Billion-dollar payoff raises questions about Qatar’s ties to terrorist groups
LONDON - Text messages released by the BBC suggest Doha paid more than $1 billion to designated terror groups to secure the release of dozens of wealthy Qatari falconers abducted in southern Iraq between December 2015 and April 2017.
The exchanges raise questions about the nature of Doha’s ties to certain extremist groups and terrorist organisations in the Middle East, analysts say.
Those presumed payments and the political scheming they reveal support concerns voiced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt about Doha’s suspected support for extremism and ties to Iran.
Qatar received word on December 16, 2015, that 26 members of a hunting party, including members of the royal family, had been kidnapped by Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary group backed by Iran.
Over the next 16 months, Qatari officials scrambled to secure their release, paying more than $1 billion to various terror groups and mediators and helping Iran’s agenda in the region.
Qatar is thought to have paid bribes to Kata’ib Hezbollah; Lebanese Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian militia; Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria; and possibly Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Syrian jihadist groups.
Qatar also allocated about $150 million in payments to Iraqi officials and paramilitary leaders, Iranian officials and other negotiators to secure the deals, the text messages indicate.
The BBC said the messages were “obtained by a government hostile to Qatar” and given to the news organisation. A BCC report stated: “Qatari officials accept that the texts and voicemails are genuine, though they believe they have been edited ‘very selectively’ to give a misleading impression.”
“Hezbollah Lebanon and Kata’ib Hezbollah Iraq, all want money and this is their chance,” read a message from Qatari Ambassador to Iraq Zayed al-Khayareen to Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani
“They are using this situation to benefit… All of them are thieves,” the message said.
In addition to money, the kidnappers demanded Qatar leave the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shia rebels in Yemen and help win the release of Iranian soldiers held prisoner by rebels in Syria, the BBC reported.
Qatar was also pushed to arrange a strategic population transfer between Shia/Sunni towns on conflicting sides of the Syrian war.
That “four towns agreement,” brokered by Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds force, “was a controversial and ambitious scheme, with dark overtones of ethnic cleansing,” the New York Times reported in March, “but if it worked, it could entrench Iranian influence in Syria for the long term.”
The plan, which removed thousands of people from their homes, turned deadly when a suicide bomber targeted a bus carrying Shia civilians, killing 125.
Qatar’s willingness to support Iran’s aims in Syria, paying terror groups hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, points to the country’s engagement with Tehran and extremist groups hostile to Gulf Arab interests, analysts said.
They also raise questions, according to the analysts, about the contribution of such payoffs to the fueling of the Middle East’s twin scourges of terrorism and war.
“Openly and persistently financing terror groups, in the same light of the region being embroiled in a fight against terrorism, delivers a clear message on Qatar’s unyielding desire to pursue subversive behaviour so long it still enjoys the perks and support that comes along with being an Arab Gulf State,” wrote Salman al-Dossary in an opinion piece for Asharq Al-Awsat.
“The revelations show that in Qatar there is no difference between intelligence services, ministry of foreign affairs, charitable organisations, civil aviation and the emir of the land,” Dossary added. “In the final analysis, all state institutions are put to task and work to achieve higher objectives of the state even if they are illegitimate or related to terrorism.”
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar in June 2017, citing its alleged support for extremist groups and Iran, which officials said the BBC report provided backing for.
Saudi terror analyst Mashari Althayd said the BBC revealed a regional terror network that includes Qatar. “It’s all linked together, Iran, Qatar, al-Qaeda, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, Hezbollah and the Houthis,” said Althayd.
Qatar acknowledged sending large amounts of money to the Iraqi government but said no payments were made to terror groups. The material released by the BBC and Qatar’s record of funding extremism suggest a different picture, analysts say.
Sheikh Mohammed was quoted in the messages as pointing out that he had family ties to two of the hostages. “Jassim is my cousin and Khaled is my aunt’s husband,” Sheikh Mohammed told Khayareen. “May God protect you: once you receive any news, update me immediately.”
Dossary wrote: “It is inconceivable and deplorable for Qatar’s foreign minister — the country’s top diplomat — to go into negotiations with terrorist groups.”
The regional implications of Doha’s ransom politics are more complex than the role of its top diplomat.
Robert Worth, writing last March in the New York Times, noted that the overall picture “entails a ransom deal of staggering size and complexity in which the Qataris paid vast sums to terrorists on both sides of the Middle East’s sectarian divide, fuelling the region’s spiralling civil wars.”