The tragic explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, last week has occasioned many reactions in the Middle East region and beyond. Numerous states have pledged or began donations or other kinds of help. French President Emmanuel Macron rather bravely walked among the angry crowds in the streets of Beirut—and found them asking that his country restore the Mandate to save them from their venal political class, which has, once again, destroyed their city. This latter fact, the responsibility borne by the Lebanese leadership cadre for what has happened, points to an important consideration that we must not to lose sight of at this emotional moment—the risks involved in putting money into Lebanon.
From France all the way to Australia, promises have been made of monies to aid Lebanon. Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised early elections in Lebanon on August 8, four days after the explosion in Beirut, as the fury of the population boiled over, with numerous ministries occupied by protesters and clashes ongoing with the security forces—not to mention attacks on Lebanese diplomatic facilities outside the country.
When these elections will take place, under what conditions, and what they will solve if the same system and cast of characters are used is unclear. But it could provide a fig-leaf of “reform” to justify putting money into the hands of those politely known as the “Lebanese government”. This is the first risk, moral as well as practical: paying into a system that created this crisis and by doing so helping to perpetuate this system. This has already happened in neighbouring Syria, where the so-called international community, acting through the United Nations ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, has pumped tens of millions of dollars into the most corrupt and brutal patronage networks of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The other obvious risk relates to Hezbollah, the Lebanese extension of the Islamist revolutionary government in Iran that de facto controls Lebanon. Hezbollah is on the list of designated terrorist organisations in most Middle Eastern and Western countries, thus transferring money to it is a crime.
The attempt to work around Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon was the driving force behind the debate in Western countries, mostly the European Union, about whether their designation applied to the whole organization or just the “military wing” of Hezbollah. This distinction between military work—what Hezbollah calls “jihad” or “resistance activities”—and political action does not in fact exist within Hezbollah. As the group’s own deputy leader, Naim Qassem, has explained: the group is a “hierarchical pyramid structure” with all instructions flowing from Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. This debate, such as it was, now seems to be drawing to a close, with Germany the most recent country to change its law to reflect reality. A curious exception is Australia, where, despite quite intense levels of Hezbollah criminal and terrorism activity, the government only designates the External Security Organization (ESO), a legal line that is very nearly as difficult to police in theory as it is in practical.
While the unintentional transfer of resources to Hezbollah is a concern, there is also the concern that actors will use this situation to intentionally provide Hezbollah with resources, under the cover of humanitarian aid. It was reported at Fox News last week by Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, and journalist Jonathan Spyer, that a “private security contractor”, named only as Jason G. for legal reasons in Germany, has compiled a dossier after he says he infiltrated “Qatar’s weapons procurement business as part of an apparent sting operation” that a member of Qatar ruling monarchy has “financed weapons deliveries” to Hezbollah.
What is notable is the mechanism by which this financing occurred: “According to the dossier, two Qatari charities furnished cash to Hezbollah in Beirut ‘under the guise of food and medicine.’ It named the organizations involved as the Sheikh Eid Bin Mohammad Al Thani Charitable Association and the Education Above All Foundation.” The involvement of these and other Qatari charities should be subject to scrutiny.
“Jason G., who has worked for various intelligence services, confirmed to Fox News that his dossier was viewed as relevant and authentic by top German intelligence officials”, and the authors say they have themselves “verified” the dossier. The reporting also fits a broader pattern of Qatari behaviour.
For example, Qatar’s charities have caused problems elsewhere, notably in Syria and Sudan, where they have been accused of collaborating with extremists and promoting extremism. And Qatar’s links with Hezbollah and other militias under the control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are well-documented.
In mid-2017, Qatar paid nearly $1 billion to some of IRGC’s most vicious sectarian militias in Iraq and to Sunni jihadists in Syria as part of a ransom deal. Qatar has a history of using ransom payments as cover to channel funds to extremists.
In early 2018, the administration of United States President Donald Trump was moved to ask Qatar to cease its activities in relation to Hezbollah and the broader IRGC after leaked emails disclosed that senior Qatari officials were on friendly term with Iranian terrorist leaders, including Nasrallah and the late Qassem Soleimani, who led IRGC’s foreign operations.
This reckless behaviour from Qatar, threatening the security and stability of the region, is what led the Anti-Terror Quartet to impose the boycott against Doha in 2017, which has shown some success in limiting Qatar’s ability to create trouble throughout the region—though, as these latest reports seem to indicate, there is work still to do. At this critical time as the US tries to construct a policy to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Tehran uses IRGC-run militias to kill Americans at military bases, Qatari support for these militias raises a worrying question about the wisdom and safety of the US maintaining its forces at Al-Udeid in Doha.
This is a time to help the Lebanese mourn and to heal, the physical wounds to their people and their capital city, and their divided politics. This will not be helped by allowing external powers with nefarious agendas to take advantage of this situation. There must be transparency in the aid that Beirut so desperately needs.
 Qassem, N. . Hizbullah: The Story from Within, translated by Dalia Khalil, pp. 125-31