Three years ago today, on 5 June 2017, a boycott was imposed on Qatar by the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. The ATQ had been trying to bring an end to Qatar’s troubling behavior—namely sponsoring terrorism, extremism, and interfering in the politics of its neighbors—in an overt way since 2014, and Doha had refused all efforts to compromise. In the intervening period, while Qatar has made a lot of noise about being reformed, the evidence of such is rather thin.
A major issue that the ATQ had with Qatar was its sheltering and giving platforms to figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom are wanted in their home countries for membership in an organization that is banned as terrorist in Quartet states or for participation in acts of violence or both. Today, despite token efforts to crack down, most of these people remain at large in Qatar.
Take the case of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood member and one of the most influential clerics in the Sunni world, he was and remains a fixture of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari state channel, with millions of viewers as he elaborates on extremist views such as supporting suicide bombing. Qatar’s close ally, Turkey, now provides a reinforcing media environment for this incitement, with the few terrorists and extremists that Qatar did expel now resident in Istanbul and free to agitate against the governments of their homelands, notably Egypt.
The problem of Qatari finance to the Brotherhood and other Islamist extremists in the West, whether that is Britain, the Netherlands, or elsewhere continues apace. A recent prominent case is Tawakkol Karman, who is closely linked to the governments of Qatar and Turkey, and is a member of Yemen’s Al-Islah, the local manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Karman was chosen for Facebook’s oversight board, despite her known Islamist politics.
Among the initial complaints from the ATQ against Qatar was that Doha had supported Al-Qaeda-connected figures like Abd al-Hakim Belhaj in Libya and Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or HTS).
The support to Al-Nusra was carried out in a number of “deniable” ways. One was through support of Ahrar al-Sham, a more localized Salafi-jihadist group, which as one expert put it “serve[d] as a bridge between Al-Qaeda and the mainstream rebels”. Resources poured into Ahrar by Qatar flowed through to Al-Nusra.
Qatar’s propaganda channel Al-Jazeera and Al-Qaradawi, too, saturated the airwaves with support for Ahrar, which in turn helped Al-Nusra raise recruits and money. But Qatar went beyond indirect media support for Al-Nusra: the emir of Al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, was brought onto Al-Jazeera repeatedly to spread his extremist ideology while claiming to be a moderate whose only interest was fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. (Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Syrian war in general inflamed sectarianism and empowered the most extreme elements of the insurgency. Faisal Qasim advocating genocide against Alawis, the sect from which Assad comes, was a low moment.)
Then there was Qatar acting as hostage broker for Al-Nusra: when Westerners were kidnapped, Doha would facilitate the transfer of cash to Al-Nusra, funding the group’s operations and allowing it to overpower the moderate opposition, and then facilitate the release of the hostage, gaining political credit from Western governments. This highly negative but self-reinforcing feedback loop went on for many years, and has now resulted in charges being brought in an American court against Qatar for terror-financing.
This is not exhaustive even on what Qatar did with Al-Nusra; it does not delve into the financiers camped in hotels on the Turkish border who gave freely to Al-Nusra, and beyond Al-Nusra it does not deal with the billion-dollar deal Qatar did that sent money to both Al-Nusra and Iran, Sunni and Shi’a extremists, while facilitating the ethnic cleansing of four Syrian towns.
When challenged on such behaviours, Qatar has often falsely claimed to be engaging bad actors for pragmatic reasons or even to moderate them. Again, as the example of Al-Nusra shows, this is wrong; a group was empowered to the point that it swallowed the Syrian rebellion.
So, have these tactics ended? No, they have not.
In Libya, Al-Qaeda-linked figures continue to benefit from Qatari largesse (and Turkish logistics and military support), as in Syria. In Sudan, the Qatari regime has used “humanitarian” fronts to forward its Islamist message in the wake of Omar al-Bashir’s downfall, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups to empower them as the post-dictatorial power-struggle plays out.
In Africa, from Nigeria in the west to Somalia in the east, Qatar is there with its chequebook to pay Islamist militants who take Westerners hostage. The case last month of Italian citizen Silvia Romano, released by Al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, Al-Shabab, after Qatar’s intercession, drew from the same playbook.
In Somalia, Qatar has even, as The New York Times reported, gone a step beyond what it has (provably) done in Libya and Syria by directly orchestrating a terrorist attack against the U.A.E. through Al-Shabab. Somalia’s former intelligence chief confirmed that Qatar conspired to fund Al-Shabab.
And as experts have made clear, Qatari commitment to disseminating extremist propaganda and boosting the message of extremists like Al-Qaradawi—who is embraced personally by the Qatari emir every year during Ramadan—remains undiminished.
Away from regional politics directly, in our interconnected world domestic repression is not solely an internal affair, and Qatar’s abusive domestic practices, specifically the mistreatment of the migrant workers, has become more dangerous to everybody during the coronavirus pandemic, with possible regional effects; time will tell.
President Donald Trump initially supported the ATQ’s boycott of Qatar, but he is a fickle man and Qatari lobbying was well-executed. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Trump is to make another effort at resolving the Gulf dispute as it enters its fourth year. As ever with Trump peace deals, the presentation and the intent are somewhat mismatched, to the extent anyone knows what they are. Moreover, given how little progress Qatar has made, and the increased cohesion and strength of the anti-extremism bloc, which has forged ties with other like-minded actors such as Russia, it is difficult to see what incentive there is to reconcile with Qatar at this stage.