February 9, 2015 | The Journal of International Security Affairs
Doha’s Dangerous Dalliance
Co-authored by Luke Lischin
Qatari support for Islamist non-state actors has been an escalating source of tension for the monarchy in some of its vital relationships. Qatar’s relationship with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries saw a variety of escalations during the course of 2014, including in March, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors due to the emirate’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. In addition to Qatar’s support for the Brother- hood, a growing body of evidence also suggests that Qatari institutions may be support- ing jihadist violent non-state actors (VNSAs). The sum total of Qatar’s policies provides reason for concern—as well as reason to question the currently dominant Western aca- demic work on Qatar, which tends to explain the country’s policy decisions without ref- erence to ideological affinity with the non-state actors the emirate has chosen to support.
Qatar’s support for Islamist groups has damaged the country diplomatically, even apart from the aforementioned rupture with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. Many of the emirate’s policies that appeared to put the country in an advantageous position at the start of 2013—including sponsoring Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, becoming deeply involved in Libya, and backing rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria—now look like losing bets. There is a stark contrast, for example, between the gratitude Libyans felt for Qatar when rebels first captured Muammar Qadhafi’s Tripoli palace, and hoisted Qatar’s flag before any other, and the hostility Qatar engendered a mere two years later, when protesters burnt its flag in Benghazi.
If suspicions about Qatar’s support for jihadist VNSAs prove to be generally accurate, this would not be the first time that its state institutions have been used to bolster these actors. In the 1990s, both the Qatar Charitable Society and Sheikh Abdallah bin Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani, the country’s minister of religious endowments and Islamic affairs, are known to have supported al-Qaeda. But after the 9/11 attacks, due in no small part to U.S. pressure, Qatar instituted financial controls over the country’s charitable institutions that reduced support for Salafi jihadist groups (although open Qatari support for Hamas continued). But, once the Arab Uprisings began, Qatar strongly supported both Islamist political parties and VNSAs affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood—and there is growing evidence that it supported jihadist VNSAs as well.
Why has Qatar supported Islamists during the Arab Uprisings? The majority of Western analysts of Gulf affairs describe Qatar’s foreign policy decisions as pragmatic. Analysts have provided several reasons that Qatar may have chosen to support Islamists. First, the emirate may be trying to side with eventual winners in order to magnify its influence and reach. According to this hypothesis, Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, or of various Libyan and Syrian Islamist factions, is based on the probability that these factions will eventually triumph electorally or militarily.
A second, related explanation is that Qatar is eager to build its brand. Mehran Kamrava, a political scientist at Georgetown University who directs its Center for International and Regional Studies in Doha, writes that the emirate’s broader branding campaign is “meant to give international recognition to the small country as an international educational, sporting, and cultural hub and a good global citizen.”Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who directed its Doha Center until January 2014, explains that having a distinctive foreign policy can also be seen as a means of building Qatar’s brand. This tendency seems to be particularly true of the country’s larger-than-life former foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim (popularly known as “HBJ”), who was primarily responsible for Qatar’s hyper-activist policies under the country’s then-emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
A third possible reason for Qatar’s support of Islamists is that the state is more familiar with these actors. As Hamid notes, Doha has long hosted exiled Islamists, and thus when the Arab Spring hit, those were the actors whom Qatar already knew. “You can’t build something from scratch,” Hamid said of Qatar positioning itself politically in the post-Arab Spring environment, “and say, ‘Well, who are the Egyptian liberals? How do we establish a relationship with them?’”
There is clear merit to all three of these explanations. However, a fourth possibility also deserves consideration: that Qatar’s support for Islamists is in part ideologically driven. The argument for ideology’s relevance relates to the specific personalities that may shape state policy. Qatar’s small size—only about 250,000 citizens—means the country’s foreign policy bureaucracy is vanishingly small, and hence its foreign policy is highly centralized, with the emir and foreign minister having extraordinary leeway to shape or change the country’s policies. Hence, a key question about the role that ideological affinity with Islamist groups may play is that of who influences the paradigms and decisions of the emir and foreign minister.
Qatar’s historical support for jihadism
The most prominent case of Qatari support for al-Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks involved Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of those attacks. KSM and his family moved to Qatar in 1992 at the invitation of the country’s then-minister of Islamic affairs, Sheikh Abdallah bin Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani.
