Dollars raised over the Internet are wired between private banking accounts and hand-delivered by courier, often in border towns like this city of 1.4 million, about 20 miles from the Syrian frontier, according to Middle Eastern intelligence officials who monitor the activity. Some fundraising pitches ask for specific pledges to cover the cost of a weapon, for example, or to finance an operation. For $2,400, a donor can pay for the travel, training and arming of a single non-Syrian fighter.
“You can even get a video afterward showing what it was you paid for,” said one senior intelligence official based in the region. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his country’s intelligence collection.
While radical groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have long relied on charitable giving from Persian Gulf states, the flow of private cash has enabled the extremists to retain their battlefield edge despite the loss of support from key Arab backers such as Qatar, which cut off aid to the most radical groups under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said.
The donations also have undermined Western efforts to strengthen the relative position of moderate and secularist rebel factions that are the intended recipients of U.S. weapons that began flowing into Syria last month, the officials said.
Obama administration officials say that they were working with gulf allies to shut off private cash flows but that the efforts have been complicated by the fundraisers’ under-the-radar tactics. The organizers also take advantage of lax regulations in some gulf states that allow fundraisers to set up small religious charities and canvass in mosques and other public venues, U.S. officials say.
“Much of this funding comes from private citizens in the gulf, particularly in Kuwait,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. The country, a source of financial aid for extremist groups during the Afghan and Iraq wars, “unfortunately continues to be a permissive environment for terrorist fundraising,” he said.
What is more worrisome, officials say, is a new tendency among fundraisers to seek influence over the Syrian paramilitary groups they support. Some have adopted their own rebel militias and sought to dictate everything from ideology to tactics. Officials at one gulf-based organization, which calls itself the Ummah Conference, have helped promote a campaign to recruit thousands of Muslim volunteers for Syria while openly calling for a broader struggle against secular Arab governments and what one of its leaders terms “American terrorism.”