The tiny, gas-rich emirate has pumped tens of millions of dollars through obscure funding networks to hard-line Syrian rebels and extremist Salafists, building a foreign policy that punches above its weight. After years of acquiescing -- even taking advantage of its ally's meddling -- Washington may finally be punching back.
- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based Deca journalist.
ABU DHABI and DOHA — Behind a glittering mall near Doha’s city center sits the quiet restaurant where Hossam used to run his Syrian rebel brigade. At the battalion’s peak in 2012 and 2013, he had 13,000 men under his control near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. “Part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they are loyal to me,” he said over sweet tea and sugary pastries this spring. “I had a good team to fight.”
Hossam, a middle-aged Syrian expat, owns several restaurants throughout Doha, Qatar, catering mostly to the country’s upper crust. The food is excellent, and at night the tables are packed with well-dressed Qataris, Westerners, and Arabs. Some of his revenue still goes toward supporting brigades and civilians with humanitarian goods — blankets, food, even cigarettes.
He insists that he has stopped sending money to the battle, for now. His brigade’s funds came, at least in part, from Qatar, he says, under the discretion of then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah. But the injection of cash was ad hoc: Dozens of other brigades like his received initial start-up funding, and only some continued to receive Qatari support as the months wore on. When the funds ran out in mid-2013, his fighters sought support elsewhere. “Money plays a big role in the FSA, and on that front, we didn’t have,” he explained.
Hossam is a peripheral figure in a vast Qatari network of Islamist-leaning proxies that spans former Syrian generals, Taliban insurgents, Somali Islamists, and Sudanese rebels. He left home in 1996 after more than a decade under pressure from the Syrian regime for his sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of his friends were killed in a massacre of the group in Hama province in 1982 by then President Hafez al-Assad. He finally found refuge here in Qatar and built his business and contacts slowly. Mostly, he laid low; Doha used to be quite welcoming to the young President Bashar al-Assad and his elegant wife, who were often spotted in the high-end fashion boutiques before the revolt broke out in 2011.
When the Syrian war came and Qatar dropped Assad, Hossam joined an expanding pool of middlemen whom Doha called upon to carry out its foreign policy of supporting the Syrian opposition. Because there were no established rebels when the uprising started, Qatar backed the upstart plans of expats and businessmen who promised they could rally fighters and guns. Hossam, like many initial rebel backers, had planned to devote his own savings to supporting the opposition. Qatar’s donations made it possible to think bigger.
In recent months, Qatar’s Rolodex of middlemen like Hossam has proved both a blessing and a curse for the United States. On one hand, Washington hasn’t shied away from calling on Doha’s connections when it needs them: Qatar orchestrated the prisoner swap that saw U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl freed in exchange for five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. And it ran the negotiations with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, that freed American writer Peter Theo Curtis in August. “Done,” Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim Khalifa al-Kubaisi reportedly texted a contact — adding a thumbs-up emoticon — after the release was completed.
But that same Qatari network has also played a major role in destabilizing nearly every trouble spot in the region and in accelerating the growth of radical and jihadi factions. The results have ranged from bad to catastrophic in the countries that are the beneficiaries of Qatari aid: Libya is mired in a war between proxy-funded militias, Syria’s opposition has been overwhelmed by infighting and overtaken by extremists, and Hamas’s intransigence has arguably helped prolong the Gaza Strip’s humanitarian plight.
For years, U.S. officials have been willing to shrug off Doha’s proxy network — or even take advantage of it from time to time. Qatar’s neighbors, however, have not. Over the past year, fellow Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have publicly rebuked Qatar for its support of political Islamists across the region. These countries have threatened to close land borders or suspend Qatar’s membership in the regional Gulf Cooperation Council unless the country backs down. After nearly a year of pressure, the first sign of a Qatari concession came on Sept. 13, when seven senior Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures left Doha at the request of the Qatari government.
Both Qatar and its critics are working to ensure that Washington comes down on their side of the intra-Gulf dispute. At stake is the future political direction of the region — and their roles in guiding it.