From 1992 to 1996, KSM served as a project engineer for Qatar’s ministry of electricity and water, and used this position to facilitate his travels worldwide. While working for the government, KSM became involved in several international terrorist plots. His first known connection to a major plot during this period was his relatively minor involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. KSM wired $660 to Mohammed Salameh, a co-conspirator of attack mastermind Ramzi Yousef (KSM’s cousin), from a Qatari bank account. After that, KSM assisted Yousef’s operations in the Philippines, including the bombing of a movie theater and a transpacific flight from Manila, as well as the Bojinka plot that aspired to blow up a dozen commercial airliners over the Pacific using liquid explosives. (The attack template from Bojinka would resurface in 2006, in al-Qaeda’s foiled transatlantic air plot that sought to simultaneously blow up a number of Britain-U.S. flights.) After the Bojinka plot failed, Philippines authorities began to close in on KSM and Yousef’s Manila cell, but not before KSM retreated back to the safety of his government post in Qatar.
From 1994 to 1996, KSM traveled from Qatar to such countries as Brazil, Malaysia, Sudan, and Yemen, though the details of his visits are unknown. He also cultivated a network of wealthy patrons who supported al-Qaeda operations. By 1996, KSM’s terrorist activities caught the attention of U.S. authorities—first the CIA and later the FBI. A CIA case officer in Doha sought to keep KSM under surveillance. Though several U.S. government officials reportedly advocated for a scheme to abduct him, the case officer and National Security Council officials believed that any such plans could run into trouble because “if the United States officially asked for the assistance of the Qatar government, Mr. Mohammed would be tipped off, since it appeared that he was living in Doha under the government’s protection.”
KSM’s major government patron was the aforementioned Sheikh Abdallah, who “allowed Arab extremists who had fought in Afghanistan to live on his farm.” Given Sheikh Abdallah’s apparent jihadist sympathies, as well as suspicions that he was not the only one with such leanings in the Qatari government, the CIA and Department of Defense devised an operation that could capture KSM without alerting Qatari authorities. Ultimately, though, the CIA determined that it lacked the required assets in Qatar to conduct an extraordinary rendition.
With the prospect of a covert mission dashed, the task of apprehending KSM fell to the FBI and U.S. ambassador to Qatar Patrick Theros. FBI director Louis J. Freeh filed a request with Qatari officials asking for permission to apprehend KSM. The request was met with delaying tactics. In January 1996, the monarchy finally agreed that the U.S. could carry out the operation, but the CIA’s fears that KSM might be warned about an operation proved well-founded: a Qatari official tipped KSM off about his impending arrest. The terrorist mastermind fled the country in a government-owned executive jet just hours before the U.S. was set to apprehend him. Though it is widely believed that the tip came from Sheikh Abdallah, a former CIA official later told ABC News that “there were others in the Qatari royal family who were sympathetic and provided safe havens for al-Qaeda.” Though he was briefly placed under house arrest after aiding KSM’s escape, Sheikh Abdallah retained his position as minister of Islamic affairs; and later, in 2001, he was promoted to become Qatar’s interior min- ister, a post he retained until 2013.
KSM’s time in Qatar was not the only instance of the emirate’s support for al-Qaeda prior to the September 11 attacks. As evidence submitted by the U.S. government in a criminal trial noted, in 1993 Osama bin Laden named the Qatar Charitable Society (currently Qatar Charity) as one of several organizations that financed al-Qaeda’s overseas operations. In 1995, the charity’s funds were used to support an assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, an al-Qaeda operative who defected to the United States, implicated the Qatar Charitable Society’s then-director in these activities, describing him as “a fellow member of al-Qaeda.”
