An American Muslim civil rights leader praised by George W. Bush, an economist honored by the British Queen, and a prominent anti-extremism campaigner have all been secretly given a "terrorism" designation on a confidential database that banks use as a reference tool for blacklisting customers, a VICE News investigation can reveal.
The highly influential World-Check database has also listed major charities, activists, and mainstream religious institutions under its category of "terrorism". Dozens of terror profiles in the database owned by Thomson Reuters seen by VICE News include:
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Executive Director, Nihad Awad, one of a select group of American Muslim leaders invited to join former US President George W. Bush in a press conference condemning the 9/11 attacks. CAIR, the recipient of multiple leadership awards, is also terror-listed by World-Check.Liberal Democrat politician Maajid Nawaz, who founded counter-extremism think tank Quilliam and has advised successive British prime ministers.Former World Bank and Bank of England advisor Mohamed Iqbal Asaria, who was given a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) award in the 2005 Queen's Honours List for services to international development.
The confidential service, part of an unregulated industry, claims that it is used by over 300 government and intelligence agencies, 49 of the 50 biggest banks, pre-employment vetting agencies and 9 of the top 10 global law firms. It provides "an early warning system for hidden risk" — and is used by banks, for example, to minimize their risk of complicity in terrorist financing or money laundering.
'Inaccurate, bigoted garbage'
However, numerous individuals and organizations have reacted with anger and shock to the discovery that they have a "terrorism" designation on World-Check's database, which is compiled using public domain sources. They have told VICE News that they dispute their inclusion, and believe that it may have harmed their reputation or business dealings. None of them have ever faced terror charges.
VICE News found that the database has grown dramatically since it was founded in 1999. It now lists more than 2.7 million individuals and entities spanning a variety of categories. Since 2007, the number of terror entries has risen fivefold to over 93,000.
Nihad Awad (second from right) stand with former President George Bush in 2001 to condemn the September 11 attacks. Photo via White House press office
CAIR Executive Director Awad — recently profiled by the LA Times as an emerging voice for civil rights leadership in the 21st Century — described his profile as "inaccurate, bigoted garbage."
"You can imagine how many innocent individuals and organizations have suffered at the hands of World-Check and similar entities with no recourse," he said. "I leave it to the reader's imagination to think why the largest American Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization is listed."
Politician Nawaz, one of the UK's most prominent counter-extremism activists, told VICE News his inclusion was "laughable".
"I have consulted to every UK Prime Minister from Tony Blair onwards on how our society can best address Islamist extremism," he said. "If true, compiling lists of 'undesirable individuals' by name, especially if such lists are not open to public scrutiny or regular updating, is a terrible move to adopt by any organization."
'Plucking names from baseless online allegations'
Former World Bank and Bank of England advisor Asaria told VICE News he was "angry and upset" at the designation and accompanying allegations. "It makes me more than worried. If this is what the banks have at best, they're not looking at something serious here."
Commenting on VICE News' investigation, British Labour Party MP Diane Abbott said: "This is deeply troubling. World-Check says it uses only public domain sources to compile its terrorism designations. In some cases that appears to have involved plucking names from baseless online allegations and placing them onto an unregulated site, with no stringent process of review.
"This can clearly be discriminatory and wield significant power over people's lives. Questions must be asked."
In a new financial age of "de-risking", companies like World-Check play a vital role in the supply of risk data to banks and law enforcement agencies. The trend follows the US government's mammoth $1.9bn fine of HSBC bank, after a Senate investigation found that it had served as a channel for "drug kingpins and rogue nations". Banks are increasingly terminating or restricting business relationships to avoid money laundering and terror financing.
In the past two years, a number of prominent British non-profits, including Cordoba Foundation, Cage, and Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) have had their accounts or transactions frozen by banks with no explanation.
A report by BBC Radio 4 last year asked whether terror designations by World-Check had contributed to — if not caused — bank account closures by HSBC. An Overseas Development Institute report also observed that the proliferation of unregulated private sector tools like World-Check had increased account closures, "particularly if the client in question is of limited profitability."
'I believe it cut off 50 percent of potential business for me'
Banks are not legally obliged to tell their customers why they have closed their accounts and World-Check binds its users to secrecy about use of the database. Both PSC and the Cordoba Foundation are currently terror listed by World-Check among a number of other major British non-profits.
Several of these individuals and organizations expressed concerns that their listing had affected their lives in other ways.
"I believe it cut off 50 percent of potential business for me," Asaria CBE told Vice News. "Several people in my industry said, 'I'll get so-and-so to contact you but never came back.' I'm sure they consulted World-Check and asked, do we want this?"