Late last week, on Sept. 25, Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept documented how a Washington, D.C.-based firm retained by the United Arab Emirates made contacts with journalists that appear to have yielded articles detailing how fundraisers for groups such as al-Nusra Front and Hamas operate openly in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Foreign Policy also obtained documents from the Camstoll Group, run by former U.S. Treasury Department official Matthew Epstein. Although some of this open-source information is referred to in this article, the vast majority of the reporting comes from months of investigation in the region.
After several weeks of bad press, Qatar is also going on the offensive. “We don’t fund extremists,” Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during his first interview as Qatar’s leader on Sept. 25. Just over a week earlier, Qatar instituted a new law to regulate charities and prevent them from engaging in politics. And on Sept. 15, Doha began a new six-month contract with Washington lobbying firm Portland PR Inc., which may include lobbying Congress and briefing journalists.
So far, Washington appears unwilling to confront Qatar directly. Aside from the U.S. Treasury Department, which last week designated a second Qatari citizen for supporting al Qaeda in Syria and elsewhere, no senior U.S. administration officials have publicly called out Doha for its troublesome clients.
The State Department said that nobody would be available to comment for this article, but released a fact sheet on Aug. 26 that describes Qatar as “a valuable partner to the United States” and credits it with “play[ing] an influential role in the region through a period of great transformation.”
The question is what the United States is prepared to do about Qatar if it fails to stem its citizens’ support for extremist groups, says Jean-Louis Bruguière, the former head of the EU and U.S. Treasury Department’s joint Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, now based in Paris. “The U.S. has the tools to monitor state and state-linked transfers to extremist groups. But intelligence is one thing and the other is how you react,” he told FP by phone. “What kind of political decision is the U.S. really able to make against states financing terrorism?”
Friends of Qatar
There is no more telling indication of Qatar’s ambitions than the fact that Doha taxi drivers are perpetually lost. With construction ongoing everywhere — part of a $100 billion infrastructure plan to prepare for hosting the 2022 World Cup — buildings open and projects come online so fast that the city’s cabbies can’t keep up.
On the world stage, Qatar sees its role as no less grandiose. Beneath the high-chandeliered ceilings of Doha’s five-star hotel lobbies, eager delegations from around the world make their case for support. Governments, political parties, companies, and rebel groups scurry in and out nervously, and then wait over hot tea to have their proposals considered by the relevant Qatari authorities. Which hotel the visitors stay in indicates their prospects for support. The Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton are old favorites; Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has stayed at the former, the Syrian opposition at the latter. The W Hotel is a posh newcomer, mostly housing eager European delegations seeking investment or natural gas. The Sheraton — one of Doha’s first hotels — is by now passé; that’s where top Darfuri rebels stayed during negotiations with the Sudanese government. Everyone wants into the network, because as one Syrian in Doha put it, “Qatar has money and Qatar can connect money.”
The winners in this hustle have often been those with the longest ties to this tiny, gas-rich state — a menagerie of leaders from the global Muslim Brotherhood. Doha was already becoming an extremist hub by the early 2000s, as government-funded think tanks and universities popped up filled with Islamist-minded thinkers. The government-funded Al Jazeera was growing across the region, offering positive media attention to Brotherhood figures across the Middle East, and many of the ruling family’s top advisors were Brotherhood-linked expatriates — men like the controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who heads the International Union of Muslim Scholars from Doha.
What Doha saw in the Muslim Brotherhood was a combination of religiosity and efficacy that seemed parallel to its own. Moreover, the Qatari ruling family sought to differentiate itself from competing monarchies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), both of which frown upon political Islam as dangerously power-seeking. It was pragmatism, argues Salah Eddin Elzein, head of the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, a think tank associated with the Qatar-owned satellite network. “Islamists came [to the region] in the 1980s, and Qatar was trying to ally itself with the forces that it saw as those most likely to be the dominant forces for the future.”
But the global Muslim Brotherhood isn’t Qatar’s only — or even its most important — network. Nor does the royal family subscribe to the Brotherhood’s ideals per se. Often overlooked is a second strand that tows closer to Qatar’s official sympathies: the Salafi movement.
