PARIS — The charity called itself Pearl of Hope [Perle d’Espoir: the link says it has expired], and its appeals on social media featured poignant images of wounded children and calls for donations to promote the health and education of sick Syrian and Palestinian toddlers.
“Syria needs us and we need you,” says one of its exhortations for charity.
But in November, after months of surveillance, the charity was shut down. Now two of its senior leaders, Nabil Ouerfelli, 22, and Yasmine Znaidi, 34, have become the first members of an Islamic charity in France to be charged with financing terrorism since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.
Mr. Ouerfelli, prosecutors said, was also suspected of fighting for a jihadist group in Syria. Three other members of the charity were arrested in late November but were later released.
Pearl of Hope is among several charities in Europe suspected of links to terrorist groups at a time when the shifting alliances among the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have made it difficult to distinguish between legitimate humanitarian groups and those abetting terrorists, law enforcement officials and terrorism experts said.
The French authorities say they have kept under surveillance about a dozen similar charities and associations, many of which have roots in France’s impoverished suburbs.
“They are often small associations which have a loose structure,” said an official who supervises matters involving money laundering and financing of terrorism at the French Ministry of Finance.
The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the sums being transferred to Syria and Iraq were relatively small, since militant groups like the Islamic State are already wealthy from oil revenues. But the case has shown that it is not only young fighters — men and women — who are moving from Europe to Syria to support jihad, but money as well.
Investigators say the Pearl of Hope did engage in some real charity work, and posts on Facebook and on YouTube show the charity transporting food and medical supplies in Syria.
But prosecutors said the group was also using such deliveries as a front to funnel covert funds to jihadist groups and had links to the Nusra Front, a militant Syrian rebel group.
Le Monde, the French newspaper, said investigators became suspicious of Mr. Ouerfelli’s real motives in the spring, when he published a message on his Facebook page saying, “If the Islamic Front attacks Al Nusra, we will be with Al Nusra.”
Counterterrorism officials said the case showed how social media could be both an enabler and a liability for many such groups, providing a prominent platform to appeal for money and supporters but also potentially exposing their involvement with groups involved in the Syrian war.
The police apprehended Mr. Ouerfelli after he left a trail of evidence on his Facebook page while in Syria, the French authorities said, including posts of weapons and a black jihadist flag, and listed his profession as “soldier in Idlib,” a city in northwestern Syria, according to French news reports.
Using the alias Piroo Chicha and the Facebook URL piroo.martyr, he also posted that he had “studied device explosions” at Al-Azhar University — Gaza, according to the French authorities.
Alain Grignard, a leading Islamic scholar and counterterrorism officer with the Belgian Federal Police in Brussels, said the new generation of Jihadists, young, brash, and exhibitionist, routinely posted photos of themselves on social media with the aims of recruitment and self-affirmation.
“With a civil war in Syria, it is hard for us to investigate infractions on the ground,” he said. “If someone posts images of himself with weapons and decapitated heads, it is hard for him to say he is merely engaged in humanitarian work.”
Investigators say Mr. Ouerfelli appears to have had links to several groups, including the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters in Syria that broke with the American-backed Free Syrian Army and has been fighting President Assad.
Pearl of Hope, which was founded in 2012 and had offices in Paris and Gaza, appealed to its supporters to send checks to its headquarters at 25 rue de Ponthieu, a nondescript building in an upscale neighborhood near the Champs-Élysées.
A knock at the door of the charity on a recent day revealed that the address was nothing more than a post office box run by Cap Élysées International, a firm that provides 730 companies, charities and associations with a “prestigious” address for as little as nine euros a month.
A man who said he was the firm’s manager but declined to give his name said it was not feasible to conduct in-depth criminal background checks on all of his clients. He said the charity had paid its rent on time, and had not aroused any suspicions. Employees at the firm said they had seen Ms. Znaidi, the charity’s founder, come to pick up her mail with her mother.
In a letter titled “Hostage of the French Government” and posted in October on the website of a Muslim association that provides financial support to the families of Muslim prisoners, Ms. Znaidi called herself a victim of a French government witch hunt.
Calling herself a pro-Palestinian activist who had been blacklisted by Israel, she said the French authorities had declined to renew her passport. She said she had traveled to Gaza via Egypt in 2012 and started Pearl of Hope, offering food, medical aid and education, before eventually turning to humanitarian work in Syria.
She said she was married to a Palestinian and had a 10-month-old daughter. “My crime is to be Muslim, veiled, and to have engaged in humanitarian work for oppressed Muslims,” she said.
Prosecutors said that while the group used haunting images of wounded soldiers and malnourished children in Syria to generate donations, Mr. Ouerfelli, who grew up in the gritty, northwestern suburbs of Paris, was leading a double life, as both an aid worker and a fighter for jihadist groups.
On the Facebook page attributed to him, a post written last week extended his greetings to his friends, telling them to continue to support him with letters and not to respond to the media. “We all know the truth,” the message said.