Qatar, the tiny and astronomically wealthy Gulf emirate with a notoriously independent-minded and polarising foreign policy, has often been accused of supporting extremist groups throughout the Middle East.
A lot of those claims have been poorly substantiated. There’s only scant evidence, for instance, that Qatar assisted Ansar al Dine during its brutal occupation of northern Mali in 2012. Other data points suggest that Qatar has at best a worryingly permissive attitude towards individual jihadists: the country’s government recently secured the release of a high-level Al Qaeda operative from US prison. He received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Doha.
On Feb. 24, the Wall Street Journal published some of the firmest proof yet that Qatari officials and other prominent figures gave material assistance for jihadist groups. The Journal reported that “the US has uncovered Qatari connections — such as involvement by members of the emirate’s elite business, religious and academic circles — in financing for Hamas, al Qaeda and Islamic State.”
Although “there are signs Qatar has begun paring back support for the most extreme militant groups following repeated warnings from Washington and certain Arab states,” the Journal details several instances in which Qataris provided funding or other forms of support for a range of terrorist organisations.
Commanders from Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s chief Syrian affiliate, “began visiting Doha in 2012 for meetings with senior Qatari military officials and financiers,” the Journal reported, citing “US and regional Arab government officials.” Abd al-Aziz bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, a cousin of Qatar’s emir, was caught travelling to Beirut to supply funding to Nusra in 2012, and in September, the US Treasury Department “
said publicly that an Islamic State commander had received $US2 million in cash from an unnamed Qatari businessman.”
According to the Journal, during Obama’s first term, members of his National Security Council were so concerned with Qatari support for extremist groups that they lobbied to pull some American aircraft out of Al Udeid aribase, a forward headquarters for US Central Command, in order to convey Washington’s displeasure.
The airbase’s presence in Qatar is a glimpse into why the US hasn’t openly penalised the country for its ties to terrorist groups — unlike the fellow Gulf monarchies of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which temporarily pulled their ambassadors from Doha in March of 2014 to protest the emirate’s allegedly destabilizing regional policies.
For the US, Qatar is valuable precisely because of its ability to partner with the US while maintaining relations with some of the region’s more powerful extremist groups. Washington views Qatar as an inroad to the Taliban and Hamas, and possibly as a facilitator for ransom payments to other regional terrorist groups. At the same time, Qatar hosts a significant US military presence and craves mainstream international acceptance and influence, an aspiration epitomized by the monarchy’s ownership of Al Jazeera’s global media empire and the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
This diplomatic balancing act has been perilous for Qatar, whose support for the Muslim Brotherhood is still a source of strain with Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country. But it’s worked as far as Doha’s relations with the US go. Qatar was allowed to make2014’s single largest international purchase of US weaponry, buying $US11 billion worth of Patriot missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters. And Qatari’s emirmet with president Barack Obama at the White Houseon Feb. 24.
But the Wall Street Journal report shows that for some in the Qatari government, support for extremist groups is more than just a way of currying influence and making Doha indispensable. It’s also a sign that many of the country’s most prominent citizens believe in what extremist organisations like Jabhat al Nusra is fighting for. As the Journal report notes, many in the Qatari government don’t even consider the Al Qaeda affiliate to be a terrorist group.
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