Emerging in the 1990s, activist Salafists merged the purist ideology of Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment with the politicized goals of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of these thinkers would become the first incarnations of al Qaeda, while others gained a strong foothold in liberated Kuwait, where the first activist Salafi political party was formed.
It was in Qatar that the activist Salafists found their benefactor. Over the last 15 years in particular, Doha has become a de facto operating hub for a deeply interconnected community of Salafists living in Qatar but also in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Clerics have been hosted by ministries and called to talk for important events. Charities have touted the cause — charities like the Sheikh Eid bin Mohammad al Thani Charity, regulated by the Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which is “probably the biggest and most influential activist Salafi-controlled relief organization in the world,” according to a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
As early as 2003, the U.S. Congress was made aware that Qatari-based charities were helping move and launder money linked to al Qaeda, providing employment and documentation for key figures in the operation. At the same time, Qatar’s global influence was growing: State-backed Qatar Airways began an aircraft-buying spree in 2007 to fuel its vast expansion, linking the once far-flung emirate to every corner of the world. And by 2010, Al Jazeera had evolved into the Arab world’s most influential media operation, supported by a massive annual budget of $650 million.
Just as the Arab Spring invigorated opposition movements across the Middle East, so too did it electrify Qatar’s network of political clients.
Power projection by proxy
Qatar was the only Gulf country not to view with trepidation the changes that roiled the Arab world starting in 2011. Saudi Arabia was shaken by how quickly Washington dropped its decades-long ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Bahrain convulsed when its majority Shiite population took to the streets to demand greater political influence. The UAE joined Qatar in backing NATO strikes in Libya but was considerably more reticent about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood there and in Egypt, fearing the group would invigorate Islamist-sympathizers among its own population.
Qatar, meanwhile, placed a long bet that political Islam was the next big thing that would pay off. “Qatar believes in two things. First, Doha doesn’t want the Saudis to be the major or only player in the Sunni region of the Middle East,” says Kuwaiti political scientist Abdullah al-Shayji. “Second, Qatar wants to have a role to play as a major power in the region.“
Yet mismatched with its grand ambitions, Qatar’s foreign policy faced a key limitation. The country is home to just under 300,000 nationals, and government decision-making is concentrated in the hands of just a few officials. Lacking their own infrastructure, Qatar sought to amplify its impact by working through its network of Brotherhood and Salafi allies.
“The Qataris usually work by identifying individuals who they think are ideologically on the same wavelength,” says Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London and an advisor to the Qatar Armed Forces. “There is no vetting process per se; it’s ‘these are people we can trust.'”
The first battlefield test of Qatar’s proxy chain was in Libya, where there was a broad regional consensus — as well as U.S. support — to oust then-leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Qatar, together with the UAE, had signed on to Western airstrikes against the regime. But Doha also wanted to help build up rebel capacity on the ground.
“They had to literally go to their address book and say, ‘Who do we know in Libya?'” says Krieg. “This is how they coordinated the Libya operation.” Doha lined up a collection of businessmen, old Brotherhood friends, and ideologically aligned defectors, plying them with tens of millions of dollars and 20,000 tons of arms, the Wall Street Journal later estimated. After a months-long war, the rebels took Tripoli and Qaddafi was dead. Doha’s clients found themselves among the most powerful political brokers in the new Libya. And long after the NATO strikes had ended, some Qatari-backed militias continued to receive support, says Bruguière.
Amid the initial euphoria of the Arab Spring, many expected the nascent summer protests in Syria to quickly topple the Assad regime. Presidents in Tunisia and Egypt had lasted just weeks before resigning, after all, and the world had quickly rallied to oust a more persistent Qaddafi. By August, Washington was calling on Assad to step down as well. Not long thereafter, Qatar began its Syrian operation, modeled on the Libyan adventure.
Like the tendering of a contract, Doha issued a call for bidders to help with the regime’s overthrow. “When we started our battalion [in 2012], the Qataris said, ‘Send us a list of your members. Send us a list of what you want — the salaries and support needs,'” Hossam, the Syrian restaurant owner, remembers. He and dozens of other would-be rebel leaders submitted a pitch. He doesn’t say how much his brigade received, but says his own fundraising efforts for humanitarian goods have yielded hundreds of thousands of riyals.
