Qatar is a growing influence inside the United States. But its reputation as a peacebuilder and a counter-extremism ally, which it uses for both foreign policy goals and domestic outreach to US public and influencers, has been built on deception and disinformation.
Is Qatar a hero or a villain in the story of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the events that led to and followed the Taliban’s takeover of the country?
Qatar is lauded for being a quintessential US ally and an important bulwark against Iran’s aggression in the region. It is also a growing investor in various US sectors, industries, and states – such as real estate and aviation in South Carolina and Florida, in particular.
Qatar has invested millions into lobbying to enhance its public image in the US and to present itself as a modern country and an important business counterpart that has been wrongfully demonized by other GCC states. Most importantly, Qatar claims to be a US ally in the fight against terrorism and a credible power broker and intermediary with various regimes and non-state actors in the Middle East. It has made its presence known in various ways throughout the United States, building ties with federal, state, and even local officials, humanitarian and human rights NGOs, think tanks, industry leaders, universities, the US military, intelligence agencies, religious centers and interfaith dialogue groups, the Silicon Valley, and national, and increasingly local media.
The State Department has recently praised Qatar for its role in hosting the US base, in evacuating Afghan refugees, and mediating the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
Facts on the ground tell a different story. Qatar is a growing influence inside the United States. But its reputation as a peacebuilder and a counterextremism ally, which it uses for both foreign policy goals and domestic outreach to US public and influencers, has been built on deception and disinformation.
Qatar’s Role in Legitimizing the Taliban
Qatar’s state-funded mouthpiece Al Jazeera had been on the ground in the early years following US invasion of Afghanistan, coordinating with Al Qaeda on the ground , according to Sarah Chayes, and giving platform to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
In Afghanistan, as in many other conflicts around the world, Doha had used its media conglomerate as a tool of foreign policy, to shape narratives, incite violence, instigate conflicts, and build support for the parties Qatar backed. However, with respect to the Taliban, Qatar did not stop at providing favorable media coverage and whitewashing its ties to Pakistan’s ISI and to terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Indeed, it would be odd to expect Qatar to hold a different policy concerning these organizations, given that Qatar had given political cover to the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who now stands trial – with very little fanfare or media coverage – in the United States. Instead, Doha went full force supporting Taliban by allowing its leaders to open political office in Doha, and by accepting the five Guantanamo detainees released by President Obama in exchange for the captured runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl. These detainees now have senior positions in the Taliban government.
Those who believed that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan following the announcement of the US withdrawal was sudden, meteoric, or unexpected have missed the role Qatar had played in providing the organization with political legitimacy. In fact, Taliban had been engaged in parallel discussions with a number of states, including Russia, China, and Pakistan, even before the Trump administration engaged in formal talks with its leadership – all thanks to the office Taliban held in Qatar. This level of notoriety facilitated Taliban’s outreach and recruitment of followers, supporters, and defectors across Afghanistan, and motivated its fighters while the Pentagon turned a blind eye on the physical progress made by Taliban in takeover of the territory over the years. For years, the role of Russia, Iran, and of course, the ISI had been discussed as a matter of providing Taliban with weapons and funding. In fact, Taliban has reportedly built a parallel state years prior to the start of the peace talks in areas of the country, which has been publicized by the Western media but ignored by the US government’s official comments. State building requires significant funding, far beyond the financing allocated to special operations by intelligence agencies. Institutionalization of the Taliban would have been extremely unlikely without consistent infusions of cash and significant state backing.
When the US finally decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, Doha enthusiastically volunteered to mediate the talks. By all appearances, either the Trump administration had been misled by the Pentagon and entrapped by Doha, or it simply ignored inconvenient information about the rapid rise of Taliban and knowing the high likelihood of Taliban’s takeover proceeded to enter the deal regardless. Leaving aside the discussion about the level of preparedness by the Afghan army (the Taliban’s territorial progress over the years speaks for itself and should have been a clue to NATO that for whatever reason Taliban was at a military advantage and increasingly likely to prevail in combat), the level of corruption of the Afghan central government, and the dubious agenda of the US defense contractors, observing the role of Doha in the negotiations makes it clear that once again Qatar was selling a convenient fantasy to the United States, which served as a thin veneer for its apparent role in masterminding the very crisis it helped resolve.
By September 7, 2021 Bloomberg had questioned Qatar’s ability to deliver the “moderate” Taliban it had supposedly promised to the Trump administration. At the start of the peace talks, the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had claimed that the Taliban could be a “security partner” for the United States, following years of propaganda from the Pakistan government which had claimed that the Taliban had split into the “Afghan Taliban” and the TTP, and that the Afghan Taliban had actually become a threat to Pakistan itself.
Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn from the FDD, who unlike most media and analysts of the conflict, uncovered Pentagon’s deception concerning Taliban’s rise, describe the false narrative about the “Good Taliban” (including the Al Qaeda linked-Haqqani network, which now runs security for the Taliban government) and the TTP, which Pakistan had turned a blind eye to, and the US appears to have accepted without questioning. These connections go back to at least 2014, prior to the Trump administration. The US Defense Intelligence Agency documented the training centers in North Waziristan, which had been affiliated with the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, all training together and acting in concert.
During his most recent appearance at the UN General Assembly session, Emir Tamim called for a “separation” between the political treatment of the Taliban, and humanitarian aid, suggesting that the international community should reinstate humanitarian aid to Taliban, following the similar strategy it has already adopted with the Houthis in Yemen after their delisting from the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation. Indeed, only days after, the US has proceeded to grant OFAC license for the renewed aid packages. The Taliban responded by promising to return to executions and amputations, which drew muted condemnations from Western governments, and clashed with the image of a “moderate” political organization Qatar publicized to the US public during the peace talks. “Cutting off hands is very necessary”, said the “moderate” Taliban official, drawing questions about what an extremist Taliban policy would look like if this is what Doha considers “moderation”.
Qatar’s Reported Support for Hezbullah, Houthis, and Al Qaeda Affiliates
This information – Taliban’s links to the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and other extremists – is available in open source searches; it is rather amazing that Doha made representations to the Trump and later to the Biden administration, that Taliban somehow divested from its terrorist connections and could be relied upon to act as a “moderate” political party. There has been no evidence for any changes in Taliban’s methods, affiliations, or ideology from the start of the negotiations until the botched withdrawal. Furthermore, another “moderate” political party which rose upon promises of a “social jihad” and then promptly proceeded to make use of the country’s embedded corruption to divert funding to the benefit of narcoterrorism and the funding of Iran’s Islamic Revolution is Lebanon’s Hezbullah. The “Party of God” had previously benefited from the cultivation of drugs in Afghanistan. None other than Taliban made use of the “trade” to rise over the years, forging relationships with the corrupt warlords in charge of opium.
Not only had these trade ties between highly immoderate foreign-backed insurgencies had been well known to the US government, but they had been equally well known to Doha which made guarantees it could not possibly deliver on. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Doha had in fact allegedly provided funding to Hezbullah via charitable donations, according to the information provided in the German press.
The links between Doha and Hezbullah do not end with this alleged incident. According to the American intelligence contractor Jason G, cited in Der Zeit, The National, and other publications, Qatar had also provided the Hezbullah trained Iran-backed Houthis with Chinese made drones, which featured parts manufactured in Germany. Following these revelations, Germany stopped Iran from procuring the mini-engines found in those drones. The Houthis had used these drones, funded by Qatar, to attack Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s support for terrorist groups of various ideological stripes, appears to be a feature, rather than a bug, consistent over the decades of rule, first by Emir Hamad, and later, after his abdication, by his son Emir Tamim Al Thani. An ongoing lawsuit in UK by a group of Syrians captured and tortured by the Al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the Al-Nustra Front alleges that Qatar had diverted funding to Nusra after a sham abduction of royal members by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. Qatar had paid approximately $1 billion in ransom in exchange for their release, at least $50,000 of which had gone directly to Qassem Suleimani. The deal also included the access to two key cities in Syria by Iranian operatives. US Treasury officials indicated that Qatar’s relationships with extremist groups, such as the Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria preceded the ransom incident, and continued after. For instance, Qatar had been accused of illicit arms support to extremists in Syria. That would be consistent with Qatar’s ongoing smuggling of arms to militias in Libya and Somalia, which had been associated with terrorism and human rights abuses.
Some of the smuggled arms reach Somalia from Yemen, where in turn they are received from Iran through shipments via Somalia routes. In some cases, this policy precedes the reign of the current Emir Tamim, going back to the Arab Spring and even years prior to it. Qatar Charity, an international humanitarian organization well established in the Horn of Africa and funded by the members of the Al Thani family, is widely acknowledged to be the financier of these efforts. Still, due to their humanitarian cover, the UN did not push for the sanctions of its affiliates involved in these activities.
Qatar’s Use of “Mediation” as a Cover for Closer Ties with Terrorist Groups
This pattern of appearing as a benefactor while instigating conflicts in various hotspots around the world has provided Qatar with a useful public role as a broker for various dubious deals, while earning it goodwill with the White House and other Western governments. Qatar even managed to earn recognition as an important partner in the US-GCC joint fight against terrorism, while funding it behind the scenes. All it took was to agree to sign off on a joint agreement with the US to fight Hezbullah financing. In particular, Qatar had used this uncanny ability to generate positive publicity for helping “solve” the very crises it catalyzed throughout the 2017 Gulf Crisis.
Following the imposition of the boycott on the country by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain), Qatar engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign. Then-President Trump who reacted to the breakout of the hostilities which nearly ended in combat by criticizing Qatar for its support of terrorism, and after being contradicted by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, two days later changed his mind praising Doha for its important role in countering terrorism and pressuring the other states to resolve the situation. Throughout the following years, Qatar continued being praised by the State Department for its role in counterterrorism, even as the evidence mounted, than in fact, it was likely playing an opposite role.
By 2020, Jason G, the American intelligence contractor who had investigated Qatar’s funding of Hezbullah and Houthi drones, publicized an account of an operation which uncovered Qatar’s attempt to cover up its illicit financial activities in support of Iran-backed terror groups, through its diplomats, such as the Qatar Ambassador in Brussels, and German PR brokers. Simultaneously, Qatar had been hit with mutliple lawsuits – its banks and charities were accused of sponsoring Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror attacks in Israel which had killed and maimed US citizens. The Al Thani family was likewise named in the lawsuit, alleging the royals’ control over financial institutions and funding of these organizations as a foreign policy strategy. In a separate lawsuit, an American journalist, Matthew Schrier, who had been captured by a terrorist group in Syria and tortured, had accused Qatar Islamic Bank of sponsoring Al-Nusra.
Qatar not only has not distanced itself from accusations of links with Hamas and other terrorist organizations, but pivoted towards playing the role of a “mediator” and “peacebuildier”, able to bring together different sides. The Trump White House, and later Biden’s administration, both enthusiastically welcomed Qatar’s brokerage efforts between Israel and Hamas. The arrangement that had cemented under Trump was that Qatar would pay monthly sums to Hamas in exchange for Hamas not launching attacks on Israel’s borders, in addition pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, supposedly to Gaza’s poorest families. Evidence that has emerged, most recently, over social media in 2021, however, pointed to vast corruption and mismanagement by the Hamas leadership, which flies private planes and resides outside Gaza, thanks to the generous packages from Doha, US and others.
Qatar thus positioned itself as a regional power broker, maneuvering around normalization that came with the Abraham Accords, and carving out a niche that was not dependent on making concessions to Israel. By the time the Netanyahu administration left office, Yossi Cohen, the former head of Mossad, acknowledged that using Qatar’s “services” had been a strategic error and that the payments to Hamas “got out of control”. The Bennett, government, however, continued with the strategy. While some in the Israeli security apparatus argued that this strategy solved an immediate security problem for Israel, while creating welcome tensions between the PA and Hamas, others expressed concern that ultimately Hamas could use the funding towards organizing further acts of aggression, such as the attacks that led to a war in May 2021 and that the extra cash ultimately benefited other terrorist groups in the region.
The 2017 Gulf Crisis and Post-Al Ula Agreement Duplicity
Qatar’s willingness to work with assorted actors was justified by Doha as a clumsy attempt to maintain shuttle diplomacy and to work effectively with different interests. Over time, however, evidence emerged that rather than acting as a neutral broker, Qatar took sides in accordance with its regional geopolitical agenda, and most frequently, at a high cost to its GCC counterparts and other Arab States. It was forced to leave the Arab Coalition in Yemen following the emergence of evidence that through its alliance with the local Muslim Brotherhood branch, Al Islah (MB is designated as a terrorist organization by a number of Coalition members), Qatar was leaking sensitive intelligence to Houthis, which resulted in an attack on a Coalition base and a death of a number of Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini soldiers.
This incident was the last straw that signaled the start of a rift between Qatar and others, although formally the break-up was not announced until June 2017. Following the signing of the Al Ula agreement in January 2021, Qatar continued with its strategy, rejecting all 13 demands which had initially been placed upon it by the Arab States and retaining its relationship with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various terrorist organizations. It had normalized with Yemen shortly after the Al Ula agreement, and returned to apparent close cooperation with Al Islah. On September 7, 2021, the regional media reported the leak of the Qatar Foreign Minister’s letter in which he confessed to Qatar’s continued financial support of the Iran-backed Houthi terrorist cells, which have continued their attacks on Saudi Arabia unabated. The European Parliament examined Qatar’s documented funding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe known as the motherlode of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups and the growth of extremism which has led to a number of attacks in various European countries. But once again, Doha got away from serious scrutiny largely unscathed, perhaps thanks to its generous investments in various European institutions.
However, it continued reaping praise by the US, most recently, in connection to Afghanistan – ironically, while under the investigation by the Biden Justice Department for Doha’s alleged funding of the US-designated terrorist organization, the IRGC, allegedly an open secret in the intelligence community. Israel’s president produced the evidence of Qatar’s involvement during the recent visit to the United States. US had recently closed down a number of bases and warehouses in Qatar and transferred the equipment to Jordan, in part informed by concerns of Qatar’s close cooperation with Iran and its assorted proxies and terrorist organizations.
The totality of this networking strategy has benefited no one but Qatar and various regional proxy groups backed also by Iran and Turkey. In fact, Qatar, far from being isolated as a result of the Abraham Accords, where for a time Doha appeared to have been left behind by the wave of normalization agreements with Israel, not only triumphed and went around that arrangement, but has ensured limitations to the implementation of the Accords, and caused challenges to the strengthening of relations between other Arab States and Israel.
Qatar’s Funding of Terrorism Undermines the Abraham Accords
While UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and to a lesser extent Sudan, benefited from strengthening, restoring, or normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel, and other states received credit for high level political visits and improvement of ties on regional coordination, defense, and security, Qatar was at a risk of losing out in the PR battle and being left behind by the very states it had attacked through the media and lobby groups relentlessly, particularly since the start of the 2017 crisis. Several developments, however, rescued Qatar from a painful dilemma – whether to be isolated with limited economic prospects or to have to take steps towards normalization after years of investing into anti-normalization rhetoric and empowering antisemitic and anti-Israel incitement around the world through the media and various NGOs.
First, President Trump lost the election. President Biden, while outwardly supportive of stronger relations between Israel and Arab states and sought credit for strengthening these relations, in practice turned out to be unhelpful. The administration refused to use the term Abraham Accords or to give their predecessors political credit. Instead of rewarding the allies involved in the warming relations for their contribution to regional peace, they had penalized them with freezes on arms deliveries and human rights related aid cuts and critiques. Furthermore, Biden’s tenure signaled to other GCC states that further progress with Israel would more likely be punished than rewarded.
Tentative steps in the direction of more public cooperation with Saudi Arabia had been halted. Qatar, which was concerned with the breaking of the regional monopoly on its own limited relations with Israel, benefited from Biden’s position. In particular, Biden was concerned that the Abraham Accords would serve their purpose in integrating the Middle East against Iran, which would undermine the Biden administration’s priority in rejoining the nuclear deal. Qatar’s growing closeness with Iran may have worried the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, but were quietly welcomed by the State Department and other agencies behold to Biden’s political agenda.
Second, the Al Ula agreement pushed by the Trump administration, gave Qatar a safe cover to avoid public criticism by the other signatory states without having to do anything in return other than provide welcome investments. Qatar continued funding all the external entities it wanted to fund at no cost, while the other states had been constrained from public criticism of Qatar on this issue out of concern of losing investments or attracting negative attention from the United States.
Third, it became clear that the renewed focus on the nuclear deal would provide Qatar with ample opportunities to join more promising regional alliances and that normalization with Israel would likely be focused more on trade, entrepreneurship, and cultural exchanges than the open opposition to Iran. The trajectory that would have integrated KSA into this military alliance had shifted; as a result, Qatar saw room for returning to its “traditional” role as an intermediary, at least on the surface, and gaining support from Biden who, unlike Trump, was less interested in cutting “great deals”, than in withdrawing from the region on all levels.
Qatar had used this deus ex machina opportunity to redouble its efforts and to separate Israel from the other GCC states as much as possibly. Separately courting KSA’s conservative “Old Guard” which had been strengthened by Biden’s criticism of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his disdain for the normalization discussions, and his apparent support of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, while continuing to push pro-Hamas policies, Qatar found itself flourishing at the expense to existing alliances. A year after the Abraham Accords, public talk of conditions necessary for a pursuit of a path to more open relations, much less normalization, has nearly disappeared from the Saudi discourse. Moreover, some of the recent surprisingly public tensions between KSA and UAE have allegedly been attributable to UAE’s commitment to the Abraham Accords and willingness to distribute products originating in Israel, which KSA, reportedly, refused to import. Qatar’s growing influence in KSA may be a strong contributing factor to the resurgence in these concerns despite incremental progress made prior to the Al Ula agreement. Qatar, therefore, is not looking to merely to protect its own interests in returning to lucrative financial arrangements with the GCC, but to exacerbate tensions using Israel as one of the wedge issues, and to become an alternative to the previously seemingly inevitable rapprochement with Jerusalem by other regional actors.
UAE and others has been critical of Israel’s policy in using Qatar to finance Hamas, which all viewed as a dangerous Islamist and Iran-backed front that could threaten regional stability.
Furthermore, Qatar’s own dealings in particular with UAE will at some point leave Israel and the Emirates with a difficult choice, as Qatar’s financing of anti-Israel Islamist ideologues and corrupt financial exchanges are hardly expected to stop post Al Ula. Al Ula was meant to integrate the GCC and to create a united front against a common enemy, but could only work to that effect with the close US oversight and enforcement of commitments by Qatar to stop objectionable behavior. Otherwise, Al Ula had become a challenge to the Abraham Accords, and Qatar’s willingness to engage with terrorist organizations may force Israel to prioritize its security and to limit cooperation with some of the newly normalized Arab States on some issues. Qatar’s pro-Iran position, in fact, seems to be pulling some of the countries away from willingness to confront Tehran on terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and to seek political solutions, which would further undermine a possibility of acceptable cooperation with Israel.
Worth noting is that multiple US administrations had been well aware of Qatar’s anti-Israel activity, ideological infiltration of various institutions that created setbacks by any and all educational and peacebuilding initiatives in the region, and of course, its direct funding of terrorist organizations. Despite these obvious downsides to the relationship, these administrations continued to promote Qatar as an important ally, ignored its violations of signed agreements, and its support for the US and regional adversaries, and refused to sanction or even to criticize high ranking officials and Al Thani family members even for the most blatant disregard for law and US national security interests.
This double standard in treating Qatar’s serious security related violations and the constant criticism heaped upon Saudi Arabia, and in particular, the Crown Prince, raise questions about the US commitment to combating terrorism and extremism, and whether the personal benefits to US officials on both sides of the political aisle perhaps outweigh the costs to the country’s international standing, freedom from extremist propaganda, and terrorist meddling in foreign policy agendas.
Qatar, thus far, is succeeding in selling disadvantageous agreements to the US at the expense to US national security, regional stability, and relationships with other countries. While the media and Biden’s team continue to try to normalize Taliban and Iran, other alliances with steadfast US allies, such as the Abraham Accords signatories, are either neglected or hijacked without addressing the elephant in the room – Qatar’s meddling and supporting for the very actors these Accords are supposed to counter. Rather than being a peacebuilder and mediator, Qatar’s role thus far has been limited to a self-serving promotion of extremist regimes and organizations at the expense to liberals and reformists.
Irina Tsukerman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Outsider, a human rights lawyer, and a geopolitical and national security analyst. She has written for and appeared in a broad spectrum of domestic and international media in many languages. She is also the President and CEO of Scarab Rising, Inc., a boutique media and security consultancy.DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.