Benefits such as unemployment funds, disability pensions and housing allowances are being used to fund ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. USA TODAY
Governments across Europe have accidentally paid taxpayer-funded welfare benefits such as unemployment funds, disability pensions and housing allowances to Islamic State militants who have used the money to wage war in Iraq and Syria, authorities and terrorism experts say.
Danish officials said this week that 29 citizens were given $100,000 in public pension benefits because they were considered too ill or disabled to work, and they then fled to Syria to fight for the radical group.
Denmark has one of the world's most generous social-welfare systems, which provides eligible unemployed people up to $120 a day. In addition to trying to reclaim the benefits accidentally disbursed, the government is trying to tighten legislation for welfare claims made by suspected militants.
"It is a huge scandal that we disburse money from the welfare fund in Denmark for people who go to Syria," said Troels Lund Poulsen, Denmark's labor minister. "Staying in a war zone and directly or indirectly taking part in military operations is not something that is in any way compatible with receiving disability benefits."
Other countries that also have paid benefits to Islamic State fighters:
It took eight months before welfare authorities cut off benefits paid to a Swedish national who had joined the terror group in its Syrian stronghold Raqqa.
Michael Skråmo, who grew up near
Gothenburg, fled in 2014 with his wife and four children to Syria. There, he swore allegiance to the Islamic State, changed his name to Abdul Samad al Swedi and has appeared in propaganda videos posing with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. It was not until a year after Skråmo left Gothenburg that a letter was sent to his Swedish address by authorities stating his child and housing benefits had been terminated, Swedish media reported. Over the eight months, Skråmo was paid more than $5,000.
Försäkringskassan, the Swedish welfare agency responsible for making the payments, declined to comment on Skråmo's case.
Sweden has been in the spotlight this week because of
President Trump's false assertions that its liberal asylum policies have led to a crime wave by Muslim immigrants.
Authorities concluded that several of the plotters in the
Brussels and Paris terror attacks that killed 162 people in 2015 and 2016 were partly financed by Belgium's social welfare system while they planned their atrocities.
Philippe de Koster, director of Belgium’s agency that fights money laundering and terrorism financing, said steps have since been taken to prevent that from happening again. For example, those convicted of terrorism can no longer receive benefits while in jail.
The government has cut the social-welfare benefits of several hundred French citizens who have left the country to join jihadist groups.
"It's the critical terror financing issue of the day," said Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the
Royal United Services Institutein London. "Security services are focusing on lone actors, small cells and inspired or directed individuals operating in European countries, and of course the issue of (Islamic State) returnees.
"But the eye-catching headline is that a key funder of terrorists attacks in Europe are European governments," he said. "In an increasing number of cases, people are taking money provided to them by their national governments and using it for other than what it's intended for."
France is the largest source of Western fighters in Iraq and Syria — an estimated 2,000 as of May last year, according to the
Counter Extremism Project, a think tank.
A local government council in Birmingham admitted in December that it erroneously paid almost $7,000 in housing benefits to a man who was fighting in Syria for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Anouar Haddouchi used the money to fund his journey to join the group.
In September, radical Islamic cleric
Anjem Choudary, who was jailed for terrorist activities, urged followers to claim "jihadiseeker's allowance" — a reference to the nation's welfare system. His phrase echoes a manual released by the militant group in 2015. How to Survive in the West: A Mujahid Guide advises that "if you can claim extra benefits from a government, then do so."
British authorities estimate 850 citizens have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for radical groups.
The United Kingdom's
Department for Work and Pensions said people lose entitlement to benefits when they move overseas, excluding pensions they have contributed to.
"Britain is just not up to speed with this," warned Anthony Glees, who runs the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the
University of Buckingham. "One can assume that people who want to blow us up are entirely relaxed about taking as much money as they can from the British government."