Qatar’s friends abroad were also at work. Throughout 2012 and early 2013, activist Salafists in Kuwait teamed up with Syrian expatriates to build, fund, and supply extremist brigades that would eventually become groups such as al-Nusra Front and its close ally, Ahrar al-Sham. Using social media to tout their cause and a deep Rolodex of Kuwaiti business contacts, clerics and other prominent Kuwaiti Sunnis raised hundreds of millions of dollars for their clients. They were able to work essentially unhindered thanks to Kuwait’s lax counterterrorism financing laws and its freedoms of association and speech.
One such donor was the young Kuwaiti Salafi cleric Hajjaj al-Ajmi, who on Aug. 6 was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a funder of terrorism for backing al-Nusra Front. Ajmi runs the so-called People’s Commission for the Support of the Syrian Revolution, many of whose campaign posters on Twitter spoke of charity work — giving food or medicine to the needy and displaced. But back in June 2012, Qatar’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs invited the cleric to speak in the coastal city of Al Khor, 30 miles outside Doha, where he argued that humanitarian support alone would never topple the Syrian regime.
“Did you know that bringing down Damascus would not cost more than $10 million?” he intoned, wagging his fingers from his chair in front of the old Syrian flag adopted by revolutionaries. “The priority is the support for the jihadists and arming them.”
In the months that followed, many of Ajmi’s campaigns in Kuwait ran parallel collections in Qatar. Donations could be placed through a representative named Mubarak al-Ajji, according to campaign posters, which affirm he is under Ajmi’s “supervision.” Ajji’s Twitter bio describes him as loving Sunni jihadists who hate “Shiites and infidels.” His timeline is flush with praise for Osama bin Laden.
One of Ajmi’s Kuwaiti colleagues, a cleric named Mohammad al-Owaihan, also used Qatar as a base, calling it his “second country” in a tweet in August. As recently as April, Owaihan solicited Qataris to help prepare fighters for battle on the Syrian coast. “Our jihad is a jihad of Money in Syria,” one poster read, offering contact numbers in Kuwait and Qatar.
These fundraising efforts were well-honed appeals, for example placing donors in special categories for donations of varying sizes. A “gold” gift was 10,000 Qatari riyals ($2,750), while a “silver” donation came in at 5,000 riyals. When particularly generous donations arrived, Ajji and others reported them on Twitter, for example posting photos of jewelry turned over to fund the cause.
Among the grateful rebel brigades that released videos thanking the Kuwaiti cleric Owaihan is Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi group that counted an al Qaeda operative as one of its top commanders until he was killed this year: “O the kind people of Qatar, O people of the Gulf, your money has arrived,” an October 2013 video from the brigade proclaims. Ajmi boasted of his proximity to Ahrar al-Sham on Sept. 9 in a tweet showing the private online message the group’s leader sent him when the Kuwaiti cleric was designated and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
All of these fundraising activities were orchestrated by individuals — not the government — as Qatar has noted in its defense in recent weeks. But this is also exactly the point: By relying on middlemen, Doha not only outsourced the work but also the liability of meddling. And even where it wasn’t involved directly, Qatar is not unaware of what’s going on in its network.
Many clerics in the activist Salafi movement have, like Ajmi, been outspoken in their backing of groups like al-Nusra Front in Syria — views that have found a welcome audience among government-backed organizations in Doha. Saudi cleric Mohammad al-Arefe, who has called for arming jihadists in Syria and Palestine, was invited by Qatar’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs in March 2012 and January 2014 to deliver a Friday sermon and a lecture at Qatar’s Grand Mosque. Kuwaiti Salafist Nabil al-Awadhy — a known fundraiser for groups close to al-Nusra Front — was the featured lecturer in Qatar at a Ramadan festival on July 4, 2014, hosted by a charity and aid group closely linked with the government.
