By David Andrew Weinberg
2 August 2017
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly signed a U.S. cable in 2009 stating that Qatar’s counterterrorism cooperation ranked “worst in the region.” That is unfortunately still the case today.
While Qatar’s neighbours also engage in some practices that are counterproductive in the fight against terrorism, no other Gulf monarchy has a counterterrorism record as bad as Qatar’s in so many different regards. Those pivotal issues include legal impunity for terror financiers, providing a safe haven for terrorists, allegedly paying large ransoms to terrorist groups, and enabling religious and media incitement.
Some observers erroneously argue that the anti-Qatar quartet – comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain – has no grounds for criticizing Doha because its conduct has been functionally equivalent. That view is wrong.
For example, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who has put a hold on all lethal U.S. military sales to the Gulf monarchies until the current crisis is resolved, argues that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi “live in glass houses” and “shouldn’t throw stones at Qatar” regarding terror finance.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who seem to give Qatar’s neighbors a free pass. For instance, President Trump tweeted that when he met with Muslim leaders in Riyadh to discuss the funding of extremism, “all reference was pointing to Qatar.” He later added that “I won’t name other countries” in the region involved in spreading hate or intolerance. This glosses over other inconvenient facts, such as that Trump’s Saudi hosts have continued to publish state textbooks for children that encourage fighting against infidels (such as Jews or Christians) and perceived polytheists (such as Shi’ite Muslims).
Rather than giving Qatar’s neighbours carte blanche, the U.S. should press all of its Gulf allies to improve their counterterrorism practices. And while Washington should seek a timely resolution of the current crisis, it should do so on enforceable terms that address Qatar’s dangerous conduct, including in all the following regards:
Private Terror Finance
In March 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department’s then-Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen stated that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas.” By and large, however, Washington’s concerns about Qatari conduct have focused more on the granting of impunity to terror financiers than on allegations that the state directly funds terrorist groups.
For example, Cohen described Qatar and Kuwait in 2014 as “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorist finance, and he later accused Doha of granting legal impunity to Qatari citizens who are under U.S. and U.N. sanctions for alleged terror finance, including Khalifa al-Subaiy and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Nu’aymi.
Qatar had never convicted a single terror financier before 2015. Since then, it quietly pressed charges against five Qatari nationals who were under U.N. sanctions for allegedly funding al-Qaeda. According to former Treasury officials Katherine Bauer and Matthew Levitt, those five were Subaiy, Nu’aymi, Ibrahim al-Bakr, Sa’d bin Sa’d al-Ka’bi, and ‘Abd al-Latif al-Kawari. All but one are still believed to be in Qatar, but as of July 7, 2017 AP reported that they were still “not imprisoned” despite some of them having been convicted.
Last year, the State Department indicated in its Country Reports on Terrorism that private Qatari entities continued to fund al-Qaeda through at least the end of 2015. In February 2017, a recently retired senior Treasury official stated that designated terror financiers were still “operating openly and notoriously” in Qatar and Kuwait. Former Under Secretary Cohen added this July that Qatar is “markedly worse than others in the Gulf” on terror finance but “not that much worse than Kuwait.”
Like Qatar, it seems Kuwait has yet to take effective legal action against certain U.S. or U.N.-designated terror financiers on its territory. Several individuals sanctioned by the anti-Qatar quartet on charges of terror finance are actually based in Kuwait. Several preachers still listed as faculty members on the website of Kuwait’s flagship public university are currently under counterterrorism sanctions by the U.S., U.N., or anti-Qatar quartet.
The aforementioned cable signed by Hillary Clinton in 2009 strikingly asserted that private donors in Saudi Arabia constituted “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” But Saudi and Emirati policies for combating terror finance have also significantly improved in past years, to the point where they are held upby Washington as model Gulf partners versus terror finance.
Still, Saudi Arabia recently has erred in providing safe haven to two Yemenis under U.S. counterterrorism sanctions. Additionally, the UAE needs to make further progress on combating Iranian sanctions violations on its territory by tightening the regulation of economic free zones across the federation’s seven emirates.
