What do a Persian Gulf monarchy and a terrorist group have in common? A regional agenda would be the answer. "By maintaining connections with extremist organisations, Doha hopes to provide services that Western countries cannot ... and it is all part of the small state's search for a stronger role in the area," explains analyst Abdul Rahman al-Turiri in The Arab Weekly.
The relationship between Qatar and the Syrian Al-Nusra Front - now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - has seen a boost in recent times. Since last December, when the United States Defense Intelligence Agency revealed that Doha, along with Turkey, supported the organization through logistical, financial and material assistance, a number of other factors have come to light that highlight the increasingly robust - and opaque - link between the two actors.
The last one was revealed on 21 May, when the newspaper "The Iraqi Judiciary", which belongs to the Supreme Judicial Council, collected the testimony of the Moroccan leader of the Al-Nusra Front, Issam Al-Hana -alias Abu Mansour al-Maghrabi- who was recently arrested by the authorities in Baghdad. The jihadist leader joined the organization in 2012, and because of his qualities - by profession, a computer engineer, and extensive knowledge of Arabic, Spanish, English and French - he quickly ascended the hierarchical pyramid of the group. Born in Rabat, the 35-year-old terrorist revealed "his contact with the external parties in Qatar to support the group, the most prominent being the Qatari Sheikh, Khaled Suleiman, who was financing the Al-Nusra Front with more than a million dollars a month".
Al Hana reiterated in his statement that Qatar "is the main financier of the Al-Nusra Front", although not the only external supporter of the group. "We were also receiving money from Israeli parties, and we were able to treat our wounded fighters inside the State of Israel", as was the case with Turkey: "We coordinated with Ankara for three tasks: treating our troops who had been injured in the fighting in hospitals in Turkey, recruiting Daesh [rival organization] militia and transporting them to Syria across the Turkish border and carrying out prisoner exchanges," he said, like the one that took place in 2014 when 450 terrorists were released in exchange for the Turkish consul and a group of diplomats who had been kidnapped by the jihadist group.
The Qatari funding of the terrorist organization had already been tackled by American photographer Matthew Schrier, who was captured by the Al-Nusra Front in 2012, and was held captive for 211 days until he managed to escape. After his "release", he engaged in a legal battle against the jihadist group, filing a lawsuit earlier this year against the Qatar Islamic Bank for having "collected donations for its kidnappers". In the 60-page document, Schrier detailed how the financial institution "allowed individuals and a charity to transfer funds to terrorist groups fighting in Syria," including the Al-Nusra Front. He also said the Islamic Bank "contributed directly to the Qatar Charity, an organization that finances Al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham - the "Islamic Movement of Free Men of the Levant" - which has "a long history of financing terrorism dating back to 1993 when Bin Laden praised it for its contribution to support his cause". Specifically, he was given eight bank accounts in which 500,000 Qatari rials (125,000 euros) were deposited. He also revealed that Qatari citizen Saad al-Kaabi used his accounts in this bank to "obtain funds" which would later have been transferred to the extremist groups operating in the Syrian civil war. He was subsequently sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2015 for supporting the financing of the Al-Nusra Front.
After submitting the complaint, the American photographer gave an exclusive interview to the Al-Arabiya channel, where he revealed more details of Doha's links with extremism. In particular, he said that "senior Qatari officials had acknowledged the link between the 'Madid/Mudeed Campaign' and the financing of terrorism", one of whom was the emirate's ambassador in Paris. Operations through this campaign consisted of opening accounts for minors who could benefit from this programme and carrying out extensive outreach on social networks to attract as many donors as possible.
"Schrier's demand once again raises questions about Qatar's poor history of terrorist financing. Doha has funded extremist groups throughout the Middle East, including Hamas in Gaza, radicals in Syria and militants in Libya. In other cases, Qatar has allowed terrorist financiers to live in the country, some under US and UN sanctions," explains analyst Varsha Koduvayur at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) on the issue.
Also in August 2019 it was exposed in the English newspaper The Times that Doha Bank - another banking institution in the country - allegedly transferred large amounts of money to the former Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, according to a lawsuit filed in the English High Court. The operation involved two Syrian Qatari brothers, Moutaz and Ramez al-Khayyat, managers of a global construction company, Urbacon Trading & Contracting, who allegedly used it to send large sums of money to accounts in Turkey and Lebanon, where it was subsequently withdrawn and delivered to the Syrian border to be handed over to the jihadists.