Hostage to proxies
Qatar’s Arab Spring strategy began to fail in the same place it was conceived, amid the masses of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. On July 3, 2013, demonstrators cheered on the Egyptian military’s ouster of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, whose government Qatar had backed to the tune of $5 billion. Within days, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait welcomed the new military-backed government with combined pledges of $13 billion in aid. Days later, Saudi Arabia seized control of backing the Syrian opposition by installing its preferred political leadership. By early fall, Libya was also falling into utter disarray, exemplified by the temporary kidnapping of the country’s prime minister in October 2013. Doha, which had just seen the ascension of a new 33-year-old emir, meekly vowed to focus on internal affairs.
“One of the things about Qatar’s foreign policy is the extent to which it has been a complete and total failure, almost an uninterrupted series of disasters,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “Except it’s all by proxy, so nothing bad ever happens to Qatar.”
In both Libya and Syria, Qatar helped fund internationally backed umbrella groups — but it also channeled support to individuals and militias directly. In Libya, for example, one of Qatar’s main conduits to the rebels, the Doha-based cleric Ali al-Sallabi, clashed furiously with Mahmoud Jibril, a Western-backed leader who served as interim prime minister until he resigned in October 2011, warning of “chaos” as various factions battled for control. Today, that warning seems prescient as Libya is mired in an accelerating battle between various rival militias split along regional and ideological lines. The UAE, using U.S.-made jets and operating out of Egypt, has reportedly undertaken several rounds of airstrikes to roll back Qatari-funded Islamists since mid-August.
But it is in Syria where Qatar’s network most spectacularly misfired. Competition between Qatari and Saudi clients has rendered the political opposition toothless, perceived on the ground as a vassal of foreign powers. Meanwhile throughout 2012 and 2013, the proliferation of upstart rebel groups bred competition for funding. Some of Qatar’s clients became key brigades — groups such as Liwa al-Tawhid, whose leader unified rebels in a fractious fight to control Aleppo. Others like Hossam’s, however, simply folded or lingered weakly, focusing on their own ideals and goals.
In other words, there was no one winner. Qatar and other international powers haphazardly backed dozens of different brigades and let them fight it out for who could secure a greater share of the funding. They had few incentives to cooperate on operations, let alone strategy. Nor did their various backers have any incentive to push them together, since this might erode their own influence over the rebels.
Qatar’s bidding system for support also quickly incentivized corruption, as middlemen began to exaggerate their abilities and contacts on the ground to donors in Doha. “Often, groups would submit maybe 3,000 names, but in reality there would be only 300 or 400 people,” says Hossam, the restaurant owner. “The extra money goes in the wrong way. They would do the same thing with operations. If the actual needs were $1 million, maybe they say $5 million. Then the other $4 million disappears.”
The disarray helped push fighters increasingly toward some of the groups that seemed to have a stronger command of their funding and their goals — groups such as al-Nusra Front and eventually the Islamic State, which split from the al Qaeda affiliate in early 2014. The last year has seen a string of defections from more moderate groups into these extremist elements. In December 2013, for example, former Deir Ezzor Free Syrian Army commander Saddam al-Jamal announced in a video that he was joining the Islamic State because “as days passed, we realized that [the FSA] was a project that was funded by foreign countries, especially Qatar,” he said.
It’s unlikely that the Qatari government — or any Gulf state — ever backed the Islamic State, an organization that today has in its cross-hairs all of the U.S.-allied monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, and vice versa. But as in Jamal’s case, some of the individuals who benefited from Qatari funds did go on to join more radical brigades, taking their experience and arms with them.
“Qatar developed early on relations with rebel groups that later radicalized and joined the Salafi-jihadi universe, including Nusra and possibly [the Islamic State],” explains Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The evolving nature of the Syrian rebellion created often unintended and problematic if at times beneficial entanglements.”
Even as the Syrian opposition gravitated toward the extreme, Qatar argued in late 2012 that the world should worry about radicals later. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al Qaeda,” Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, then minister of state for foreign affairs, argued at a security conference in December of that year.
That sentiment was reiterated by Emir Tamim in his interview with CNN last week, arguing that it would be a “big mistake” to lump together all Islamist-leaning groups in Syria as extremists. Indeed, in all its recent statements rejecting extremism, Doha has mentioned the Islamic State but never al-Nusra Front by name.
Elzein, of the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, defends Qatar’s support for Islamists across the Middle East. He describes the spat between Doha and the other Gulf monarchies as a competition “between powers for the status quo and for change, where Qatar sided itself with change in the region.”
