World

How Violent Extremists Hijacked London-Based 'Counter-Extremism' Think Tank

The Quilliam Foundation has been incubated by far-right white supremacists and Islamist terrorist financiers.

Corporate records reveal that the Quilliam Foundation, an influential independent London-based "counter-extremism" think-tank, has received nearly a million dollars from a US political network with close links to the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party since 2011. The network, which includes former Bush administration officials behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, overlaps with far-right anti-Muslim leaders who inspired Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik.

Quilliam was founded in 2008 by former members of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, receiving 2.7 million pounds of British government funding until 2011. The think-tank has been a major player in developing the government’s counter-terror strategies, especially the focus on "non-violent extremism." Its ideas are increasingly migrating to the US, through the provision of counter-terrorism training for US government security officials, and most recently via the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.

Yet the Quilliam Foundation’s own filings with the US Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service show that its current and former US-based directors are connected to powerful financial and political entities in authoritarian regimes, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, including a bank founded by one of Osama bin Laden’s "Golden Chain" al-Qaeda financiers.

Maajid Nawaz

Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz is currently a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrat party, part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling coalition government. He has styled himself as a liberal reformer, a "destroyer" of the “English far-right,” a fighter against Islamism, a champion of free speech and gay rights, an opponent of neoconservative extremism in the form of the Iraq War, torture and extraordinary rendition, and a vocal critic of mass spying. Yet in reality, Nawaz’s closest benefactors are deeply involved in all of these.

Corporate records in the US confirm that the Quilliam Foundation, currently led by founding director Maajid Nawaz, was formally incorporated in the United States as a tax-exempt charity in 2011, the same year the organization lost its funding from the British Home Office.

Official documents filed with IRS show that Nawaz had appointed former Bush administration counter-terrorism official, Chad Sweet, to his US board of directors for two years from 2011. Sweet served as chief of staff in the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under Secretary Michael Chertoff. He was previously a CIA official in the Directorate of Operations, vice president at Goldman Sachs and a senior investment banker at Morgan Stanley.

Under Chertoff and Sweet, the US Homeland Security Department intensified indiscriminate mass surveillance against peaceful activist and protest groups in the name of the "war on terror."

Sweet is currently on the advisory board for the FBI’s InfraGard, a controversial partnership between DHS, the FBI and private corporations, which facilitates domestic spying on behalf of corporate interests. The American Civil Liberties Union has been deeply critical of the FBI program’s erosion of legitimate free speech and political dissent.

Quilliam Director: Campaign Chief for Neocon Wingnut

In January 2011, the same year Nawaz appointed Chad Sweet to the Quilliam Foundation’s US board of directors, Sweet set up a nonprofit corporation in Texas, Ted Cruz for Senate, where he remains a director. In that capacity, Sweet played a lead role in the campaign that led Republican maverick Ted Cruz to win election to the Senate in 2012.

Senator Ted Cruz is currently running for president, and Sweet is his campaign chairman. He has personally donated to Cruz’s past and present campaigns. Sweet has also been director of Texans for Ted Cruz for the last six years, another nonprofit corporation involved in Cruz’s political campaigning.

Ted Cruz represents the very far-right of the Republican spectrum, and is close to the most bigoted elements of the Tea Party movement.

As Middle East expert Prof. Juan Cole observes, Cruz has “called for six or seven strong US interventions abroad, whether in the form of invasions, air strikes, or covert coups d’etat” and “economics wars” against Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, and the Palestinian Authority, at the least. He is also a climate denier who has received more than $1 million from the oil and gas industry since 2011.

White Supremacism

Apart from touting war and shilling for Big Oil, Chad Sweet’s political hero is an unabashed white supremacist sympathizer. In late 2013, at the Heritage Foundation, the Texas senator declared his life-long admiration for the late senator Jesse Helms, a bigot who advocated continued racial segregation, rejected the Civil Rights Act as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced,” dismissed the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as “the University of Negroes and Communists,” and described gay people as “weak, morally sick wretches.”

“We need 100 more like Jesse Helms,” Cruz told his audience at the Heritage Foundation.

Cruz’s campaign manager, Sweet, is co-chair of the Heritage Foundation’s National Security Law Working Group.

In the same year, Cruz participated in a US Senate forum hosted by Tea Party leader James Ives, who as late as 2003 was director of propaganda for a small political group called the American Fascist Party.

