Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Vol. 14, No. 30 September 23, 2014
- Qatar is unquestionably engaged in international terrorist financing. According to the U.S. Treasury’s division for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, “Qatar, a longtime U.S. ally, has for many years openly financed Hamas.”
- Qatar aids Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat al Nusra, al-Qaeda affiliates, Libyan Islamists, and even ISIS.
- The key Qatari link to the Muslim Brotherhood has been Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who broadcasts on Qatar’s al Jazeera. In 2002, his foundation was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
- Through the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has attempted to undermine Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family believe they are “worthy of challenging Riyadh [Saudi Arabia].”
During the third Gaza War, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, there was one striking news report in the pan-Arab daily, al-Hayat, claiming that the Qatari government threatened to evict the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, in the event that his organization accepted the latest Egyptian proposal for a cease fire. Mashaal had resisted all diplomatic efforts up until that time to bring the conflict to an end since mid-July, even when many of the front line senior commanders of Hamas in Gaza preferred to reach a halt in the fighting.1
Whether the report in al-Hayat is accurate or not, it has been an open secret for a considerable period of time that Qatar has been engaged in terrorist financing through its assistance to Hamas. On March 4, 2014, David Cohen, the U.S. Under-Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, disclosed: “Qatar, a longtime U.S. ally, has for many years openly financed Hamas…”2
In addition, Qatar provided a base from which Khaled Mashaal could run Hamas operations. But now it had become clear that Qatar was not only providing a convenient sanctuary for the most hard-line part of the Hamas leadership, but it also took an active part in seeing that Mashaal maintained this position. Rather than help resolve the conflict, it appeared that Qatar wanted to prolong and even exacerbate it.
Qatar and Terrorist Financing
On the surface, the ties between Qatar and terrorist financing do not make sense. Most of the emirates along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf are known to be politically conservative –and not revolutionary. In contrast to Iran, they are status-quo powers. Qatar, moreover, has developed close defense ties with the United States; since 2003, the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has been located at the al-Udaid airbase in Qatar. Nevertheless, at the same time, Qatar has forged ties with some of the most problematic movements in the Middle East. In that sense, Qatar’s outreach to Hamas is not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a broader trend in Qatari foreign policy, which has serviced much of the jihadist network in the Middle East and not just Hamas.
For example, in June 2013, the Taliban were permitted to open a quasi-diplomatic office in Qatar. In December 2013, the US Department of the Treasury announced a prominent Qatari was backing al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq. The charity official, Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nu’aymi, was a professor at Qatar University and had served as an adviser to government-backed charities in Qatar. But he was also a conduit for Qatari-based donors and the al-Qaeda network.3 Another Qatari charity has been mentioned by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria, as a preferred vehicle for funding. Another Middle Eastern source has stated that Qatar shares in the responsibility for Jabhat al-Nusra having “money and weapons and everything they need.”4
The Qatari role in terrorist financing keeps emerging in many locations. The UN Security Council approved the addition of six individuals to the al-Qaeda sanctions list on August 15, 2014, including Hamid Hamad al-Ali, who, it maintained, had participated in financing the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).5 Al-Ali actively solicited contributions in a video appeal filmed in Qatar.
Qatar was also active in North Africa. The French press carried repeated reports that Qatar was financing jihadist elements in Northern Mali, including MUJAO (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), Ansar Dine (affiliated with al-Qaeda), and even secularist Tuareg separatists belonging to the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad). There were also reports quoting the French Directorate of Intelligence (DRM) claiming that Qatar was financing AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb). Prior to the French intervention in Mali, its northern region was emerging as an African Afghanistan. Notably, the Qatari Red Crescent was the only humanitarian organization operating in Northern Mali after the Islamist takeover.
