Libya’s eastern-based government joined Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in cutting ties with Qatar in June, with Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Deri asserting that Doha was “harboring terrorism.” The move reflected longstanding grievances expressed by Libya’s non-Islamist forces about Qatar’s sponsorship of extremists in the war-torn country. And while the meddling in Libya doesn’t get a lot of coverage, it remains one of the key grievances of Qatar’s foes in the current diplomatic crisis.
Since the 2011 revolution, Libya has been the site of a rather nasty proxy war. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other traditional Gulf states have backed the eastern-based government and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Seeking a more Islamist order in Libya, Qatar and Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood, and more recently, the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC).
According to press reports, Qatar has been sending massive amounts of weapons and cash to Islamist militants battling the Western-backed government in Libya. A March 2013 U.N. report noted that in 2011 and 2012, Qatar violated the U.N. arms embargo by “providing military material to the revolutionary forces through the organization of a large number of flights and the deliveries of a range of arms and ammunition.”
And according to another report in the Egyptian al-Masry al-Youm, Doha has provided more than 750 million euros ($890 million) to extremist groups in Libya since 2011. Arab officials believe that this assistance arrives in Western Libya by way of a commercial airline that is bankrolled by Qatar.
But the Arab states are not simply bothered by Qatar’s support for garden variety Islamists. They allege that Qatar is directly backing the worst of the worst. And they appear to be correct.
According to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of the Baker Institute for Public Policy, “Qatar developed close links with key Islamist militia commanders [in Libya] such as Abdelhakim Belhadj, once the head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and, in 2011, the commander of the Tripoli Brigade.” The LIFG is an al-Qaeda affiliate group that was sanctioned by both the United States and the United Nations.
Belhadj twice met with Osama bin Laden, and he was detained by the CIA in 2004. He launched Hizb al-Watan in 2012, which Arab officials say has maintained close ties to LIFG and received continued support from Qatar.
Ulrichsen also notes the connection between Qatar and “Ismael al-Salabi, the leader of one of the best-supplied rebel militias, the Rafallah al-Sahati Companies. Qatar was widely suspected of arming and funding al-Salabi’s group, whose sudden munificence of resources in 2011 earned it the nickname of the ‘Ferrari 17 Brigade.’”
Ismael al-Salabi’s brother, Ali al-Salabi, is a prominent Libyan cleric close to the emir of Qatar. One Egyptian source claims that he maintains close ties to the LIFG. This is a claim echoed by Arab officials familiar with the situation in Libya.
On June 8, the LNA held a press conference alleging proof of Qatar’s malign role in Libya. The LNA charged that Qatari intelligence General Salim Ali al-Jarboui supported al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Muslim Brotherhood by transferring $8 billion from the Qatari Tunisian National Bank to the Housing Bank of Tataouine Governorate in southern Tunisia.
According to the LNA, Qatar supported the assassination of senior officials, facilitated training of Islamist extremists by Hamas, and helped transport Libyan Islamists to Syria. The LNA also presented a letter purportedly penned by Mohammed Hamad Al Hajri, acting charge d’affaires at the Qatar Embassy in Libya, alleging that Qatar had deployed military units to the country.
In June, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt first issued their “terrorist list” of 59 individuals and 12 entities linked to Qatar, it included one entity (the Benghazi Defense Brigades) and five individuals from Libya. The LNA then released a second list of 75 Libyan individuals and nine organizations tied to Qatar. A third list, issued by the Arab states in late July, include two individuals and six organizations reportedly based in Libya. One highlight of the first list includes Al-Sadiq Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Ghiryani, who previously served the Grand Mufti of Libya, who has called for the destruction of the eastern government.
The allegations of Qatari malign behavior in Libya continue. The Libyan army spokesman just last week described Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey as “the triad of terrorism” in Libya. He also stated that, “a number of Qatari aircraft are regularly landing in Libya in 2017 to support terrorist groups.”
The Libyan war is not likely to be solved anytime soon. Nor is the Gulf crisis with Qatar, for that matter. But putting a stop to Qatar’s meddling in Libya might make it easier to solve both.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.