The Tea Party itself has little-known roots in fascist ideology going back to direct links between Tea party funder Charles Koch, the Holocaust-denial industry, and mainstream conservative think-tanks like the CATO Institute, which today loudly support Ted Cruz’s political campaign.

Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Just one week into his presidential campaign, Senator Cruz spoke alongside far-right activist Robert Spencer, the notorious anti-Muslim hatemonger who was banned by the British government as an extremist. Cruz shared a platform with Spencer at the New England Freedom Conference organized by Young America’s Foundation (YAF), which has also hosted Dick Cheney and notorious anti-Muslim bigots David Horowitz and Ann Coulter.

Robert Spencer along with Pam Geller is a co-founding coordinator of the Stop Islamization of America campaign, which includes Tommy Robinson, founder and ex-leader of the far-right English Defence League (EDL), on its international organizing committee. A 2011 report by the Center for American Progress found that Spencer and his website Jihad Watch had been cited 162 times in the manifesto of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in 2011.

Among YAF’s goals are combating “affirmative action” and “feminism.” Two YAF board members, Rob Robinson and James B. Taylor, who hold a range of leadership positions at the center of mainstream conservative infrastructure, sit on the board of America’s PAC, which raised money for a white supremacist group. As late as 2007, Taylor was also vice president of the National Policy Institute, described by Marilyn Mao of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism as a “white supremacist think tank.”

In 2011, YAF merged with another conservative group, Young Americans for Freedom, which hosted an event in 2007 that platformed Holocaust-denier and white supremacist Nick Griffin, chairman of the far-right British National Party (BNP).

Senator Ted Cruz has spoken alongside Robert Spencer many other times. In May 2013, then again in November that year, Cruz shared platforms with Spencer at David Horowitz’s Texas Weekend and Restoration Weekend. The latter event also featured white supremacist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose recent calls for depopulating Europe of its Muslim and ethnic minority residents were widely condemned as racist across the Dutch political spectrum.

Earlier this year, on behalf of Quilliam, Usama Hasan signed a Gatestone Institute statement demanding a “critical reinterpretation” of Islamic scripture. Gatestone is another neocon think-tank that has platformed Wilders and promoted his calls for forced Muslim depopulation. Gatestone also hosts racist posts by the blogger Fjordman, whose writings inspired Anders Breivik. The organization is chaired by the militant former Bush official John Bolton, and is part of a trans-Atlantic anti-Muslim hate network funded by the neocon philanthropist Nina Rosenwald.

Homophobia

In 2012, under then-Quilliam director Chad Sweet’s campaign direction, Cruz criticized a Republican primary opponent for attending a gay pride parade. Last year, Cruz defended Phil Robertson, star of US reality TV show ‘Duck Dynasty,’ for anti-gay comments he made in an interview with GQ magazine in which he compared gays to “drunks,” “terrorists,” “prostitutes” and people who engage in “bestiality.”

In March this year, Cruz reiterated to an interviewer his pledge to introduce a constitutional amendment that would, effectively, allow states to ban gay marriage. Gay marriage, he said, “is a real danger to our liberty.”

Maajid Nawaz and Quilliam managing director Haras Rafiq did not respond to multiple requests for comment as to why a Quilliam director would manage the campaign of a far-right Republican bigot who opposes everything Nawaz claims to stand for.

Bush’s Intel Team

Corporate filings show that the Quilliam Foundation is registered to the same address as Gen Next Inc. in Newport Beach, California. The director and “principal officer” of Quilliam’s US-based charitable company responsible for the company filings is Michael P. Davidson, who is also CEO of Gen Next.

Davidson is a former political director of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, and in 2006 was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as co-chairman on the Schwarzenegger campaign’s Statewide Leadership Committee.

According to IRS corporate filings, Quilliam’s US arm has received an annual grant of approximately $265,000 under the patronage of Gen Next Inc., which is transferred electronically to “grant recipients” in Europe to “help fight counter-extremism.” Up to the end of 2013, Quilliam’s patronage by Gen Next had provided the London think-tank with $813,000.

Gen Next is an “invitation-only organization of successful individuals” consisting of a “national network of Members,” which describes its mission as “tackling the greatest generational challenges of our times.” Although Gen Next positions itself as a bipartisan network, its key members—which include politicians, corporate executives and entrepreneurs—are closely aligned with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.

