The chief of the world's governing chess body has been accused of funding ISIS. But did he really?

Established in 1924, the venerable FIDE, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, has been the governing body over international chess competitions for nearly a century. They’ve lately seen better days, however, as the group’s treasury reported this week that the Swiss bank UBS has frozen their bank accounts. This imperils their ability to pay for the March Candidates Tournament, and the world chess championships are now in serious doubt.

What happened? "Chess ruling body has accounts closed after chief funded ISIS,” blared the Times of London. Other media reports tell similar stories, at least superficially, and all of them center on allegations that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov had ties to the Islamic State.

It’s a shocking charge, but not entirely true.

While reports vary in the details, the long and short of it is that Ilyumzhinov is being sanctioned by the United States, and UBS wants him "deposed” from office because by Swiss law, it cannot do business with individuals or institutions that are sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Ilyumzhinov has been FIDE’s president since 1995. He was also president of the Republic of Kalmykia from the collapse of the Soviet Union until 2010. Kalmykia, described as a subject of the Russian Federation, is a little more than 29,000 square miles, with a destitute population of 290,000 people who represent the only majority-Buddhist country in Europe. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin with President of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in July 2017. (President of Russia)

Having ruled the tiny republic for 20 years with virtually no opposition, Ilyumzhinov has been accused over the years of corruption and human rights abuses, which he has vehemently denied. He is also known as an eccentric, even claiming he was kidnapped by aliens in 1997.

Meanwhile, his role as president of FIDE has seen Ilyumzhinov pumping millions of dollars of his personal fortune into promoting chess, particularly in Kalmykia, which has become an international chess mecca as a result. He’s had his rivals for the FIDE leadership, notably former world champion Garry Kasparov—who is uncomfortable with Ilyumzhinov being so close to Russian President Vladimir Putin—but he’s consistently won reelection. After his resignation was erroneously announced last year, Illyumzhinov accused his rivals of plotting against him with the "hand of the U.S.”

But the stakes were certainly raised when the U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement in 2015 announcing it was sanctioning a number of Russians over the Syrian Civil War, with Ilyumzhinov among them.

Ilyumzhinov was named in the document by the Office of Foreign Asset Control as part owner of the Russian Financial Alliance Bank, along with Mudalal Khuri, who is accused of having business ties to the Syrian Central Bank governor and is also sanctioned on separate charges. It is pretty clear from the three consecutive paragraphs in the statement that mention Ilyumzhinov that it is Khuri they were after, and while investigating him, they discovered pretexts to hit Ilyumzhinov and their bank, too.

So where does ISIS (or ISIL) come in? The statement by the Treasury Department, which is all we have to go on at this point, is titled "Treasury Sanctions Networks Providing Support to the Government of Syria, Including For Facilitating Syrian Government Oil Purchases from ISIL.” It is separated into different charges, including the first, "Ongoing Government of Syria Ties to ISIL,” and the second, "Government of Syria Financial Facilitation and Procurement.”

The entire ISIS-related section is spent setting out sanctions against a Syrian businessman, George Haswani, and his HESCO Engineering and Construction Company, for allegedly operating as a middleman in an oil smuggling scheme from ISIS-seized territory into Syrian government territory.

At the time, U.S. officials were making much of the idea that in buying ISIS oil, albeit through middlemen, the Syrian government was de facto supporting ISIS. In practice, of course, this was simply a necessity, as ISIS had captured nearly all of Syria’s oil producing centers.

That is neither here nor there, however, because the sanctions against Ilyumzhinov are in the second section. Nowhere does the document claim any ties between Haswani and anyone else sanctioned, including Ilyumzhinov. So any news reports that say Illyumzhinov was fingered for being an ISIS middleman are misleading because the official statement makes it clear he was not.

Nevertheless, FIDE turned over all the legal, business, and finance activities of the organization to the the deputy president in 2015, pending Ilyumzhinov’s challenge of the allegations in court, something he’s still attempting to do.

The reports on the sudden UBS move against FIDE speculate that the bank was weary of waiting for the court challenge. But there is no explanation for why it didn’t move against FIDE two years ago when the charges were filed. UBS has declined comment.

As of right now, Ilyumzhinov’s inclusion on the U.S. sanctions list appears to be fairly random, one of many Russian millionaires who have been targeted by a Treasury Department list somewhere along the line for being part owner of something also partly owned by another target.

Whether or not the U.S. has it personally in for Ilyumzhinov is another unknown. The charges may simply reflect the haphazard way that Washington throws around sanctions, which both sucks in a lot of people and organizations for dubious reasons, and also leaves international banks scared of being seen as operating in defiance of a U.S. diktat. On January 30, the Treasury department released a reportlisting a number of oligarchs worth $1 billion or more who are closely affiliated with Putin and the Russian government—many of the individuals on the list are already subject to U.S. sanctions.

For sure, the Ilyumzhinov saga has injected drama into the chess world not seen since Bobby Fischer played against a UN embargo in 1992 (sparking a U.S. warrant for his arrest). FIDE’s treasurer, Adrian Siegel, acknowledged the issue was "a serious problem” and that it has "severely damaged” FIDE’s business dealings. The fate of future contests now hangs in the balance, but whether Ilyumzhinov is a terrorist threat is another question entirely.