May 11, 2017 | Newsweek

By Hosting Hamas, Qatar is Whitewashing Terror

After getting booted from their first two hotels in Qatar over concerns of violating U.S. terror finance sanctions laws, Hamas leaders held a press conference last week at the Sheraton Grand Doha hotel to announce the release of a new political document. The document, promoted as a more moderate version of the group’s founding charter, is neither a new charter nor is it moderate. Hamas remains committed to violence as a strategy. But the entire episode serves to highlight an ongoing problem: Qatar, nominally an American ally, regularly aids in the whitewashing of terrorist organizations.

Doha is home base for many Hamas figures. The country welcomed Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal in 2012, after Hamas could no longer stomach the Assad regime’s slaughter of Sunnis and Palestinians, prompting him to close Hamas’s offices in Damascus. The new political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, is now on his way to Doha from Gaza, along with a coterie of aides. When Hamas military leader Salah al-Arouri was forced to leave Turkey after planning the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers that sparked the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, he made his new home in Doha in 2015. Ezzat al-Rishq, the spokesman for Hamas, calls Qatar home. We could go on.

Qatar is also Hamas’s ATM. In 2012, the former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani traveled to Gaza and pledged $400 million to the Hamas government. After the 2014 war, Qatar pledged $1 billion over several years to a reconstruction fund for Gaza (more than any other nation). Hamas has reportedly used those funds to rebuild its network of terror tunnels.

Less than half of Qatar’s billion-dollar pledge has been paid out. But earlier this year, Haniyeh announced that Qatar’s new emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani would pay out $100 million to Hamas-controlled Gaza in 2017 alone. And when a recent feud between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority created a massive energy crisis, and sparked protests against Hamas in the Gaza strip, Qatar stepped in and provided Hamas with $12 million for fuel.  

In short, Qatar doesn’t merely tolerate Hamas—it serves as the group’s financial and political patron. And it is now Hamas’s marketing consultant, too. Doha’s fingerprints are all over the attempted political shift conveyed in the political document Hamas released last week at the Sheraton in Doha. We can expect more Hamas repositioning out of Qatar in the days and weeks to come.

And Hamas isn’t the first terrorist group that Qatar has helped to whitewash. When the Nusra Front announced its “split” from Al-Qaeda in 2016, they reportedly did so at Qatar's urging, with promises of increased funding. It happened with the blessing of Al-Qaeda leadership and involved little more than a name change, and a claim made by Nusra’s leaders that they no longer had a “relationship with any foreign party.”

Qatar took the lead in promoting the so-called split, airing two lengthy interviews on its state-owned Al-Jazeera network with Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, Nusra’s leader. Revealing his face to the media for the first time, Jolani talked at length about Nusra’s newfound independence and moderation, under the guise of the new group, known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Of course, he did not renounce his loyalty oath to Al-Qaeda or reject its ideology. And, as Al-Qaeda’s leadership increasingly relocates to Syria, Jolani’s new group can work with them while claiming to reject “foreign” influence—providing a measure of cover for Qatar, as it bankrolls the group in Syria.

The Taliban also benefits from Qatar’s whitewashing operations. In 2013, when the Taliban decided to open up its first “embassy,” it did so in Doha. It was a convenient location because many of the Taliban’s leaders lived there already. After the government of Afghanistan protested, the “embassy” was closed—in name only.  

In 2015, senior Taliban officials traveled to Doha to negotiate the prisoner swap between American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and the notorious Taliban Five, high-level prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Today, the Taliban Five live luxuriously (but under a travel ban) in Doha. The Qataris reportedly paid for the lavish homes of Taliban leaders, and U.S. officials have even quietly met with Taliban leaders there as recently as October 2016.

More broadly, in a recent report by our colleague David Weinberg, Qatar was not able to find “a single specific instance of Qatar charging, convicting, and jailing a U.S. or U.N.-designated individual.” In other words, terrorists roam free in this tiny corner of the Middle East. In some cases, the government actively tries to help them rebrand. In others, the government simply turns a blind eye to their activities.

All of this is rather shocking in light of the fact that we continue to regard Qatar as an ally. Although it must be noted that few on either side would call this an alliance forged on common values. This is a transactional relationship, based on Qatar granting the U.S. military to operate out of a massive air base, Al Udeid, which has become crucial to our forward operations in the Middle East against ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The insanity of this arrangement is highlighted by the fact that the base is essentially down the street from the same hotel were Hamas has unfurled its new political document, and a stone’s throw from the Taliban’s “non-embassy.”

Some in the military insist that this is not a problem. Some beltway analysts insist that the government in Doha is changing. But this amounts to little more than a rebranding campaign of our own. Qatar is sponsoring terrorism. It is time to demand that this shifty Middle East country choose sides.

Jonathan Schanzer is Senior Vice President at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Kate Havard is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @JSchanzer and @KateHavard.