People giving money to help millions of refugees from the civil war in Syria are inadvertently supporting terrorism, the charity watchdog has warned.
Some of their cash was “undoubtedly” going to extremist groups, said William Shawcross, the chairman of the Charity Commission.
Conditions on the ground in the midst of conflict made it difficult or impossible for charities to know where aid ended up, he said.
The Disasters Emergency Committee, which represents 14 of Britain’s biggest charities, has raised £20 million since the launch of its Syria Crisis Appeal in March. Its members include the British Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children.
But it said it was unable to guarantee that no cash was falling into the hands of terrorists.
The Charity Commission is so concerned that it has issued guidance to fund-raising bodies.
The commission said it was up to charity trustees to ensure that donors’ generosity, intended to benefit those in need, was not diverted to terrorists.
“There is a risk that funds raised in the name of ‘charity’ generally or under the name of a specific charity are misused to support terrorist activities, with or without the charity’s knowledge,” the commission said.
It warned that “individuals supporting terrorist activity might also claim to work for a charity and trade on its name and legitimacy to gain access to a region or community”.
Peter Clarke, a former head of anti-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police who sits on the board of the commission, said that donations could fall into the wrong hands once the money arrived in Syria or surrounding countries.
“Once you get into these very difficult, dangerous areas it is hugely difficult for charities to track the final destination of their funds,” he told The Telegraph.
“It is one of these ‘fog of war’ issues where stuff can be diverted.”
He said it was also possible for terrorists to set up fake charities in donor countries to attract funds.
“It is perfectly feasible for charities to be established as a sort of cover. We have not seen clear evidence of that yet,” Mr Clarke said.
“You can think of a host of different ways in which people giving money with the best possible intentions could find that it has been misappropriated.”
He added: “We know there is some abuse of charities by extremist terrorist organisations but the likelihood is the full extent of this will never be known.
“What we have got to do is try to stop as much of it as we possibly can.”
Three Conservative MPs, who sit on a Commons committee that monitors the work of charities, said they were concerned.
“Such is the seriousness of these claims by the Charity Commission that intelligence officials must urgently review this area and the tactics that terrorist organisations are using to finance their activities,” said Priti Patel.
Robert Halfon said: “It is shocking to find that some charitable aid is being diverted to terrorists in Syria.
“No charity should give out money, unless it can be really sure that money really goes to help those most in need, rather than arming extremists.”
Charlie Elphicke added: “There still needs to be greater scrutiny at home by the Charity Commission on charities who have links to radical, extremist and even terrorist groups.”
A spokesman for the Charity Commission stressed that it had no estimates for how much donors’ money might be going to extremists.
She said: “Charities providing humanitarian aid are themselves aware of the risk that their funds may be diverted and that their staff and local partners will be working in areas where militant groups and in some cases those who support terrorist activities operate. Their work is not easy.”
A spokesman for the Disasters Emergency Committee said: “It is never possible to entirely eliminate such risks if you wish to help those in greatest need but DEC members take all reasonable steps to avoid, uncover and minimise such losses.
“The DEC and its member agencies do not fund or provide support to political organisations or armed groups.
“In places like Syria member agencies will have specific policies and procedures in place, based on decades of operational experience and in compliance with UK legal requirements, to ensure they prevent resources reaching these groups.
“Member agencies’ reporting to the DEC includes information about any losses or fraud involving DEC funds and we have not received such information regarding any DEC Syria Crisis Appeal funds.”
The committee said that £9.6 million had been spent by the charities so far and that £10.4 million was “given directly to our member agencies”.
In the first three months after the launch of the appeal 129,000 people received aid funded by the DEC and eight out of 10 of those were inside Syria.