'No independent input'
In an email to non-profit Cage seen by VICE News, World-Check claims to be an impartial resource that stores profiles of individuals and organizations with "no independent input or opinion." However, critics argue this claim is at odds with its "terrorism" designation, in which profiles are accompanied by a logo of a red balaclava.
"World-Check slaps a big red 'terrorism' label right next to people's names," Ben Hayes, an independent consultant specializing in terrorist sanctions and financial surveillance told VICE News. "That is their judgment; no-one else's."
"The repercussions of categorizing an individual or organization as a terrorist are severe, prejudicial and punitive for a range of individuals, most of whom may never have even known that they were profiled by World Check," Ravi Naik, Head of Public Law at London-based ITN Solicitors which represents PSC, told VICE News. PSC is currently considering legal action.
How World-Check sources its claims
World-Check literature explains that as well as listing sanctioned and convicted individuals, it lists individuals "facing charges, but not yet convicted," including those "accused, investigated, arrested, charged, indicted, detained, questioned or on trial" for World-Check listed crimes. The listed crimes include terrorism, hostage-taking, slave labour and sexual exploitation of children.
VICE News asked World-Check how it determines whether an individual is suitable for "terrorism" designation.
World-Check told VICE News that it uses "only reliable and reputable public domain sources (such as official sanctions lists, law and regulatory enforcement lists, government sources and trustworthy media publications) for risk-based information or allegations about an individual or entity."
Blog content would only be used as a "supporting source" for "secondary identifying information," a spokesperson said.
However, VICE News saw listings for individuals and organizations that did not appear to conform to this code of practice.
Each terrorism profile includes a list of the sources of information used by World-Check when compiling the profile — and some have been created solely from allegations written on conservative blogs, Islamophobic websites and political organizations.
'Once you start spreading it, it starts to stick'
VICE News examined Asaria's profile. The unsubstantiated allegations that have contributed to his terrorism designation are all sourced to two right-wing blogs: PipeLineNews and Militant Islam Monitor. The named author of the PipelineNews piece is also the director of Militant Islam Monitor. The allegations are not sourced to any news site, official sanctions list or government entity.
Two people who create profiles at World-Check, and one who reviews them, said separately to VICE News that the organization does not hold a list of approved sources for risk-based information or allegations about an individual or entity. Both the choice of sources and the designation was at their discretion, they said, and the use of new sources was not routinely checked.
Hayes said: "There is nothing sophisticated going on here. It is just World-Check trawling public domain sources for people who can be placed in any of the categories."
Other terror designations by World-Check were sourced to allegations made by websites and blogs such as DanielPipes.org and the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). The two are run separately by Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson who Cambridge University Press' Companion to American Islam describes as "Islamophobes." Last year British Prime Minister David Cameron called Fox News pundit Emerson "a complete idiot" for claiming that the English city of Birmingham was a no-go zone for non-Muslims.
'Something from Never-Never Land'
The UK's Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) is another organization whose bank accounts were closed without explanation last year by the Co-Operative Bank. The closure of its accounts is a decision ultimately taken by the banks, but VICE News discovered that the organization had received a "terrorism" designation on World-Check based on allegations made by IPT and another blog.
PSC Chairman Hugh Lanning said that World-Check "sounded like something from Never-Never Land."
"PSC is a completely lawful organization, going for 30 years, and we've never been questioned or challenged by any legal authority anywhere on anything and yet we've ended up terror listed."
"It's amazing that a company like this can print this as fact," he told VICE News. "And once you start spreading it, it starts to stick. It's almost as good as Tony Blair's terror dossier: 'I heard somebody who heard something which is a rumor of...' And yet we've had no right to challenge it. It's a political blacklist and it's outrageous."
Former British Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg MP (left) with Maajid Nawaz. Photo by Polly Hanlon
World-Check claims to update 40,000 profiles per month, and wrote in a recent paper that "individuals inaccurately designated or indicted are removed from the database."
But some of the profiles appear to have been constructed from historic allegations that do not accurately reflect the individuals they profile.
Maajid Nawaz — who ran for parliament for the Liberal Democrats in the last election — has undergone a well-documented transition from a radical to a prominent counter-extremism activist. He now advises world leaders on how to tackle extremism — but his profile, seen by VICE News, is compiled using sources that largely cite his previous membership of the radical Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. It lists no contemporary allegations of terrorism.
