Australia’s intelligence agencies have been monitoring phone calls, freezing bank accounts and making covert home visits to warn people donating money to Syrian war victims that they suspect the funds might instead be financing terrorism.
Fairfax Media has been told that charities, community organisations and individuals have been visited by agents of the domestic spy agency ASIO, warning them not to continue sending money overseas through the channels they have been using.
Some people have received letters, without any prior warning, saying accounts had been frozen.
Community members have complained about the tactics, saying it is creating an atmosphere of fear and anxiety for people who are already ”emotional” about the plight of the Syrian people.
An Erskineville woman, Khadija, whose brother had his passport suddenly cancelled on the grounds he might ”engage in politically motivated violence”, claimed that her phone messages had been monitored by ASIO and people who had donated to her fund-raising drive had been intimidated by visits from agents warning them off.
She said ASIO told people that they had Viber messages between her and them about the donations. ”They were terrified,” she said. ”And they won’t speak to me any more.”
Yet Khadija said ASIO had not approached her or asked any questions about the fund-raising that she had been doing. She believes the Muslim community is being targeted just for trying to help people who are victims of the Syrian conflict.
”All we wanted to do was send money for the kids, and that is what we have been doing,” she said.
Sydney’s Middle Eastern communities have been working hard raising money for the victims, says community advocate Rebecca Kay.
She told Fairfax Media that people were devastated about what was taking place.
”They are very emotional – at fund-raising events they are taking the rings off their fingers and the necklaces from their necks to auction to raise money,” Ms Kay said.
But the problems have stemmed from intelligence reports the flow of some money overseas has ended up supporting banned groups involved in the conflict and not the victims. Financing terrorism is an offence under Australian law.
The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor annual report said the conflict was of concern in relation to terrorism financing. It said $21 million had been sent from Australia in the past financial year.
A spokesman for ASIO said it could not comment on operational activity. But a spokesman for the Australian Federal Police, which investigates terrorism financing offences, said the AFP understood many Australians wanted to help and might want to send money through trusted family members or friends.
But he said the best way was through legitimate UN agencies and non-government organisations that did not support either side in the conflict. That way, he said, they were not committing any offences.
One community member criticised the ”back-door approach” by authorities, saying it was not helping. She said the community was always active in fund-raising, as it was last year for bushfire victims.
”It is so simple,” she said. ”Educate the community, put some advertisements out there in the Arabic media and the local newspaper saying which charities to donate through and why.
”Visiting people at home and fearmongering isn’t right. It’s cruel. People just want to help and they already have trust issues.”
But Dr Tamer Kahil, president of the Australians for Syria Association, which has been sending money through legitimate channels, said he did not see harm in government officials coming to ask questions.
”We welcome them and open our books for them,” he said. ”I don’t want anyone to be scared.”