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The Syria Twitter Financiers Post-Sanctions
By Asher Berman
A new type of financier supporting Islamist armed groups emerged during the initial years of the Syrian conflict. These Gulf-based financiers openly advertised their activities on social media, using the medium to attract donations from across the Gulf. In some cases, they publicly documented their successive trips to Syria and meetings with prominent Islamist rebel leaders, which made them celebrities in the Islamist Twitter scene. One particularly prominent network of financiers was associated with the Umma Party, a Salafist opposition movement that was started in Kuwait in 2008 and spread to other Gulf countries during the Arab Spring. Other financiers worked independently or banded together to form joint fundraising campaigns.
The international community moved slowly to neutralize these financiers, but in August 2014, the US government sanctioned two of the most prominent individuals, Hajaj al-Ajmi and Shafi al-Ajmi of Kuwait.i The UN also sanctioned Hajaj and Shafi, and Kuwait, through which most of the money was being funneled, passed laws designed to end the use of Kuwait as a weigh station for money moving to terrorist groups abroad.ii,iii,iv The financiers, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, have greatly curtailed their activities since August 2014 and have seen their celebrity diminished. Those who are still active use social media to fundraise for humanitarian projects in Syria and are no longer publicly supporting armed groups. The one exception is ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini, who is unique in that he left the Gulf and lives inside Syria fulltime. Although the sanctions announced in August 2014 did not target all of the individuals publicly fundraising for Islamist armed groups in Syria, it did create a new environment in the Gulf in which these activities are no longer being tolerated and seem to have stopped. The one exception, al-Muheisini, lives in Syria and is therefore not subject to the same governmental pressures as Gulf-based financiers.
Hajaj al-Ajmi: Hajaj al-Ajmi was a relative unknown prior to the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, but he skillfully used social media to attract attention by documenting his successive trips to Syria, and quickly became well known in the Middle East. After the US announced sanctions targeting Hajaj, Twitter shutdown his account. Hajaj quickly created a new account and a hashtag was circulate called “#Campaign_for_a_million_followers_for_Hajaj_al-Ajmi” which helped him regain roughly 100,000 followers of the nearly 500,000 that he had pre-sanctions.v Hajaj, still an active social media user, seems to feel that the sanctions are unfair, recently complaining on Twitter that members of the Kuwaiti parliament continue to support the al-Assad regime without consequence, while he was sanctioned and can no longer engage in normal business activities.vi Hajaj appears to be struggling to adapt to life under sanctions. He told an interviewer that he is trying to work in the perfume business but cannot get the government to register a car or business in his name.vii His contacts in Qatar reportedly invited him to work with them, for which Hajaj expressed his appreciation on Twitter, but regretfully declined the offer due to an ongoing travel ban.viii
Although Hajaj was sanctioned by the US and the UN, sanctions did not target the charity that he ran and utilized to fundraise for armed groups in Syria, al-Haiah al-Sh’abiyah l-D’am al-Thawrah al-Suriyah (The Popular Commission to Support the Syrian Revolution), nor his partner in running the charity, Umma Party member Irshid al-Harji. The charity remains operational under al-Hajri’s leadership, but has changed its name to al-Haiah Zakat al-Sh’abiyah (The Popular Charity Commission).ix,x Despite the name change, the charity is using the same logo, Twitter account, and directs donors to the same address in Kuwait’s Aqilah neighborhood as prior to August 2014.xi,xii The organization now focuses on distributing relief in Syria, and recently delivered supplies to Syrians in Idlib and Lattakia Provinces in cooperation with the Umma Party’s Istanbul office.xiii
Muhamed al-Mufrih: Muhamed al-Mufrih was a Saudi-Arabian financier and head of the Saudi branch of the Umma Party, which formed in 2011 at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Saudi authorities, who do not permit organized opposition movements, quickly arrested the Umma Party leadership, but al-Mufrih was able to flee the country, surfacing in Istanbul. During the Syrian revolution al-Mufrih appears to have played an important role in the constellation of Umma Party-associated financiers, accompanying Hajaj al-Ajmi on trips inside Syria and dedicating an Umma Brigade training camp in honor of a United Arab Emirates Umma Party leader who was killed while fighting with Ahrar al-Sham.xiv,xv
Al-Mufrih died in December 2014 following a sudden and mysterious illness. Hakim al-Matiri, founder of the Umma Party, characterized al-Mufrih’s death as an assassination-by-poisoning, which was understood as an accusation aimed at the Saudi Arabian government.xvi The possibility of al-Mufrih getting assassinated was on the minds of the Ummah party leadership prior to his death in December 2014 due to assaults targeting al-Mufrih that occurred earlier in 2014 in Istanbul. The Umma Party responded to the preceding assaults by publishing a public letter to Turkish officials in May 2014 calling on the Turkish state to protect al-Mufrih from assassination.xvii
