Don’t whitewash Qatar’s record on terror finance

Don’t whitewash Qatar’s record on terror finance
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Qatar is on a charm offensive designed to portray itself as a victim of rivalries in which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies have isolated the emirate. Over the past six months it has invited and met with influential Americans, seeking to put a moderate face on its record and to combat accusations that it has hosted extremists, such as Hamas leaders, and become a conduit for terror finance.

The latest example of this is famed lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz, who penned a piece titled, “Why is Qatar being blockaded and isolated?” Dershowitz describes Qatar-funded Al Jazeera as an example of “freedom of expression,” and gave a platform to Qatar’s “claim that American officials had asked them to allow the Hamas leaders to live in Doha, and that they [Hamas leaders] have now left.” He also claimed Qatar was becoming the “Israel of the Gulf States.”

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To burnish its image by inviting those such as Dershowitz, Qatar has conducted a multi-pronged strategy. It seeks to frequently host U.S. officials and remind Washington that it has been a historic ally, hosting a large U.S. military base. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Qatar was “trying to arrange meetings between its senior leadership and the heads of major Jewish American organizations” during the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017. The emirate employed a public relations firm among its lobbying efforts and hosted several influential community members. It thinks that currying favor with pro-Israel voices will make Doha seem more moderate.

 

The problem with Qatar’s attempt to rebrand itself as the moderate state being victimized by Saudi Arabia is that Qatar has never come clean about its support for Hamas and terror financing. “Qatar, a longtime U.S. ally, has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability,” U.S. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said at the Center for a New American Security in March 2014. He said that fundraisers for Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, then known as Nusra Front, had operated in Kuwait and Qatar.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables confirm that the U.S. long has had concerns about Qatar’s hosting of extremists. In a January 2009 cable from Doha, the U.S. post noted that “Egyptian cleric and Al Jazeera star Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi” had broadcast a sermon bashing Jews, the West and Arab leaders in the region. It concluded, “Given al-Qaradawi’s high profile on the Gaza issue, the broadcast of his sermon on Doha-based Al-Jazeera indicates that its content had at least tacit approval of the Qatari leadership.”

The sermon included anti-Semitic attacks on Jews as “spreading corruption in the land.” Qaradawi told his millions of listeners that “we wait for the revenge of Allah to descend upon them and, Allah willing, it will be by our own hands ... count their numbers and kill them, down to the very last one.” It was because of hate-speech such as this that Qaradawi was denied a U.K. visa in 2008. The U.K. political officer in Qatar told the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Doha that London “disagrees with his (Qaradawi’s) public statements on terrorism and his homophobic and anti-Semitic views.”

Prior to the visit of Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani to Washington in January 2010, U.S. officials said it was essential to share “concerns about the financial support to Hamas by Qatari charitable organizations and our concerns about the moral support Hamas receives from Yousef al-Qaradawi.” In contrast to the Qatari claims to Dershowitz that the United States supported having Hamas leaders be based in Doha, it is clear the United States has opposed the hosting of terrorists in Doha for more than a decade.

It appears from the same leaked cables that the United States has balanced its criticism of Qatar in public with its desires to remain the chosen strategic partner of the emirate, in terms of national security and industrial development. Up until at least 2005, the United States even maintained an “active ongoing dialogue with Al-Qaradawi,” according to a memo by U.S. Ambassador Chase Untermeyer.

In recent years, Qatar has sought to portray itself as changing its ways, after Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani abdicated in favor of his son Tamim. However, David Weinberg, writing for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in January 2017, found that “there is no persuasive proof that Qatar has stopped letting certain terror financiers off the hook.”

In July 2017, Qatar signed a terror-financing agreement with the United States during Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Pompeo working to rebuild ties with US diplomats: report NYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story MORE’s visit. “The memorandum lays out a series of steps that each country will take in coming months and years to interrupt and disable terror financing flows,” Tillerson told reporters. The sudden decision by Qatar to sign an agreement came just after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties. If Qatar was truly committed to combating terror finance, why did it wait until it was facing a crisis to sign a deal with Washington?

Qatar tries to paint itself as a victim where criticism of the emirate is portrayed as harming Al-Jazeera’s free speech. However, the reality is far more murky. Al-Jazeera is not a paragon of free speech inside the emirate where the royal family is beyond critique. Qatari media are not free. Doha has been a platform for extremists for decades. If it now wants to portray itself as an open society, then it must be critical of its past. Instead, it spreads misinformation about why it hosted Hamas and extremist hate-preachers such as al-Qaradawi.

Seth Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya.