coast.” Potential donors were asked to use smartphone messaging technology WhatsApp and phone numbers to make pledges, and to visit an address in Ogaela, south of the capital, Kuwait City.
Al-Ajmi couldn’t be reached for comment when contacted by phone, including three numbers posted on Twitter.
Other Kuwaitis interviewed for this story denied that their fundraising aided extremists.
“We go to any length to make sure” that the money reaches the “right hands,” said Al-Tabtabai.
The flow of private money raises dilemmas for countries such as Saudi Arabia. The kingdom wants Assad defeated, and has expressed impatience with U.S.-led efforts to prevent money going to any but Western-backed groups in Syria, saying those often aren’t the most effective or organized.
Yet it’s also been stung by experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, when private money helped train extremists abroad, only to have the jihadists return and wreak havoc at home.
As a result, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to restrict financial aid to official channels to keep Islamists at home in check.
With state-linked charities, “there is no possibility of leakage,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, a London-based political and economic research firm, said in a phone interview on Nov. 6.
Still, once the money leaves the Gulf, there’s little that officials can do to stop it seeping into Syria, where two years of war have made the borders with Turkey and Lebanon harder to control.
At Hatay Airport, in the Turkish province that borders Syria, there were no international flights before the start of the civil war. Now there are several weekly arrivals from Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
“We’ve been told by locals here that rich businessmen or clerics from the Gulf countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were coming and handing out cash in bags to charities to purchase humanitarian aid and send it across the border,” Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, said by phone from the border area on Nov. 12. “The same method applies to financial aid for rebels as well.”
In Kuwait, where there’s a Shiite minority, the government “seems to want to ensure that it’s allowing people to vent their anger outside of the country through means like funding,” Nuseibeh said. In the case of private charities, tracking where the money ends up is a “more difficult task because you have to control the upstream and the downstream,” he said.
The Kuwaiti government says it’s doing what it can.
While there are no specific limits on private transfers, “we are signatories to money-laundering and terrorist-financing treaties, and we apply that” in all ways, said Sheikh Mohammad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah, the state minister for cabinet affairs, in a phone interview.
Asked about Gulf money arriving in Syria, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Nov. 13 that the U.S. is stressing the need for Kuwait to have a “robust anti-money-laundering/counter-terrorism financing regime.”
Rules are also more relaxed in Qatar, according to analysts and fundraisers.
“Things are good here in Qatar,” said Alajji, who also promotes funding for the Free Syrian Army and charities through Twitter, when asked if authorities were restricting his efforts to aid Syrians. He declined to disclose the total amount of money he helped raise since the conflict began.
“The state of Qatar stands by all the people affected by catastrophes,” he said.
Qatar, among the main backers of anti-Assad groups, gave the Syrian National Coalition control over Assad’s embassy in Doha, and people openly display the green-and-black flag of the opposition group on their cars. Billboards in the capital solicit non-lethal aid for Syria with images of crying children. Donations are also collected in shopping malls.
Qatar’s foreign ministry referred requests for comment to the state-run Qatar News Agency, which didn’t respond to e-mailed questions.
Along with face-to-face campaigns and bank transfers, fundraisers are increasingly relying on social media websites to collect money.
“One new group of enterprising Jihadi fundraisers even is now trying to use Bitcoins because of its anonymity and wide availability,” said Evan Kohlmann, a senior partner at Flashpoint Partners in New York, referring to the virtual currency that’s designed to be untraceable. Flashpoint offers government agencies and other clients services including analyzing cyber-threats.
Kuwait’s Al-Tabtabai defended the principle of sending money to arm the rebels and not just humanitarian aid, saying support from governments isn’t enough to fight Assad’s military.
“Do we feed them and treat them just for the regime to go in and kill them?” said Al-Tabtabai, a professor of Islamic law at Kuwait University, who has visited Syria and met with opposition groups. “They have the right to defend themselves.”
Faten Ahmed, a 43-year-old Kuwaiti civil servant who donates through local charities, acknowledges that there are risks involved in donation, and says they’re worth taking.
“There is a chance that the money will be displaced but there is no alternative,” she said in an interview. “There is always some sort of a gamble. But if you let that control your thinking, you’ll do nothing.”