“Qatar’s foreign policy generated a lot of controversy, but perhaps that was part of its very nature,” he says. “When you try something new in a region known to be very conservative, it’s bound to bring that kind of criticism and misperception.”
And indeed, Qatar is far from the only Gulf country whose role in Syria and elsewhere has had negative repercussions. Saudi Arabia has also backed individuals and disparate rebel groups in Syria, and the UAE has sided with specific militias in Libya. In Egypt, a government strongly backed by both countries has overseen mass human rights abuses as it cracks down against the Muslim Brotherhood.
But it’s still hard to see what Qatar has changed for the better. Although its intentions to help the Syrian people were almost certainly genuine, a combination of haphazard methods and support for ideological proxies helped push the opposition toward both radicalization and disarray.
Washington and Doha
Qatar had such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way. In fact, in 2011, the United States gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to in the Middle East: intervene.
Libya was a case in point. When U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration began building a coalition for airstrikes in the spring of 2011, it took an approach later coined “leading from behind”: France and Britain took the lead in implementing the no-fly zone, while Qatar’s and the United Arab Emirates’ involvement demonstrated Arab support. When Doha stepped forward to help organize the rebels, they were broadly welcomed, former U.S. officials said in interviews with FP.
The same was true in Syria. Despite reticence among certain camps of the U.S. government, particularly those who had worked on Libya, it was still the least-worst option: Qatar, an ally of the United States, could help provide a regional solution to a conflict the White House had no interest in getting entangled in. Washington simply asked Doha not to send anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to the rebels, which it occasionally did anyway.
On top of the political convenience was the logistical ease of working with the Qataris. Doha makes decisions quickly — and is willing to take risks. While the Saudis moved slowly getting arms into Syria, the Qataris sent planes to move an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment in 2012 and 2013, reportedly with the CIA’s backing. “Their interagency process has about three people in it,” said one former U.S. official.
The same upsides meant that Washington turned to Doha when it sought to make contact with the Afghan Taliban in 2011 and 2012. The goal was to help smooth the exit of NATO troops from Afghanistan with a political solution. In on-and-off contacts, always made indirectly through the Qataris, the Taliban agreed to negotiate — but first they wanted an office. In June 2013, they got it: a large villa in the embassy district of Doha near a crowded traffic circle known as Rainbow Roundabout.
But Qatar’s advantages soon turned into liabilities. As Doha moved from crisis to crisis, the Qataris showed little ability to choose reliable proxies or to control them once resources had been pumped in. “My view is that Qatari policymaking was a bit amateur. When they got in, they showed no staying power,” the ex-U.S. official said.
In the Taliban case, Doha proved unable or unwilling to stop the Afghan militants from audaciously raising their flag over their new Qatari villa — an act of diplomatic symbolism that infuriated Kabul and scuppered talks before they began. All that could be salvaged from the process, it became clear a year later, was a prisoner exchange that traded U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five top Taliban commanders being held in Guantánamo Bay. Qatar gave its assurances that the five operatives would be under close watch in Doha — but given the country’s history, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t influence the Afghan battlefield.
In Syria, meanwhile, it wasn’t until the Islamic State gained prominence that Washington sat up and took notice. In March, David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, took the unprecedented step of calling out the Qataris in public for a “permissive terrorist financing environment.” Such stark criticism, counterterrorism experts say, is usually left for closed-door conversations. A public airing likely indicated Doha wasn’t responsive to Washington’s private requests.
This summer, the conflict between Israel and Hamas also shone fresh light on Qatar’s links to extremists in Palestine. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been based in Doha since breaking with the Syrian regime in 2012, and Qatar has worked to rehabilitate the group politically and financially ever since. In October of that year, Qatar’s emir visited the Gaza Strip himself, pledging $400 million in aid.
Before and during the latest Gaza war, fellow Gulf states began to lobby in Washington to get tough with Qatar. In 2013, the UAE spent $14 million — more than any other country — on lobbying in Washington, according to data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation. The Camstoll Group, which has been linked to recent media coverage, has held a contract since 2012 that disclosure documents indicate can represent fees of up to $400,000 a month. In the first half of 2013, it earned $4.3 million for activities that disclosure documents describe as advising on matters of “illicit financial activities.” (Disclosure: Foreign Policy‘s PeaceGame program, presented in conjunction with the U.S. Institute of Peace, is underwritten in part by a grant from the UAE Embassy. All FP editorial content, however, is entirely independent.)
Heads have begun to in Washington. In a Sept. 9 hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives, witnesses and congressmen suggested measures that would dramatically recast the relationship between Washington and Doha. In testimony, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, proposed measures that could “send shock waves through the Qatari financial system”: designating charities and individuals in Qatar, putting a hold on an $11 billion arms deal, and even opening an assessment into the cost of moving the U.S. military base away from the emirate.
“Excellent ideas,” hearing chairman Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said in reply to the witnesses. “We ought to take them all and implement as many as we can.”
The U.S. Treasury Department is also stepping up efforts to crack down on al Qaeda and Islamic State funds; on Sept. 24, it designated several individuals with links to Qatar. In addition to a Qatari national alleged to have moved funds from Gulf donors to Afghanistan, the designations include Tariq Bin-Al-Tahar Bin Al Falih Al-Awni Al-Harzi, who gathered support from Qatar, including by arranging for the Islamic State “to receive approximately $2 million from a Qatar-based [Islamic State] financial facilitator, who required that Al-Harzi use the funds for military operations only,” the designation says.
Doha’s pushback in reply is just the latest iteration of a long-running bidding war among Gulf states for Washington’s favor. Qatar has increased its visibility in Washington in recent years, holding active contracts with lobbying groups Patton Boggs, Barbour Griffith and Rogers, and BGR Government Affairs. With its vast philanthropic arms, it has sponsored everything from student exchange programs to the congressional charity baseball game. Since the global financial crisis, various Qatari investment funds have also invested in property in Washington, Chicago, and elsewhere.
Qatar’s money runs even more obliquely as well, through the dozens of consultants, businessmen, and former officials whom it has hired at one point or another. Take the Soufan Group, for example, a well-regarded consultancy on counterterrorism and intelligence. Its founder, Ali Soufan, is also executive director of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS) in Doha, a government-funded center that offers several-week courses to government and military employees. Several other Soufan Group employees are also listed as employees there — an affiliation they rarely disclose in U.S. media interviews. Reached by telephone, Lila Ghosh, communications specialist at the group, told FP that the firm did not do any work on behalf of Qatar within the United States.
QIASS also appears to have given former Obama White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s new PR group, the Incite Agency, one of its first jobs. Just weeks after it opened, Incite handled RSVPs for an event co-hosted by the Soufan Group and QIASS on “countering violent extremism.” The Incite Agency did not return repeated calls from FP seeking to clarify its relationship with QIASS.
But the biggest reason that Qatar is likely to remain in good favor with Washington isn’t money or influence, but necessity. As the United States ramps up a coalition against the Islamic State militants, it will need first and foremost its air base in Qatar, which is serving as the command center for operations — and then once again, the cover of Arab support.
With Syria and Iraq in chaos, both countries are now populated by a range of extremist actors whom Washington won’t want to negotiate with. Doha’s up for that job. Most recently, Qatar was called in to help negotiate the release of 45 U.N. peacekeepers taken captive by al-Nusra Front — and on Sept. 12 it announced that it had successfully won the soldiers’ release. Qatar insists that a ransom was not paid; perhaps the network of Doha-based funders gave the government a certain leverage over the group. Or it just may be that the al Qaeda affiliate wants something even more valuable.
“I think what Qatar can give them is legitimacy,” suggests Krieg. In al-Nusra Front’s official demands regarding the peacekeeper hostages, for example, it had asked to be taken off the U.N. sanctions list. “Nusra wants to be seen as a legitimate partner against [the Islamic State]; Qatar might be able to offer them a platform in the future,” Krieg says.
That’s essentially what Qatar has long offered its friends: a platform, with access to money, media, and political capital. Washington has so far played along, but the question is whether the United States is actually getting played.