Qatar also has extensive ties to Islamist elements fighting in Libya since Qaddafi’s overthrow.6 Sheikh Ali al-Salabi was a Libyan Islamist with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood who took refuge in Qatar in 1999 but later returned to Libya, where he served as a conduit for Qatari-supplied arms to Islamist forces. Indeed, after Qaddafi’s fall, Libya’s transitional prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, complained that Qatar was still arming extremist groups in Libya opposed to his leadership.7
The Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar’s Leading Client
Thus Qatar’s outreach to Islamist movements has been extensive. The most important Islamist connection for Qatar is the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has not only backed its Middle Eastern activities, but it has also emerged as one of the largest institutional funders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe.8 Qatar has been accused of supporting a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist cell that was discovered in the UAE in 2012.9
The key player in the Qatari link to the Muslim Brotherhood has been Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In 1961, he was sent by al-Azhar University in Egypt to head its Qatari branch. Since that time, he has emerged as a most important spiritual authority in the international Muslim Brotherhood movement. He also became the supreme religious authority for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, Hamas. Through his fatwas, which were featured on Hamas’ website, he supported Hamas suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians; he also supported suicide attacks against US forces in Iraq. He established a global charity, known as the Union of Good, which served as a conduit for Hamas financing.
Qaradawi’s Union of Good was outlawed by Israel in February 2002. In December 2002, the charity network was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Undoubtedly, when Saudi Arabia turned against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2002, the Qatari connection became even more important for the movement.10 In the aftermath of 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, gave an interview to the Kuwaiti daily, al-Siyasa, in which he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for many of the security problem in the Arab world, explaining that in the past, the Saudis gave Muslim Brotherhood activists refuge and support, but he implied that Saudi policy would now change. By 2014, the Saudis finally decreed the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, making Qatar stand out as its main supporter.
In the meantime, Qatar used its ownership of the al-Jazeera satellite network to promote the Muslim Brotherhood and to attack and even undermine Arab regimes. Al-Jazeera programming reveals Qatar’s regional agenda in support of extremist groups. Indeed, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar in 2009, Joseph LeBaron, wrote a cable, that was subsequently leaked, which underscored the role of al-Jazeera in communicating official Qatari policy: “Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel will continue to be an instrument of Qatari influence…”11 Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi was given a regular television program on al-Jazeera which he used to promote Muslim Brotherhood ideology and reach tens of millions of Sunni Muslims. This September, al-Jazeera appeared to sympathize with ISIS when it ridiculed the beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Satloff as a “Hollywood show” that was being used as a pretext for military intervention in Syria.12
Qatar: Geographical and Historical Sources of its International Behavior
Given all this activity, it is striking the extent to which Qatar is only a tiny country. Its total land area is 11,586 square kilometers. It has a population of 2,123,160, but only a little over 10 percent are actually citizens, the rest foreign workers. It has vast oil reserves, but its proven reserves of natural gas are the third largest in the world, coming after Russia and Iran. Given its enormous hydro-carbon resources and miniscule population, it has the highest per capita income in the world. A secondary result of this situation is that the Qatari government also has the ability to use its budget to assist movements with which it identifies and states which it supports.
Qatar’s origins as a modern state can be traced back to November 3, 1916, when the British government included Qatar in its special treaty system along the Arabian coast, whereby the British recognized the Al Thani clan as Qatar’s rulers and undertook to protect them, while Qatar surrendered its external sovereignty to Britain. British protection was important for it came at a time when Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, was extending Saudi rule throughout much of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Saudis viewed Qatar as part of the al-Hasa region over which they had sovereignty. The conflict was exacerbated in the 1930s when U.S.-based oil companies led by Standard Oil of California acquired the concession for Saudi oil, while British-dominated oil firms, led by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, acquired the oil concession for Qatar.
Qatar became independent in 1971. Even in modern times, the Qatari leadership remained concerned about Saudi encroachments even though the period of the consolidation of these states was mostly over. Through a series of agreements between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1974, Qatar relinquished its claim to territory along its southern frontier, conceding it to Saudi sovereignty. As a result, Qatar lost its territorial contiguity with the UAE and remained bottled up in the peninsula.13
National Sovereignty Based on Tribal Allegiance
Given its small dimensions, where does Qatar get its ambition to become a much larger player in regional politics? There are multiple explanations given. It is also often forgotten that tribal politics are extremely important in the Arabian Peninsula. J.B. Kelly, the noted British expert on territorial disputes in the Arabian Peninsula, once commented how historically “a ruler exercised jurisdiction over territory by virtue of his jurisdiction over the tribes inhabiting it.”
