Jihadis You Pay For: UK Government Suspends Aid Amid Claims Money Given to Syrian Extremists

The UK government has suspended a foreign aid program after allegations emerged the money was diverted to extremists in Syria, according to reports.

The UK was one of six countries funding a project, Access to Justice and Community Security (Ajacs), which aimed to support the Western-backed Free Syrian Police (FSP), a supposedly unarmed force set up to bring law and order in some provinces in Syria, marred by a six-year-long civil war.

A BBC Panorama investigation, Jihadis You Pay For, which will air on December 4, alleged that some of the money for Ajacs reached people with links to the extremist group al-Nusra Front. The organization, which renamed itself as Fateh al-Sham Front, fights the Syrian government and aims to establish as Islamic state in the country.

The investigation also alleged that FSP cooperated with courts that carried out summary executions, including the stoning to death of two women.

Adam Smith International (ASI), which has been running the project since 2014, denied the allegations.

The organization has not responded to a request for a comment on the claims. However, it refuted the "false and misleading" allegations in a statement on its website and said FSP aims to keep residents safe and resilient "in the face of terrorist threats".

"BBC Panorama has sought to portray the project as a vehicle for paying violent extremists, allegedly due to a lack of oversight by the implementing companies and, by implication, the UK Government and other donors. This portrayal is wrong," ASI said.

It added the organization carries out "extreme vetting" to prevent terrorists from infiltrating police ranks.

"Panorama cites only one example where six people with alleged links to extremist networks were supposedly employed at one police station. Upon discovering these links, the individuals were immediately removed. That is six, in a force of 3,400 police officers," it continued.

Al-Nusra Front
Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front -- renamed Fateh al-Sham Front after breaking from Al-Qaeda -- advance at an armament school after they announced they seized control of two military academies and a third military position on August 6, 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Reports claimed UK-funded project reached people with links to the group. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

"Panorama alleges diversion of funds - providing evidence of funds totaling less than $2,000 [£1,487] in a $20 million project. And, in fact, no UK taxpayers' money was lost.

"ASI will continue to vigorously refute the BBC's claims and defend the integrity of one of its most important projects," the organization concluded.

A UK government spokesman said: "We take any allegations of co-operation with terrorist groups and of human rights abuses extremely seriously and the Foreign Office has suspended this program while we investigate these allegations.

"We believe that such work in Syria is important to protect our national security interest but of course we reach this judgment carefully given that in such a challenging environment no activity is without risk.

"That's why all our programs are designed carefully and subject to robust monitoring."

Andrew Mitchell, the former development secretary, warned the BBC against failing to take into account the difficulties of operating in territories outside of the control of the Syrian government.

"This is an extremely important project devised with the aim of strengthening the FSP in dangerous areas where jihadi groups are in operation," he was quoted by the Guardian as saying.

"That is the whole point. The people involved in the project are extremely brave and should be praised, not pilloried. The BBC have been told that there is no evidence of British taxpayers' money going to jihadi groups.

"I hope they reflect on the information provided to them ahead of broadcast and don't fall into the trap of criticizing something without understanding all the facts and complexities of the area and the work being done. This work is too important to fall victim to an anti-aid narrative," he concluded.