Qatar has also assisted in the financing of terrorism through its participation as a mediator between international countries whose nationals were being held by the Al-Nusra Front and jihadist leaders. "The kidnappings carried out by the group formed the main pillar of its financing by obtaining ransoms, all of which came from Qatar," Al-Arabiya recently revealed, also highlighting that the emirate has become the only state "that negotiates on behalf" of terrorists. The publication cites a number of cases that illustrate this link: in late 2012, another American journalist, Theo Curtis, was kidnapped by the group, which was demanding $30 million for him. Two years later, an agreement was reached for his release through the Doha mediation and he was handed over to the peace forces in the Golan Heights. In 2013, the Al-Nusra Front captured a group of 13 nuns in Damascus, Syria, for which they asked for a ransom of $16 million. In 2014, five members of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and 45 soldiers from Fiji who were part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights suffered the same fate. In 2015, 16 Lebanese military personnel were kidnapped. All of them were released "under the patronage of Qatar", according to Al-Arabiya.
According to Middle East journalist Georges Malbrunot, Doha is said to have paid more than $100 million to the terrorists in ransom payments alone, as reported by European Eye on Radicalization.
"The Government of Qatar has acted as an intermediary on other occasions to negotiate ransom payments for the release of Western hostages from the Al-Nusra Front. Thus, between 2012 and 2015, Doha negotiated tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments to the al-Nusra Front in exchange for the release of European citizens, according to a US court document", they state from Middle East Online. The question of why Qatar decided to play this role is answered in the following way, according to analyst Abdul Rahman Al-Turiri: "By negotiating the release of the prisoners and paying their ransom on behalf of Western governments, Doha would gain popular acceptance in official European circles and in public opinion," he writes in The Arab Weekly. "It is all part of the small state's quest for a greater regional role," he adds, a strategy that Qatar would have undertaken to win new partners in the face of the boycott it was subjected to by the Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain).
Another tool that Doha has used to transfer huge amounts of money to the group has been Qatari charities, as explained from Middle East Online. Specifically, the publication points to the Sheik Thani Bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services (RAF), chaired by Sheikh Thani bin Abdulla Al-Thani - the brother of the Emir of Qatar - as the channel for funding Syrian armed groups, including the Al-Nusra Front. According to a Gulf-based intelligence source cited by Ahval News, the Foundation "has funded the jihadist organization with about $130 million", and "is linked to the Turkish Red Crescent to support Syrian groups with money and weapons".
In fact, Mohammed Jassim al-Sulaiti, a member of an RAF delegation and administrator of Qatar Charity - the country's largest NGO - for Syria since 2017, is considered a terrorist because of his ties to the jihadist group, and has been sanctioned for it by the U.S. Treasury Department. "Qatari national Mohammed Jassim al-Sulaiti distributed supplies to jihadist militants in Syria in coordination with Saad bin Saad al-Kabi and Abd al-Latif bin Abdullah al-Kawari, both of whom are on the US and UN 'blacklist'," Qatari Leaks said. In addition, "Al-Sulaiti is a partner of Al-Qaeda financier Khalifa bin Turki al-Subaiy, who promoted Imdad for Relief and Dawa Campaign for Syria, which was in turn supervised by Al-Sulaiti, and allowed it to provide supplies to jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda in Syria".
Qatar Charity, likewise, received substantial donations of money from the Qatar Islamic Bank, U.S. citizen Matthew Schrier explained in his lawsuit. The actions of this NGO in the MENA region - Middle East & North Africa - have raised misgivings in the international community, especially among the Arab neighbours of Doha. According to Middle East Online, "Qatar Charity operated in northern Mali when it was controlled by Islamist groups. It has also raised suspicions about its role in Sudan, which is seen as reinforcing the Muslim Brotherhood and its armed groups there. In addition, "the RAF Foundation is suspected of supporting and funding extremist groups and inter-tribal ethnic conflicts from Darfur to Port Sudan". According to the Ahval News source, it even "spent up to $37 million to support fighters in Sudan who belong to terrorist groups also backed by the Muslim Brotherhood".
Qatar has also been accused of funding other extremist groups. Hamas or the militia fighting the Libyan war on the side of the Government of National Unity (GNA) are just a few examples, as mentioned above. It has also contributed to the programme of Al-Shabaab, the Somalia branch of Al-Qaeda responsible for more than 1,000 attacks in 2019 alone. But that is another story.
"The evidence shows that Qatar is indeed a financier of global terrorism. This has important implications for the fight against terror, particularly when a united front against destabilising forces is needed," concludes analyst Wasiq Wasiq in the European Eye on Radicalization.