'For World-Check this is a terrific virtuous circle'
"[It] is a bit like someone wanting to brand the Shadow Chancellor a terrorist on the basis of his former comments about the IRA," said Tom Dawlings, a former Bank of England Financial Sanctions Unit Head who advised World-Check in 2008. "If that's what's happening to prospective MPs then I would suggest it has gone too far."
A World-Check senior staffer VICE News spoke to said that profiles were reviewed, but that this would be a quick process and sourcing would not typically be checked. Individual reviewers checked between 300 and 600 profiles a day, they said.
"For World-Check this is a terrific virtuous circle," said Tom Keatinge, the Director of the Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "The problem of course is that if you add an extra 25,000 names per month you had better keep them up-to-date".
The profile of a terror-listed professor from one of the elite British Russell Group of universities seen by VICE News had not been updated in over six years. Another terror profile, this time for a Western anti-war umbrella group, had not had its profile updated in eight years.
When banks or regulators find a terror profile, it can take the option to conduct an "enhanced due diligence report." However a bank's compliance officer is unlikely to do so, according to former World-Check executive and board member Mike Short.
"If someone had a [terrorism] hit on World-Check, that's really end of story...you can't do business with them anyway," he said.
Many of the individuals and organizations VICE News spoke to said they had attempted to appeal their listing, but that there was no clear route to do so.
A World-Check spokesperson said: "World-Check has a clear privacy statement available on its website which also sets out how any individual can contact us if they believe any of the information held is inaccurate, and we would urge them to do so."
'Once a terrorist always a terrorist'
However, two senior World-Check employees who asked not to be named told VICE News that in over eight years working at the firm they had not seen a single case of an individual successfully challenging their terror designation.
"Once a terrorist always a terrorist – no matter what he says, he stays where he is," said a current senior analyst. They spoke to VICE News on condition of non-attribution.
"Because of World-Check's confidentiality clause, the overwhelming majority of people affected by World-Check's profiling will have no idea why they have been refused a bank account or had a transaction blocked," said consultant Hayes. "So it is preposterous to suggest that World-Check is genuinely interested in removing innocent parties.
"Even someone on the Al-Qaeda, Taliban UN 1267 sanctions list has more rights to an ombudsman than someone caught up in this," said RUSI's Keatinge.
World-Check has also provided its service to the US Department of Homeland Security, the United Nations and European Union organizations to screen beneficiaries of their aid, as part of a burgeoning $5 billion a year private risk mitigation industry. HireRight, an American pre-employment screening company that conducts over 12 million background checks annually in 240 countries also uses the service. According to a 2013 analysis by Hayes, annual subscription fees to World-Check's database can reach over $1 million.
'World-Check very effectively taps into an extreme neurosis the banks have'
"It's clear they've been aggressively expanding their database to include as many people as possible," said Hayes, who has documented the rise of World-Check.
World-Check's Terrorism and Insurgency Research Unit Head John Solomon boasted in 2007 that the system had "a distinguished record of alerting its clients to terrorists and their supporters prior to their inclusion in official government lists." The confidential service would also monitor "violent animal rights extremists" and "ethno-nationalist groups."
"World-Check very effectively taps into an extreme neurosis the banks have," Keatinge told VICE News. "They are protecting themselves from known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns."
'They have been given free rein'
An industry blacklist used and sold by leading construction firms in the UK, which highlighted people for union activities or for raising health and safety concerns at work, was uncovered in 2009. A group of 600 affected workers from a blacklist of over 3,000 workers, including teachers and postal staff, brought legal action against the companies. The action prompted an "unprecedented" apology from the firms and the workers are reportedly close to securing damages totaling tens of millions of pounds after taking legal action.
"When private companies have bigger intelligence databases than organizations like Europol, and sell them on the open market, alarms bells should be ringing," said Hayes. "Instead they have been given free rein."
Amnesty International UK's Economic Affairs Director Peter Frankental said: "Any company using or maintaining blacklists is at risk of abusing human rights.
"The end result for those targeted could well be violations of their right to privacy and loss of livelihood from being deprived of employment opportunities. Victims of such activity should have access to civil litigation to claim a remedy for damage done to them, and those companies that engage in blacklisting activities or make use of such lists illegally should be held criminally accountable."
Follow Namir Shabibi and Ben Bryant on Twitter: @nshabibi and @benbryant
Correction: An earlier version of this story was corrected to reflect that Daniel Pipes runs DanielPipes.org, not the website World News Daily Report. Pipes is a contributor to WorldNetDaily but has nothing to do with World News Daily Report.