Safe Haven for Terrorists
Qatar and Kuwait have yet to publicly issue lists of banned terrorist organizations. Lists issued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain since 2014 have significant gaps, most notably the absence of Hamas and the Afghan Taliban. Yet only Qatar brazenly provides safe haven to members of terrorist groups, in spite of President Trump’s call for Muslim leaders to “drive out” terrorists and extremists from their midst.
For over half a decade, Qatar has provided a safe haven to Hamas leaders. At least two individuals accused of directing and financing Hamas terrorist cells still appear to be based in Doha. In addition, Qatar hosts senior Taliban leaders. This was originally approved by the Obama administration, but it has not yielded obvious benefits and should be reassessed by the new U.S. administration. Qatar is also home to several leaders of the U.S.-sanctioned terrorist group Gama’a Islamiya, some of whom were personally sanctioned by the anti-Qatar quartet in June.
Qatar allegedly has even paid for the operating or living expenses of many of these individuals. For example, the New York Times reported in July that Doha is now “home to about 100 Taliban officials and their relatives, who live comfortably at Qatari state expense” according to an Afghan official.
Taliban officials have reportedly spent time in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well, but never with such open impunity. Saudi Arabia reportedly released several Hamas financial operatives from jail in 2015, which Qatar reportedly did that year as well.
Alleged Ransoms to Terrorists
In the last five-and-a-half years, Qatar has been described in press reports as a negotiator for at least eighteen different episodes of hostage talks. In most instances, the kidnapper has been identified as a U.S.-designated terrorist group. In some cases, a multi-million dollar ransom was allegedly paid, often allegedly by Qatar. To a lesser degree, Oman has also been accused of paying ransoms to terrorist groups or making payments akin to ransoms for prisoners held by Iran.
According to a Gulf source cited by the Financial Times, the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and sparked the current crisis with Qatar was an enormous alleged ransom payment by Doha for roughly two dozen Qatari nationals, including members of the royal family. According to FT’s sources, Qatar allegedly paid over $100 million to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (a Syrian armed group dominated by al-Qaeda), tens of millions to Ahrar al-Sham (a Syrian jihadist group designated as a terrorist group by the UAE), $300 million to Iran-backed militias in Iraq (including Kataib Hezbollah, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist group), and $400 million to the government of Iran.
All six Gulf monarchies pledged in 2014 to repudiate the ideology that underpins IS and other terrorist groups. Yet Qatar hosted a preacher at its Grand Mosque in 2015 who called for God to “destroy” “the Christians,” “the Jews,” “the Alawites,” and “the Shia.” That same preacher, Saad al-Ateeq, made similar remarks there in 2013. Qatar pledged since Ateeq’s repeat performance to keep him off state television but broke that pledge this year.
Ateeq was also permitted to host a 29-part series of clips this year on Saudi state television, despite having made remarks to a Saudi state broadcaster in 2015 that could be interpreted as calling for ethnic cleansing in Yemen. This June, Dubai’s government hosted a preacher who had apparently endorsed a fundraising campaign that reportedly backed Ahrar al-Sham (which the UAE says is a terrorist group) and another cleric who once said that Osama bin Laden died with more honor and dignity than any non-Muslim.
Finally, there is Qatar’s Al Jazeera, which the U.S. recently described as state-owned and subsidized. Its flagship channel, Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA), frequently gives favorable airtime to terrorists, including but not limited to leaders of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda in Syria. It regularly publishes what it calls a tally of Palestinian “martyrs” since 2015, but most of the individuals on its list were reportedly killed in the act of trying to kill Israeli civilians or security forces.
On all these different dimensions, Qatar’s record has been as bad – if not worse – than its Gulf neighbours.
It is encouraging that Qatar and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding last month on combating terror finance. While its contents remain private, it will reportedly place two U.S. officials inside Qatar’s state prosecutor’s office.
But given Doha’s failure to honour its past counterterrorism commitments to the U.S. as well as to its neighbours, the Trump administration will have to keep focused on ensuring this memorandum’s full implementation and enforcement. Further, there has been no indication whether this agreement does anything to stop Qatar from continuing to grant safe haven to terrorists, allegedly paying ransoms to terrorist groups, and enabling incitement by state-backed media and religious figures.
Resolving the current Gulf crisis is important, but doing so without ensuring that Qatar turns over a new leaf on these various fronts could be counterproductive, consolidating a major counterterrorism problem for years to come.
David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies