The newly elected chair of a powerful committee in the U.S. House of Representatives has taken the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to task for failing to conduct proper oversight of a recipient of taxpayer dollars. The challenge to USAID was based on information uncovered by Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) last year.
U.S. Rep. Michael T. McCaul, (R-Texas) chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee (HFAC), called on USAID to suspend a $110,000 grant to Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD) to allow for an investigation of its affiliations with designated terrorist organizations operating in South Asia, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for a 2008 terror attack in Mumbai which resulted in the deaths of 166 people. Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum’s Islamist Watch, broke the news of USAID’s grant to HHRD in a story published by FWI in May 2022.
In a January 24 letter to USAID Administrator Samantha Power, McCaul complained that the agency failed to respond to repeated requests for information about the October 2021 grant to HHRD. The grant was ostensibly intended to cover the cost of transporting humanitarian goods to communities receiving assistance from HHRD. The organization focuses much of its work on South Asia, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh, where numerous terrorist organizations are headquartered.
Members of Congress requested information about HHRD’s alleged ties to terrorist organizations in South Asia in November 2021. Staffers working for the HFAC made another request for information in May 2022 and yet again in November 2022 without any response until early this year.
“When USAID finally briefed the Committee on January 11, 2023,” McCaul wrote, “it was clear that the agency had failed to take any action to investigate the allegations or suspend the award, despite having been provided detailed information by congressional staff months prior. Shockingly, one of the subject-matter experts in the briefing acknowledged that he had only been made aware of the matter the week before.”
HHRD’s ties to terror organizations in South Asia were first documented by the Middle East Forum’s Sam Westrop in late 2017. Writing in National Review, Westrop reported that HHRD organized a conference at a government-run college in the Pakistani city of Timergara that was also sponsored by the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation and the Milli Muslim League, the charitable and political wings of the Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
HHRD is an offshoot of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). ICNA is described by Vali Reza Nasr, a leading Iranian-American academic at Johns Hopkins University, as one of the leading representatives of Jamaat-e-Islami, a South Asian Islamist movement involved in decades of violence and extremism. Jamaat-e-Islami was one of the chief perpetrators of the Bengali Genocide of 1971 which took place during Bangladesh’s war for independence. In 2019, U.S. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Indiana) authored a resolution warning of the threat to democracy posed by Jamaat-e-Islami and other theocratic groups in South Asia. The resolution, which got 10 co-sponsors, highlighted the mass killings and rapes perpetrated by Jamaat-e-Islami members during the Bengali Genocide.
That same year, Banks called for an investigation into ICNA and HHRD in a letter to Nathan Sales, then serving as coordinator of counterterrorism efforts for the U.S. State Department. “There is no doubt that ICNA and HHRD are part of Jamaat-e-Islami’s international network,” Banks wrote, adding that “there is significant evidence that Helping Hand for Relief and Development, under the guise of international aid, has openly worked with U.S. designated terrorist organizations in the disputed region of Kashmir.”
Cliff Smith, Washington Project Director for the Middle East Forum, said McCaul’s letter is welcome.
“HHRD, their self-declared ‘sister organization’ ICNA, and their Jamaat-e-Islami forebears and partners in South Asia, have been attempting to fight off congressional scrutiny since 2019, and to some degree, sadly, they have been successful,” he said. “Indeed, HHRD likely sought this grant to legitimize themselves and to normalize or minimize working closely with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, and having their fundraisers caught up in counter-terrorism investigations.”
The grant has increased scrutiny on HHRD’s relationships with various terrorists and extremist groups, Smith said.
“This is a significant step forward,” he said.
Neither HHRD nor USAID have responded to inquiries from FWI about McCaul’s letter.
Dexter Van Zile is Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism.