Shady Abdel Wahab, expert on security issues
Yemeni media sources reported that Qatar is providing support to the Islah party in Yemen, the political wing of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in that country. The aim of this intervention, according to the reports, is to establish a military wing for the group that will bolster Islah’s ability to extend its influence throughout Yemen and over the state, in the political, military, and security fields.
The article will try to assess the validity of such claims, and the potential objectives that Doha might have in providing support to Al-Islah. The article argues that any Qatar-Islah relationship has to be understood in the light of Qatar’s longstanding policies towards the MB and other Islamists in various conflict zones of the Middle East.
Extending Regional Influence
Doha tried to enhance its regional role after the outbreak of the Arab Spring by supporting Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in several countries that underwent revolutions, notably Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
There is considerable evidence this approach extended to Yemen. In a speech in April 2011, then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh declared: “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar, whose initiative we reject”. This harsh public denunciation was triggered by Qatar’s support for Al-Islah, which was taking a leading role in the then-ongoing effort to oust Saleh.
Doha’s reckless policies of throwing money at Islamist insurgents meant that terrorist organizations ended up benefiting from their largesse. Syria is a prominent case where this happened; Libya and Mali are other such cases. There was even a suggestion, from the French Directorate of Military Intelligence in 2013, that Qatar had gone further and its Special Forces were training fighters linked to Ansar Dine, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in the Sahel area.
It would not be surprising to find the MB and Al-Qaeda operating in close proximity and pushing in the same direction. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has publicly defended uniting with the MB to work against the West. As with many Egyptian jihadists, Al-Zawahiri was brought to Islamist extremism through MB ideologue Sayyid Qutb, about who he wrote favorably in his book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner. Qatar’s money and weapons could therefore easily seep from the MB to Al-Qaeda-affiliated forces.
In Libya, Doha supported Abdel Hakim Belhaj’s Tripoli Brigade. Belhaj was the emir of the “Libyan Islamic Fighting Group”, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, until he was captured by the CIA in Bangkok in 2004. When Belhaj turned his group into a political party, Al-Watan, and contested the 2012 Libyan elections, he did so with massive Qatari financial support. Despite this, Belhaj performed poorly, receiving just 3% of the popular vote, so held no seats in the parliament. Doha also supported the Libyan Justice and Construction Party (Hizb al-Adala wal-Beena), an Islamist outfit affiliated with the MB.
US officials described Libyan Islamists as undemocratic extremists, and were displeased with Qatar’s support for them. For example, the US government blocked an Arizona-based arms merchant from selling weapons to Qatar on the basis that they would be provided to Libyan Islamists.
In Syria, Qatar’s state-controlled satellite channel Al-Jazeera provided favorable coverage to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, and some Qatari officials tried to portray Al-Nusra as a moderate force, giving wide — and credulous — coverage to Al-Nusra’s declaration that it had disassociated from Al-Qaeda. Efforts by Qatar to shift the West’s perception of Al-Nusra failed miserably, though Qatar continues to try to play intermediary between the West and extremist forces. Since June 2013, Doha has hosted the Taliban, which is engaged in negotiations with the US to this day.
Disrupting Regional Rivals
As well as using Islamists to expand its own influence, Qatar has used Islamists to undermine its rivals. According to The New York Times, a businessman close to the emir of Qatar named Khalifa Kayed al-Muhanadi coordinated with the Qatari ambassador to Somalia to organize a car bombing by militants in Bosaso to advance Qatar’s interests by driving out its rival, the United Arab Emirates.
Al-Muhanadi can be heard in a telephone conversation with the ambassador on 18 May 2019, about a week after the bombing, saying, “we know who are behind [the attacks]”, adding: “Our friends were behind the last bombings”. The violence was “intended to make Dubai people run away from there”, Al-Muhanadi said. “Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha”, the capital of Qatar. The attack was claimed by Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia.
This adds credibility to the accusation by the UAE’s ambassador to Russia. Omar Saif Ghobash, that Qatar had collaborated with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. “Our Qatari allies informed Al-Qaeda of our precise location and what we were planning to do”, Ghobash said. It is worth noting here that since at least 2011, AQAP and Al-Shabab have become further enmeshed, so support for one could easily benefit the other.
Taking all of the above factors into consideration, it is highly likely Qatar is trying to use Al-Islah to advance its own ends in Yemen, and would not be far-fetched to believe that Doha is engaging even harder-line forces, too, in an attempt to enhance its influence over the Yemeni state and society.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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