Quilliam corporate filings show that in 2011, the three directors of the US company apart from Gen Next’s Michael Davidson included Chad Sweet and Ed Husain, who had originally founded the Quilliam Foundation with Nawaz.

Husain officially left his position as a Quilliam director in September 2010 to join the Council on Foreign Relations as a senior fellow. The documents show that he remained a director of Quilliam’s US company until the end of 2011.

After his stint at the Bush administration, Sweet co-founded the Chertoff Group, a global advisory firm and investment bank specialising in the defence and security sectors, chaired by Michael Chertoff. Chertoff is on the board of international patrons of the Henry Jackson Society, another neoconservative think-tank based in London. Among HJS’ directors is Douglas Murray, who has lamented that “white British people” are “losing their country” to foreigners, as well as to “the startling rise in Muslim infants.”

The Chertoff Group’s advisory board includes several senior US, British and European former government and intelligence officials, including Sir John Scarlett, who was MI6 chief from 2004 to 2009, and Michael Hayden, CIA director from 2005 to 2009 and director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005.

Sweet’s leading role in the Cruz campaign throughout his directorship of Quilliam reveals the alarming extent to which senior US government, intelligence and counter-terrorism officials sympathetic to neocon ideology overlap with far-right extremist networks.

Co-opting 'Former Extremists’

In September 2009, under Sweet’s tenure, the US Homeland Security Department contracted the Quilliam Foundation to deliver its Radicalization Awareness Program (RAP) training to staff in Washington DC. Maajid Nawaz and Ghaffar Hussein, then Quilliam’s Head of Outreach and Training, delivered the training.

Two months later, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London published a feasibility study based on research contributions by Quilliam’s Ghaffar Hussain and Talal Rajab, regarding the creation of a European network of “former extremists.” The project was sponsored by the US State Department.

One of the government officials involved was Jared Cohen, then on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff under Condoleeza Rice and later Hillary Clinton. Cohen was also thanked by Maajid Nawaz in his memoir, Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening (2012), as an early supporter. The following year in October, Quilliam formally announced the launch of its North American training and consultancy service. The announcement stated that Quilliam’s RAP training had also been delivered to the US Department of Justice. That month, Jared Cohen became director of Google Ideas.

In this period, Quilliam’s training chief, Ghaffar Hussain, was also an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where Chad Sweet’s boss Michael Chertoff is a patron.

Co-opting Liberal Activists

Gen Next members and keynote speakers have included senior Bush administration officials such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. 

Gen Next Equity PACs mobilize every election cycle to raise funds almost exclusively for Republican political candidates in the House and Senate. 

The Gen Next Foundation, Gen Next’s “venture philanthropy” fund, was behind the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) summits from 2008 to 2010, which brought together civil society campaigners from around the world. Maajid Nawaz attended the first summit in New York City on behalf of the Quilliam Foundation as an "observer." Funded by the US State Department, AYM’s primary aim was to co-opt Internet-based "pro-democracy activists" in "closed societies" considered problematic for US interests (like Venezuela), into what Julian Assange described as “the US foreign relations patronage network.”

The project rebranded to become Movements.org, before merging with the NGO, ‘Advancing Human Rights’ (AHR). The latter was set-up by Human Rights Watch (HRW) founder Robert Bernstein, who resigned from HRW because he believed it should not investigate human rights abuses by US, Israel and other “democracies.” AHR’s board includes Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan in 2003, and a Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee official from 2001 to 2006 with responsibility for Iraq who had served as a captain in the first Gulf War.

Movements.org is still funded by Gen Next, as well as other sponsors including Edelman, a PR firm representing defence and energy companies like General Electric, Boeing and Shell.

Rehabilitating White Supremacism

In 2011, the year Quilliam became incorporated in the US under the patronage of Gen Next, the latter and Google Ideas co-sponsored the Summit Against Violent Extremism, where they seeded the State Department-backed proposal for a former extremism network. In May that year, Gen Next hosted an off-the-record meeting with Chad Sweet on Islamist terrorism and security issues. Both Sweet and Gen Next CEO Davidson had just joined Quilliam’s US board of directors early that year.

In April 2012, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Google Ideas and Gen Next launched ‘Against Violent Extremism’ (AVE), an online platform for “former extremists.” Among those showcased on the platform were Maajid Nawaz and Quilliam senior researcher Usama Hasan.

AVE later received funding from the European Union. In 2014, the European Commission recommended all EU Member States to establish new "exit" programs, based on using former extremists to deradicalize members of extremist groups.

