Steven Maman, a Jewish businessman based in Montreal, watched in dismay last year as the Islamic State took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul and created a highly-organized system for buying and selling Yazidi women and girls as sex slaves.
Unable to bear the thought of innocent children being repeatedly raped by different militants, Maman, now dubbed by some as “Jewish Schindler,” launched The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq, a project that raises money to send to intermediaries in Iraq who help buy back the young girls enslaved by ISIS fighters or those living under ISIS rule.
Looking to expand his donor base, Maman launched a GoFundMe account, which by August had raised more than $500,000 for his cause. And Maman claims that with the help of generous donations, his group has helped rescue more than 120 from sexual enslavement. That assertion couldn’t be independently verified.
But no matter Maman’s intent, his willingness to send money to intermediaries who negotiate with ISIS has raised questions about whether he is actually fueling the militant group. In Canada, the Islamic State is a recognized terrorist organization, and it is illegal under Canadian law to send money to them for any reason.
On Monday, when asked whether GoFundMe was aware of how Maman’s fundraiser worked, a spokesperson for the crowdfunding site told Foreign Policy that it had just been brought to the company’s attention “that this campaign may be violating local laws.”
“We are suspending the campaign and are going to investigate further,” she said. By Tuesday, the account was inaccessible.
Maman, who could not be reached by phone this week, has previously defended himself against criticisms that he is fueling the same terrorists from whom he claims to be saving young girls. In an interview with Fox News in August, he said he avoided complicity by working exclusively with intermediaries.
“I’m not funding ISIS, I’m not dealing with ISIS, I’m not talking to ISIS, I’m not paying ISIS,” he told Fox. He went on to explain that his brokers on the ground negotiate the girls’ release by typically paying their captors a few hundred dollars. “So we’re not funding them, we’re refunding them, therefore ISIS is not getting anything from it.”
But according to Craig Forcese, who teaches law at the University of Ottawa, Maman’s intent could be considered irrelevant under Canadian law because the money he handles is knowingly ending up in the hands of a recognized terrorist organization.
“Canadian law is indifferent to the motivation of the person providing financial means to a terrorist group,” Forcese told FP. “Whatever motivation he has may not be enough to get him off the hook.”
Forcese said that since today’s Canadian terrorism rules were introduced in 2001, he could think of only one terrorist financing case that led to a conviction. In that case, the plaintiff was found guilty of supplying money to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group in Sri Lanka that Canada recognized as a terrorist organization. That plaintiff was charged despite his apparent intent to raise money for humanitarian purposes.
In the case of Maman, the challenge, Forcese said, would be getting a prosecutor to actually take it to court. Maman could be technically breaking the law, but his goal could be compelling and sympathetic enough that a jury would refuse to convict him.
“In the strict text of the law, if he knows or is willfully blind that this money is going to ISIS, then that’s a terrorism offense,” he said. “In this case, they [prosecutors] might ask themselves ‘Well…am I going to persuade a jury that they should incarcerate this individual for terrorism financing?’”
Despite the unlikelihood that Maman would actually go to court or jail for this case, Forcese said if he were in Maman’s shoes he would be seeking serious legal advice.
But on Tuesday, Maman didn’t seem too fazed that GoFundMe had shut down his account.
In his Tuesday appeal for donations, Maman posted a video featuring tearful reunions between captured Yazidi girls and their families. The three-minute clip starts off by thanking Pamela Geller — an American political activist who is vocally critical of Muslims she deems extremist — for her “unrelenting support” for Maman’s project.
Geller is a deeply controversial figure who helped organize the prophet cartoon drawing contest in Garland, Texas in May that was targeted by gunmen allegedly angered by the tenor of her event. The alleged attackers, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, were shot dead by a police officer.
In 2010, she told the New York Times that by praying five times a day, Muslims are “cursing Christians and Jews five times a day.”
Considering her reputation, she seems an unlikely ally for Maman, who has been vocal that his project only focuses on Christian and Yazidi girls because they are being specifically targeted by the Islamic State for their religious and ethnic backgrounds, and don’t have anyone else to advocate for them. If he came across a Muslim girl being held by IS, he has said his group would do everything they could to rescue her as well. Geller did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
According to the New York Times, more than 5,000 Yazidis were kidnapped by IS last year, and more than 3,000 are likely still being held by the group. But Maman claims that with each one being purchased for around $500 within the IS sex slave model, plus other minor costs associated with their rescue, his project is on a small enough scale that the benefit for Yazidis are much greater than whatever IS might gain from the deal.
“ISIS being a $4 billion entity…I really don’t think that $2,000 or $3,000 is going to make a difference in making them powerful than they are financially,” he told Fox in the same August interview cited above.
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