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USAID Food Support Went to Syrian Al-Qaeda

The USAID Inspector General (OIG) has found that food aid intended for starving civilians in northern Syria was instead diverted by a USAID contractor -- Catholic Relief Services -- to a group identified by the U.S. government as a front for Syrian al-Qaeda.

That food aid was part of a now-suspended $30 million USAID contract for Syria awarded to Catholic Relief Services.

The OIG mentioned the revelation in its most recent quarterly report to Congress on anti-ISIS operations covering April to June 2018. This was first reported today by Ben Parker of IRIN News.

According to the OIG, ongoing conflict around Idlib in northern Syria has created a situation enabling aid to be diverted to militants:

[The] USAID/OIG investigation found that employees of a U.S.-based NGO knowingly diverted USAID-funded food kits to the militant organization Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has been designated by the DoS as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The NGO’s employees allowed HTS fighters to be included among program beneficiaries in Idlib province and submitted falsified beneficiary lists to USAID to conceal the fighters’ participation in the food assistance program.

IRIN News has identified the USAID contractor as Catholic Relief Services. The group has $46.5 million in U.S. government contracts in FY2018. The USAID website identifies Catholic Relief Services as its eighth largest partner in Syria.

The State Department, the sponsor of USAID, designated HTS a terror organization in May 2018:

In January 2017, al-Nusrah Front launched the creation of HTS as a vehicle to advance its position in the Syrian uprising and to further its own goals as an al-Qa’ida affiliate. Since January 2017, the group has continued to operate through HTS in pursuit of these objectives.

The OIG Investigations Dashboard for the most recent period adds further information about the breach, noting that the staff involved have been fired and that the food aid program was suspended in February 2018:

27 Individuals Fired After OIG Investigation Uncovered Diversion of USAID Commodities to a Designated Terrorist Organization

From March to May 2018, a USAID-funded NGO terminated the employment of 27 individuals after an ongoing OIG investigation found that the NGO’s employees in Syria participated in a scheme in which USAID-funded food kits were diverted to a designated terrorist organization called Hay’at Tahrir AlSham (HTS) that operates in northern Syria. HTS is an offshoot of the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra.

The employees allowed HTS fighters to be included among program beneficiaries and submitted falsified beneficiary lists to USAID to conceal the fighters’ participation in the food assistance program. USAID previously suspended the $44.6 million dollar program in February 2018 as a result of the investigation’s findings.

This is not the first time USAID supplies have fallen into the hands of terrorists in Syria.