According to a report by the Institute for Race Relations’ European Research Programme, though, previous such European deradicalization programs using former extremists “lack transparency and accountability,” tend to “promote white victimhood,” and “routinely fail to acknowledge racism.” Yet such “past failures… have been airbrushed out of official evaluations.”

In late 2013, Maajid Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation claimed to have deradicalized British far-right activist Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and facilitated his departure from the racist hate group, the English Defence League. In 2011, under Robinson’s leadership, the EDL issued the following public statement on its Facebook page: “In the last 66 years we as a nation, as a race have had our national identity stolen from us… And unless we find our backbone and stand up to the ones who are committing crimes against the English people we shall continue to be subjected to slavery by a British elite aided by outside influences whose only intention is to destroy us from within and wipe us out as a race.”

Despite his Quilliam-brokered departure from EDL, Robinson has not acknowledged, let alone renounced, such racist views. But his recent role in outing former Tory candidate Afzal Amin proves that the former EDL leader remains deeply connected to the EDL. Robinson admits to having arranged multiple meetings with new EDL leader Steve Eddowes, whom he calls “a standup guy.”

Last month, in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Robinson said: “I’ve been physically attacked by Muslims on the street and never had any security… It’s going to kick off ... a civil war. When that kicks off, it’s… going to be where I live, it’s our people that are getting attacked on the street.” Robinson is “clearly still loyal” to the EDL, observed the Chronicle.

Banks, Tyrants and Terrorists

Chad Sweet remained a Quilliam director through 2012, while Ed Husain was replaced as a director that year by Darren Henderson. Henderson is a longtime Gen Next “exclusive executive member” and donor who since 2008 has been at Merrill Lynch, first as an investment advisor in the Private Banking and Investment Group, and now as First Vice President for Investments. Previously, he worked for nine years at Goldman Sach’s Private Wealth Management Division.

In 2013, Chad Sweet was replaced by Courtney La Bau as a Quilliam director. La Bau, another senior Gen Next member, is Vice President for International Investments at Borak Capital Holdings, an Egyptian venture capital firm based in Cairo, with ties to the Mubarak regime as well as to al-Qaeda finance networks in Saudi Arabia. Borak Capital invests in property, technology and media, and is closely connected to Egypt’s wider banking and securities trading sectors.

During Egypt’s May 2014 elections, La Bau was a member of a US observer delegation that produced a commendably critical report on the repressive election environment. Despite that, she remains director of a pro-Sisi financial firm.

Borak’s founding chairman, Ayman Kandeel, has vehemently supported General El-Sisi’s violent crackdown on unarmed Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt, whom he describes as “terrorists.” He was also close to the previous US-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak, holding a post of Economic Adviser to Mubarak’s Minister of Industry in the late 1990s.

Mubarak, whose repression was subsidised by US aid throughout his near 30-year reign, was deposed in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, which were followed by democratic elections that brought Morsi’s Brotherhood to power. Following unabated anti-Morsi protests, the Brotherhood government was forcibly removed in a military coup led by General El-Sisi. Deeply compromised elections landed Sisi the presidency, under which the Egyptian military has committed unprecedented violence against Brotherhood protestors, exemplified in the pre-meditated massacre of 817 civilians at Raba’a.

Borak Capital’s partner firm in Los Angeles, California, is Pi Capital. Borak chairman Kandeel is also co-founder and CEO of Pi Capital, where La Bau was a senior financial analyst. Pi Capital in turn operates in partnership with al-Rajhi Bank based in Saudi Arabia, the country’s largest private bank, an arrangement brokered by Kandeel himself.

In 2003, al-Rajhi bank was described by the CIA as a “conduit for extremist finance.” According to US intelligence, its founder, Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz, was a member of Osama bin Laden’s ‘Golden Chain’ of al-Qaeda financiers. A 2012 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report confirmed that “al-Rajhi Bank and its owners” are “associated with terrorist financing,” and criticized its longstanding relationship with HSBC. The bank is also known for financial services to one of the 9/11 hijackers.

La Bau could not be reached for comment. Multiple requests for comment to Nawaz, Quilliam director Haras Rafiq, and Quilliam’s press office received no response.

