Beware the Islamist Underbelly
by Sam Westrop
April 10, 2021
Dozens of businesses and charities linked to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas have been incorporated and managed from this unassuming property on Store Street in London.
Tucked away in the east of London, Store Street is just a short walk from the enormous Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, built for London’s triumphant hosting of the 2012 Games. The squat, unremarkable home in a cul-de-sac at number 32, however, lives in a rather more dangerous world. It is from here that, for many years, dozens of businesses and charities, controlled by British representatives of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, have been incorporated and managed.
Trustees of organizations registered at the address include Mohammad Sawalha, a representative of Hamas’s political bureau; Mohammad Jamil Hersh, an Israeli-sanctioned terror activist; Zaher Birawi, a leading British Hamas representative; and Essam Mustafa, a founder of the U.S. designated terrorist-financing charity Interpal, who is described by the federal government as having “served on the Hamas executive committee under Hamas leader Khaled Misha’al.” This list barely scratches the surface.
32 Store Street and its assortment of radical proxies, it turns out, is the home of Sayam and Co, an accountancy firm apparently serving terrorist interests by hosting, managing, and keeping the books for a considerable array of extremist proxies. Ignored by the British government, it operates with impunity.
Western governments habitually turn a blind eye to the “support staff” of Islamist groups.
All across the West, in fact, governments have made a habit of turning a blind eye to the “support staff” of extremist movements and terrorist groups. The noisy front lines of Western Islamism naturally contain its most visible advocates: activists, lobbyists, spokesmen, community groups, mosques, and charities. But all these Islamist individuals and institutions — long locked in battle with ordinary Muslims for the control of Western Islam — subsist on a lesser-known underlying infrastructure.
It is in the quieter background that an industry of Islamist attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, businessmen, PACs, and private grant-making foundations, among other professionals and institutions, all diligently toil — working to advance radical agendas through (mostly) lawful means.
Tracking these support staff — including accountancy firms such as the Hamas bean counters in London — generates new understandings of how lawful extremist networks (along with their unlawful terror-finance arms) all operate. Studying the lawful Islamist underbelly helps analysts, law enforcement, and journalists understand the degree of collaboration and dependency between the sundry Islamist sects and their component factions.
In Illinois, for example, it is fascinating that one accountancy firm — C&A Financial — does the books for not just the Al Furqaan Foundation, a Qatari-regime-funded Salafi organization whose officials express violently extremist rhetoric, but also the Khalil Center, a Turkish-regime-linked project of a terror-tied activist named Halil Demir, a former official of a designated al-Qaeda financing outfit.
Similarly, there are lessons to be drawn from the fact that Sterling Management Group, in Herndon, Va., still remains the accountant of choice and the controlling voice for member organizations of the SAAR network, a web of charities and businesses accused by federal prosecutors during the 2000s of laundering money for terrorism.
Sterling Management Group CEO M. Yaqub Mirza meeting with Nancy Pelosi in 2014.
It is even more interesting that the Sterling Management Group recently prepared the tax returns of a number of lesser-known private Islamic foundations around the country, such as the Khandekar Family Foundation, whose recent 990 forms show that it has handed over tens of thousands of dollars to a variety of radical charities and social organizations, such as the radical North American Bangladeshi Islamic Community, a notorious proxy of the violent South Asian Islamist movement, Jamaat-e-Islami.
But of all the hundreds of bookkeepers of American Islamism, among the most prolific by far is Mostafa Afr and his firm, A&A Management, in Southfield, Mich. Almost 50 private Islamic grant-making foundations with Islamist ties, along with a scattering of radical charities, have specifically registered their offices to 26300 Telegraph Road — Afr’s office in Southfield — with an additional 30 Islamic foundations otherwise listing Afr as their accountant in filed tax returns.
Of the radical charities among Afr’s 80 clients, some of them are already familiar to federal officials. The FBI, for example, has stated that the Muslim American Youth Association (MAYA) “played pivotal roles in building [the Palestinian terrorist group] Hamas’s infrastructure in the United States.” The FBI claims that “MAYA served as a conduit for money to Hamas . . . and served as a forum where Hamas could promote its ideology and recruit new members.”
In 1995, Sheikh Muhammad Siyam was invited to address a MAYA conference, where, according to the New York Times, he told the crowd: “Finish off the Israelis. Kill them all. Exterminate them. No peace ever.” The last published IRS records for MAYA list its registered office as Afr’s office address.
Another prominent Islamist charity, LIFE for Relief and Development, also had its books managed by Afr. In 2006 (the last year LIFE was listed at Afr’s office), FBI agents raided LIFE’s nearby offices and its officials’ homes, uncovering close ties to Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services. One of LIFE’s officials was jailed and the charity itself was fined $780,000. Today, LIFE is just as extreme: Its current CEO, Hany Saqr, shares extremist material on social media openly backing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and denouncing Egypt’s President Sisi as “the dog of the Jews.”
Mostafa Afr relaxing in his hot tub (Facebook)
Is Afr just a hapless number cruncher who happens to get into bed with some very unsavory clients? Hardly. To start with, he is a staunch supporter of his radical clients. In a rare 2010 interview with Arab media, Afr claimed that LIFE was unfairly “subjected to great injustice and persecution.”
In that same interview, Afr warned his Arab audience that the “Zionist lobby” seeks to “exterminate Muslims in America and uproot Islam from the whole world.” The 2008 financial crisis, Afr claims, was “fabricated” to “cover the costs” of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Muslims should beware of banks offering Islamic financial products, because “most of those who own these banks . . . are Jews.”