Al-Matiri’s eulogy for al-Mufrih provided greater detail on al-Mufrih’s role in financing Islamist groups in Syria. Al-Matiri cited al-Mufrih’s early involvement in the Syrian revolution, praising him for working with Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari in 2011 to support Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist armed group that operates alongside al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusrah, while it was in its formative stages. Al-Qatari was a veteran of the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s and was known for being close with Jabhat al-Nusrah. He founded and led Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadist group based in Idlib Province, until he was captured and killed in 2014 by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.xviii Al-Matiri also said that al-Mufrih stayed in Syria throughout 2012, spending parts of that year with the Umma Brigade.xix
Shafi al-Ajmi: Shafi al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti financier not associated with the Umma Party, raised money with a group of prominent sheikhs including television personality Nabil al-Awadi before being sanctioned in August 2014. These sheikhs operated through the Ithad Hamlat al-Kuwait (Union of Kuwaiti Campaigns), which appeared to stop functioning after Shafi was sanctioned. Shafi’s Twitter account was also suspended, though he established a new account and promptly used it to insult Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen, declaring that if Jesus appeared before Cohen, Cohen would accuse him of terrorism.xx Shafi has also been highly critical of ISIS, claiming that its mission is to destroy the Syrian revolution.xxi
Shafi became a highly controversial figure in Kuwait in 2013 when he declared his desire to personally kill Hezbollah members at a protest in front of the Lebanese embassy.xxii This was particularly problematic in Kuwait, which has a large Shi’a minority, and the government responded by forcing a television program starring Shafi off the air. After the sanctions were announced, Shafi’s opponents used the opportunity to attack him further and in January 2015, the Kuwaiti Interior Minister publicly called on the Minister of Education to remove Shafi from Kuwait University where he worked as a lecturer.xxiii It is not clear if he was in fact separated from the university.
Abdulman’a al-Ajmi: Abdulman’a was part of the Majlis al-Da’amin lal-Thawrah al-Suri (The Council of the Supporters of the Syrian Revolution), a collection of Kuwaiti sheikhs and political figures that fundraised for relief projects in Syria.xxiv Abdulman’a, apparently operating independently from the Majlis al-Da’amin, financially supported armed groups on the less extreme end of the spectrum.xxv Although the Majlis al-Da’amin appeared to end its work around August 2014, Abdulman’a is still sending relief to Syria under his own name,xxvi though he seems to have ended his public work with Syrian armed groups. Abdulman’a is also active internationally, carrying out humanitarian and Da’wah projects in places like Darfur, and Togo.xxvii,xxviii
‘Abdullah al-Moheisini: Al-Moheisini is a unique case in that he is still using social media to fundraise for armed groups post-sanctions. Al-Moheisini, A Saudi national, began living in Syria fulltime in 2013, allowing him to operate beyond the reach of the Gulf monarchies. Al-Moheisini continues to call for donations in tweets with hashtags like “Revenge_for_Duma,” (Duma is a suburb of Damascus that has been bombed extensively), and directs potential donors to Turkish phone numbers.xxix,xxx Al-Moheisini is more than just a financier, however. As a Salafi-Jihadist Sheikh not officially associated with any particular armed group, he has been able to position himself as an important mediator between Salafist armed groups.
The imposition of sanctions against two financiers who were advertising their work on social media seems to have effectively ended public financial support of Syrian armed groups by Gulf-based financiers. Although some of the non-sanctioned financiers remain publicly active in humanitarian efforts in Syria, the era of Gulf residents explicitly fundraising for Islamist armed groups on social media appears to be over. Al-Moheisini is an exception, although his decision to take up residence in Syria appears to be a key factor in allowing him to continue publicly fundraising for armed groups on Twitter. Although this one method of fundraising appears to have stopped, quiet financial support outside the control of states is likely still flowing from the Gulf to Islamist armed groups in Syria, although in smaller amounts than prior to the August 2014 sanctions.
Asher Berman is a Middle East analyst based in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @asher_berman. The above article was based exclusively on open-source research.
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iiUN.org, QDi.338. Shafi Sultan Mohammed al-Ajmi, 23 September 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQDi338E.shtml
iii UN.org, QDI.328 Hajjaj Bin Fahd Al Ajmi, 15 August 2014, http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQDi328E.shtml
iv The National, Kuwait Faces Challenge in Curbing Terror Financing, 18 October 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/world/kuwait/kuwait-faces-challenge-in-curbing-terror-financing
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