At center of Qatar crisis, a $1 billion ransom

At center of Qatar crisis, a $1 billion ransom
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The crisis over Qatar that is gripping the Middle East hinges on an alleged $1 billion ransom that was reportedly paid to release members of Qatar’s royal family and others who were kidnapped in Iraq. 

That payment appears to be the breaking point in the tense relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other countries in the region, according to one report earlier this month. 

On Tuesday, the State Department said it was “mystified” that Gulf states had not given reasons for their decision to cut off of land, air and sea transport to Qatar.

"The more time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said a State Department spokeswoman. 

"At this point we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar's alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?" she said.

But a report from the Financial Times earlier this month pointed to a nine-figure sum that was paid in a hostage deal as the catalyst for the crisis.

The money allegedly went to an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria, along with Iranian security officials, according to the report. Qatar’s support for Iran, a rival of the other Gulf states, has long been a source of tension. The Financial Times says it spoke with several individuals on each side of the swap, though all the sources are anonymous. 

The report followed a New York Times story in April, after the hostages were released, about a ransom securing the hostages' release. That story did not provide a dollar amount. 

The UK publication The Independent obtained a memo showing that the Iraqi government had allegedly seized $500 million held in 23 duffel bags as Qatari diplomats landed in Iraq in April, prior to the release of the hostages.

Qatar has pushed back on the allegations, with its foreign minister saying in April that payments went to the government of Iraq "to support the authorities in the release of Qatari abductees". 

"Qatar has provided funds to Iraq in an official, clear and public manner," Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar's foreign minister, told Al Jazeera in April. "Qatar did not deal with armed groups outside the authority of the [Iraqi] state."

Qatar has long denied that it supports terrorism, but is open about its ties to groups including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although the détente between Qatar and Saudi Arabia goes back for decades, things started to change earlier this year.

In 2015, 26 Qataris — including some from the ruling royal family — were kidnapped in Iraq during a falcon hunting trip. Sixteen months later, in April 2017, the hunters were freed. The $1 billion ransom also resulted in the release of dozens of militants captured in Syria, reports say.

“If you want to know how Qatar funds jihadis, look no further than the hostage deal,” a member of the Syrian opposition told the Financial Times. “And this isn’t the first — it is one of a series since the beginning of the war.”

The source had worked with an al-Qaeda mediator on hostage swaps in Syria, according to the publication. 

Another person told the Financial Times the ransom was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Details around the release of the hostages are murky, and no group has taken responsible for the kidnappings. The hunters were in the country legally and had obtained visas. The ordeal appears to have been a proxy battle related to the Syrian civil war, according to reports.

As is often the case on sensitive international matters, lobbyists have been pulled into the fray.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Fahad bin Mohammed al-Thani, a Qatari royal family member whose brother was one of those kidnapped, hired the San Diego-based firm Global Strategies Council March in a contract worth $2 million. The firm is run by Miltiades “Miltos” Goudamanis.

Goudamanis was originally hired to obtain proof of life for the hostages, in addition to pressuring U.S. policymakers to help have the hostages released. The contract included hackers and a social media campaign, according to an Associated Press report from April.

Now Al Thanii is pushing for an investigation into how much the Qatari government paid of the ransom and who exactly held the hunters hostage. 

“Now is the time for transparency and a formal third-party investigation from a respected group both inside/outside of Qatar, including our allies and the United States,” Al Thani said in a press release shortly after the hostages were released. 

Earlier this month, a senior Egyptian diplomat also called for a probe into the ransom allegations.

The contract with Global Strategies Council is continuing, according to a firm that answered The Hill’s questions directed to Goudamanis. Global Strategies Council will continue to be Al Thani’s lobbyist in Washington. 

Although a member of the ruling royal family, the government has said that Al Thani is acting as a “private citizen.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would support such an investigation, or if the ransom had been discussed.

The White House, however, has taken a harder line on Qatar than the State Department.

“The nation of Qatar unfortunately has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpScaramucci says he will contact FBI, Justice Dept. over leaked financial disclosure Dem rep to introduce measure requiring White House to disclose pardons Lawmakers push to toughen foreign lobbying rules MORE said during a recent press conference.

“So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action. We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided … the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding,” he said.

Over at the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has urged Gulf states to ease the blockade of Qatar.

During a call with Saudi Arabia’s newly crowned prince on Wednesday, Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the two discussed the dispute with Qatar.

“The two leaders discussed the priority of cutting off all support for terrorists and extremists, as well as how to resolve the ongoing dispute with Qatar,” according to a read out of the call released by the White House. 

In a statement sent to The Hill on Thursday, Al Thani echoed Tillerson’s comments, adding that the weeks after Qatar’s neighbors cut off the country from air, land and sea transport have been “extremely difficult.” People in Qatar are “starting to lose hope,” he said, due to food shortages and economic strife.

“These actions are unprecedented and unfair… We support Secretary Tillerson’s call for all countries involved to constructively solve the dispute. The time is now, for a diplomatic and amicable solution,” Al Thani said in a statement sent to The Hill by Jim Tsokanos, who represents Goudamanis and Global Strategies Council.

“The People of Qatar, our allies and the International community deserve a full investigation into all of our alleged terrorist activities. We ask that this be led by the emir [of Qatar] with a group of trusted Qatari officials, an outside independent committee of our allies and the US Government. We must stand united and act now,” Al Thani continued. 

Meanwhile, the government of Qatar recently hired former attorney general John Ashcroft in a $2.5 million contract. 

Ashcroft and his firm are also apparently seeking to tamp down on complaints that the country funds terrorist groups and activities. 

The Ashcroft Law firm will lead an effort “In evaluating, verifying, and as necessary, strengthening the client's anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financial compliance programs and providing legal advice and recommendations to enhance and improve such efforts,” according to a disclosure sent to the Justice Department.  

Forms say that the firm “will review documents, conduct interviews and engage in outreach to US government officials and other policy experts.”