Indeed, to combat such purported Jewish influence, Afr established his own (short-lived) Islamic bank, as well as four charter schools, all subsidized by the taxpayer. As a wealthy man, he also established his own grant-making charity, the AFR Foundation. Curiously, he has also owned several ice-hockey teams.
I emailed Mostafa Afr to ask about his comments, his partners, and his relationship with groups such as MAYA. He did not respond.
The danger of accountants such as Afr goes far beyond their personal radicalism.
The danger of accountants such as Afr goes far beyond his own personal radicalism. Over the past ten years, published tax returns of the private grant-making foundations both previously and currently linked to Afr’s accountancy firm disclose the distribution of over $20 million, across more than 3,400 grants, to over 700 organizations — with enormous amounts ending up in the pockets of radical groups. Some grantees share dozens of Afr’s clients as donors — suggesting a sustained, coordinated financial arrangement or, at the very least, a shared radical focus.
Thirty-one of Afr’s foundations, for example, handed over a total of almost $600,000 to Islamic Relief USA, a branch of the global Islamist franchise recently denounced by the U.S. State Department and a number of European governments because of its officials’ “vile anti-Semitic vitriol” and support for designated terrorists. In both Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Islamic Relief’s British headquarters is banned as a terrorist organization.
A 2012 joint event held by the Afr-linked Muslim charity Helping Hand for Relief and Development and Al Khidmat Foundation, the charitable wing of the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami.
The main U.S. proxies for the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami — Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD) and branches of its sister organization, the Islamic Circle of North America — received well over $80,000 from over a dozen Afr foundations. As first revealed in National Review, HHRD has openly collaborated with the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were murdered, including Americans.
Additional huge amounts of money are reported being given to hardline Salafi and Deobandi institutions, along with many tens of thousands of dollars to groups and charities long accused of links with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, including multiple branches of the terror-tied Council on American–Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America, and the Muslim American Society. In 2019, members of Congress called for an investigation into the Philadelphia branch of the Muslim American Society after it organized an event at which children sang about torturing and beheading Jews.
Significant amounts of the outgoing monies cannot be tracked at all. For instance, one of Afr’s clients reported the transfer of over $300,000 to a generically named “Sharia Assoc” in Egypt, with no other details offered. Meanwhile, Afr’s personal grant-making foundation reports giving significant yearly sums to an organization of which no public record exists.
Afr’s clients appear to cater to both Sunni and Shia extremists.
Afr does not appear to serve just one Islamist cause. Several of his clients, for example, appear to cater to Shia extremists. Over $400,000 has been given to the Al-Mabarrat Charity Association, the U.S. arm of a reported Lebanese charitable proxy for the terrorist group Hezbollah. Similarly, nearly $100,000 has been distributed to institutions that overtly support the Iranian regime, such as Dearborn’s Islamic House of Wisdom and the Islamic Center of America, which have long been associated with senior Iranian regime officials.
Moreover, it is noteworthy that a considerable number of the Afr network’s payments do not stop with the first grantee. Recipients often appear to pass the money on to other, equally worrying charities and organizations. The Michigan-based Foundation for Justice and Development, for instance, has received over $100,000 from Afr grant-making foundations, only to distribute its funds every year almost exclusively to Mercy Without Limits, a Kansas-based charity whose officials were senior members of Muslim Brotherhood networks, including Afr’s old client, the terror-tied Muslim Arab Youth Association.
Much of the network, it seems, is incestuous. A substantial amount of funds is passed between current and former clients of Afr, according to the grants disclosed in their 990s. But there are also close logistical links. For example, almost $50,000 from Afr clients was given to Baitulmaal, a Texas charity that unashamedly funds Hamas proxies in Gaza, and that is currently run by Mazen Mokhtar, a former Taliban fund raiser. Not only has Baitulmaal shared officials with LIFE for Relief and Development, but Baitulmaal’s founder, Hasan Hajmohammad, petitioned for naturalization using a letter of support from Afr’s Muslim Arab Youth Association.
Whether it’s the Hamas initiative at Store Street in London or the pan-Islamist facilitators at Telegraph Road in Michigan, organized, powerful Islamist fundaments continue to operate across the West. And Afr is far from the only American example.
Following 9/11, there had been, for a while, a concerted effort to destroy such networks. In the 2000s, the federal government brought vast law-enforcement investigations and ground-breaking prosecutions targeting Islamist financiers and their support staff. Some extraordinary successes, such as the 2007 Holy Land Foundation trial, served to decimate many Islamist networks across the United States.
The U.S. government has shifted focus away from terror finance and its supporting infrastructure.
But this zeal soon fizzled out. Varying degrees of political interference in the early years of the Obama administration led to a number of vitally important investigations’ being dropped, and there was a distinct shift of focus away from the problems of terror finance and its supporting infrastructure.
The Trump administration, whose record on the question of domestic Islamism was surprisingly lousy, did little to resurrect the Bush-era efforts to go after Islamist infrastructure, despite a promise by candidate Trump in 2016 that “support networks for radical Islam in this country will be stripped out and removed one by one.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration shows little interest in the subject of Islamism at all.
It is amid this current obliviousness that Islamism will flourish, and a new generation of Islamist “support staff” will rebuild the financial, logistical, and legal infrastructure that extremist movements operating across the world use to advance their agenda and influence.
We will pay a heavy price later if we do not remember what happens when Islamists are left to their own devices.
Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.