Following the 9/11 attacks, Qatar came under U.S. pressure, and implemented terrorist financing reforms. Though these reforms contain steps that could be viewed as important if Qatar intended to truly provide oversight of the country’s charities, observers are concerned that Qatari charitable funds are still reaching militant organizations, and that the emirate may not be interested in stopping this flow. The new anti-money laundering regime governing the oversight of nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in Qatar is founded primarily upon Law No. 13 of 2004, dealing with private institutions and associations. Law 13 created several categories of civil society associations, of which “licensed charitable associations” is a subcategory. To become licensed, charitable associations must submit an application to the ministry of civil service and housing affairs with a clear statement of purpose. After a charitable association is licensed by the ministry, all aspects of its activities, from the holding of meetings to the execution of financial transactions, are subject to oversight. Further, Law 13 requires that charitable associations maintain records for all financial transactions for a period of fifteen years, and institutions are required to report suspicious activities observed in such transactions to the Qatar Financial Intelligence Unit (QFIU).
This legal regime is positive in the abstract, although flaws in Laws 13 and 14 prevented the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) from giving Qatar a rating of “fully compliant.” These flaws concerned the established ability of Qatar’s emir to exempt any NPO from oversight (an authority that is not known to have been invoked since its inception), and the possible lack of an oversight mechanism for charitable trusts.
But the most important critique is that observers believe some of Qatar’s charities continue to support jihadist VNSAs. On several occasions in recent years, the U.S. has identified and sanctioned suspected Qatari terrorist financiers, only to have requests for detainment or further investigation rebuffed by the Qatari government. Indeed, in March 2014 U.S. Department of the Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen described Qatar as a “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing.
Qatari support for both Islamist and jihadist VNSAs became a particular area of concern as the Arab Uprisings brought rapid and chaotic change.
Qatar’s first set of policies designed to back VNSAs during the Arab Uprisings was aimed at toppling Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in Libya. The Libyan rebels’ first state backer, Qatar is said to have spent approximately $400 million on the rebellion, and shipped 20,000 tons of weapons, ranging from small arms to anti-tank missiles. Qatar also played an operational role, taking the lead among Arab countries who joined NATO’s mission and deploying special forces to train rebels in the use of heavy weaponry. And Qatari special forces were seemingly even more involved than that: as the Guardian has reported, “In the final assault on Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli in late August, Qatari special forces were seen on the frontline.”
In its support of anti-Qadhafi rebels, Qatar favored Islamists at the expense of more secular factions. Regardless, the monarchy’s Libya gamble initially seemed to pay off. As previously noted, the rebels felt so much gratitude that the first flag they hoisted after capturing Qadhafi’s Tripoli palace was Qatar’s. The leaders of militia groups backed by Qatar went on to prominent roles in Libyan politics and society after Qadhafi’s ouster. One such group is Hizb al-Watan, or the “Homeland Party.” Al-Watan is led by Ali al-Sallabi, a Salafist cleric who lived in Qatar prior to the Libyan revolution, and who reportedly played a pivotal role in coordinating the distribution of arms from Qatar to Islamist militias.
One fighter who received Qatari support was Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Though Belhadj had a number of connections to al-Qaeda, he was part of the jailed LIFG faction that released a series of “revisions” while incarcerated that rejected any allegiance to al-Qaeda. However, there is reason to question the sincerity of these pledges made under the duress of the Qadhafi regime by LIFG’s jailed leaders, as those same leaders quickly abandoned another pledge they had made as part of the revisions, that they would end their fight against Qadhafi’s regime. According to regional press reports, Belhadj now has a very close relationship with the Salafi jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, which has been named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity by the U.S. Treasury Department, with regional sources claiming that Belhadj shelters its exiled leadership and provides training to its members.23
After the fight against Qadhafi’s government ended, Qatar continued to “arm and fund various militia groups,” specifically favoring Islamist militias. Many Libyans began to resent what they saw as Qatar’s meddling in the country’s domestic affairs. General officer Khalifa Hiftar, who would later lead a push against Libya’s powerful Islamist militias, said in early 2012, “If aid comes through the front door, we like Qatar, but if it comes through the window to certain people [and] bypassing official channels, we don’t want Qatar.”
There were also other visible signs of discontent with Qatar’s role. Three legislators were sued for libel after accusing members of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party of taking money from Qatar, illustrating how politicians are hesitant to be seen as associated with the emirate. Residents of Benghazi burned Qatari flags in the summer of 2013. Discontent with Qatar also apparently prompted an armed group to seize control of an air traffic control tower at Tripoli International Airport in August 2013 to prevent a Qatar Airways flight from landing.
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