Quilliam director and Gen Next CEO Michael Davidson spoke this year at the first White House-hosted Countering Violent Extremism Summit about how private sector philanthropy can help fight extremism. He emphasised the need for Americans to be “hypervigilant” toward the threat of “home-grown extremism.” Yet neither Nawaz nor his other directors appear to be concerned about the Quilliam Foundation’s own links to Islamist extremist finance networks in Saudi Arabia. 

As of the end of 2014, Michael Davidson, Darren Henderson and Courtney La Bau were all listed as “US advisors” on the Quilliam website. That webpage has since been removed.

Iran War Lobby

Nawaz’s financial benefactors are embedded in a right-wing neocon network lobbying for a war on Iran. Quilliam’s main nonprofit corporate patron in the US, Gen Next, is founded by Paul Makarechian, CEO and president of Makar Properties. Makarechian’s father, Hadi, who is chairman of Makar Properties, is an Iranian-born billionaire who escaped to the US in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Makar Properties is a subsidiary of Capital Pacific Holdings, founded by Hadi Makarechian, which was the 65th largest homebuilder in the US in 2009.

Quilliam and Gen Next both share their registered US office address with the Makarechians’ Capital Pacific headquarters. The Makarechians are among the Republican Party’s regular major donors. Throughout recent years, reported the Daily Californian, “Makarechian has personally donated to the Bush, Romney and McCain campaigns as well as to the California Republican Party at large.”

Since 2003, Hadi Makarechian had contributed over $314,000 to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and nearly $175,000 to ballot measures backed by the Republican governor.

He was among the top 50 donors to Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign, and served as national campaign finance co-chair for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. He also hosted a $1 million fundraiser for Romney, a rabid cheerleader for unconstitutional war on Iran, at a luxury resort developed by Makar.

Hadi Makarechian received ample rewards for services rendered. In 2010, state records revealed that he was one of the investors to whom the Schwarzenegger administration had decided to sell $2.3 billion worth of Californian state office buildings. Schwarzenegger had also appointed Makarechian to the University of California Board of Regents.

Before the Iranian revolution, Hadi Makarechian had been a key member of the predatory elite class under the repressive regime of the US-backed Shah of Iran, condemned at the time by Amnesty International for having the world’s worst human rights record.

The Shah of Iran was forcibly installed by the CIA and MI6 in a brutal military coup displacing the democratically elected government of Muhammed Musaddeq. That covert operation was launched after Musaddeq nationalised Iran’s domestic oil industry, previously controlled by British Petroleum. Life for average Iranians under the Shah was intolerable. With US and British financial and military support, the Shah of Iran oversaw a brutal police-state benefiting a tiny minority of powerful Iranians like Hadi Makarechian.

“I had no concept of financial insecurity or want,” boasted Makarechian, describing his life in the Shah’s Iran. “In terms of wealth and lifestyle, our lives were regal in a way that is difficult for native-born Americans to really understand.” At this time, the Makarechian family was deeply involved in supporting the Shah’s regime. They owned a real estate company “that was instrumental in carrying out the Shah of Iran’s ambitious program to build new infrastructure, military projects, and thousands of homes.” Their firm was the “largest construction [and] development company that built US military bases” in Iran.

After the 1979 revolution, the new regime under Ayatullah Khomeini’s rule blacklisted companies and individuals who had worked for the Shah’s government or the United States, including the Makarechians’ holdings. The family, fearing execution after being branded “puppets of the old regime and CIA agents,” fled to the US where they rebuilt their real estate empire.

Liberal’ for Hire

In his celebrated biography Radical, Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz thanks Chad Sweet, Michael Davidson and the "GenNext team” for being “early supporters” of his work campaigning for "liberal" Islam. Yet to date, Nawaz and his think-tank have been incubated by an intersecting network of powerful interests linked to Wall Street, autocratic regimes in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Egypt), banks implicated in Islamist terrorist financing, and neoconservative political figures who promote war, bigotry and white supremacism.

Maajid Nawaz did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Quilliam’s financial and organizational connections to such fundamentally illiberal interests.

These alarming revelations raise serious questions about Quilliam’s policy prescriptions, as well as Nawaz’s purported liberal credentials. It must be asked why Nawaz’s "counter-extremism" campaigning would fit the disparate agendas of such an appalling range of violent extremist networks in the US and the Middle East.

Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist and international security scholar. He writes the System Shift column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his former work at the Guardian. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel Zero Point, among other books. 

 

Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Education
Drugs
Economy
Environment
Labor
Food
World
Politics
Investigation
Personal Health
Water
Media