The Al Thani family belong to the Bani Tamim tribe, which came out of the Najd, the area from which the Saudis also owe their origins, but the Bani Tamim have spread themselves to all parts of the peninsula. While the Bani Tamim tribe crosses state lines, it is believed that since it currently does not have a leader the Al Thani aspired to that position to exercise influence in tribal affairs. The Qataris used a link between the Bani Tamim and tribes in Eastern Libya as part of their justification for intervening in the Libyan state. In August, Bahrain’s Prime Minister Amir Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa accused Qatar of buying the loyalty of leading tribes in Bahrain.14
One recent commentary observed that today there are Al Thani members who believe they are “worthy of challenging Riyadh.”15 A rumor which illustrates concern with the extent of Qatar’s territorial ambitions spread in early 2014. Allegedly, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, Qatar’s previous prime minister and foreign minister, spoke with former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in early 2011, and the contents of the conversation were leaked. According to the story, Bin Jassim supposedly suggested that Saudi Arabia would soon unravel and Qatar would be prepared to seize one of its eastern provinces.16
The Qatari-Hamas Connection
Qatar’s ties with Hamas grew after the organization’s position in Jordan no longer remained tenable after 1999, and its offices in Amman were closed. In November 1999, Khaled Mashaal and Hamas political leaders were deported from Jordan and were put on a Qatari private jet that took them to Doha, Qatar’s capital. Hamas was even having problems with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood at the time. Hamas-Jordanian relations continued to deteriorate. By 2006, a military plot by a Hamas cell against Jordan had been uncovered; the Hamas suspects confessed on Jordanian television. Their weapons, including Katyusha rockets, were displayed. The main sanctuary of Hamas was still in Syria, but Qatar emerged as a convenient alternative center for Hamas leaders.17
Meanwhile, the Qatari-Hamas relationship grew. In 2012, the former Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani became the first head of state to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. He pledged $400 million to Hamas. Support for Hamas continued even after Sheikh Hamad turned power over to his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on June 25, 2013. The commitment of Qatar to its Hamas ties was demonstrated in a statement made by Sheikh Tamim in a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas on August 21, 2014, which was leaked: “The U.S. and the Arabs are angry at us for hosting Hamas, but I say it is an honor for us” (emphasis added).18 This strong statement in support of Qatari-Hamas relations was made just after Abbas informed Sheikh Tamim that Hamas was trying to overthrow his Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
Given this Qatari attitude, it should come as no surprise that the Emir is planning to resume his financial assistance to Hamas after Operation Protective Edge. According to news reports, Sheikh Tamim told Hamas’ Prime Minister Ismail Haniya that Qatar is making preparations to transfer funds to help rebuild the Gaza Strip.19 Indeed, even before the war ended, Qatari fundraising foundations planned events for this very purpose. On August 8, the Qatari Red Crescent raised more than $10 million at an event at which a Hamas leader, Hussam Badran, appeared and spoke. In December 2013, Badran used his Twitter account to support bombing attacks in Tel Aviv. Another Qatari charity known as the Eid charity, set a goal of raising $30 million for the Gaza Strip.20
True, U.S. officials have pointed to Qatar having a role, along with Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the air strikes against ISIS in Syria, which the U.S. led on September 22.21 But the Qatari tie to radical Islamic organizations runs deep and it is highly unlikely that this allied effort against ISIS, by itself, will lead to new Qatari behavior that is more responsible than in the past.
When Qatar’s former Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, once discussed the movement of the Hamas leadership from Jordan to Qatar, he repeatedly told the late King Hussein that welcoming Hamas would provide Qatar with a plausible cover for its relations with Israel.22
The Qatari excuse was not serious: Qatar continued to host Hamas even after Israel’s Trade Office in Doha was shut. Looking back at the broad set of ties between Qatar and Islamist movements across the Middle East, there appear to be other explanations for the Hamas presence in Qatar that should be considered:
- Qatar has an interest in exploiting the chaos created by the Arab Spring to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambition to topple the traditional regimes in the Middle East.
- By buying influence with the Muslim Brotherhood network, Qatar hoped to be in a position to build its power base with the new Muslim Brotherhood regimes that it expected would emerge.
- Qatar still fears its large western neighbor, Saudi Arabia, as its primary threat, so it is depending on these Muslim Brotherhood regimes as leverage against Riyadh.
- Certainly the best leverage that Qatar could turn against Saudi Arabia would come from a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt, which explains Qatar’s generosity toward President Morsi prior to his overthrow by the Egyptian military.
- This year Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar because it was undermining their regimes. Unless Qatar is forced to fundamentally alter its policy in the region, it will continue to back Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other terrorist groups threatening Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors.
* * *