Former hostage Christian Chesnot sheds light on Qatar's influence networks, old and new

Caught in the act of financing political Islam in Europe, the Qataris have now handed over the task to Islamist Turkey.
Wednesday 13/11/2019
Christian Chesnot, investigative journalist at French radio channel France Inter. (Courtesy of Christian Chesnot)
Years of investigation. Years of investigation. Christian Chesnot, investigative journalist at French radio channel France Inter. (Courtesy of Christian Chesnot)

Christian Chesnot, an investigative journalist at French radio channel France Inter, is a specialist on the Arab world where he spent many years in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and other places and to which he devoted many works, some of which were co-written with Georges Malbrunot, senior reporter at Le Figaro.

Chesnot was kidnapped in Iraq in August 2004 by the Islamic Army in Iraq along with Malbrunot. The kidnappers issued an ultimatum to the French government: cancel the law on secularism within 48 hours in exchange for Chesnot’s and Malbrunot’s release. After 124 days of detention, Chesnot and Malbrunot were set free.

Following the broadcast by French-German TV channel ARTE of a documentary based on his investigation of the financing of political Islam in France and Europe, The Arab Weekly spoke with Chesnot in Paris.

TAW: What led you to publish "Qatar Papers" and turn it into a documentary?

Christian Chesnot (CC): "The first reason is that Georges Malbrunot and myself were already working on Qatar issues for at least 15 years. We were initially struck by the fascinating side of this country, which has invested a lot in France and in Europe but. at the same time. we were not oblivious to the existence of a dark side to this country.

“In 2013, we published a first book on this country titled 'Qatar, les secrets du coffre-fort' ('Qatar, The Secrets of the Strongbox'), which was followed by two other books: 'Nos très chers émirs, sont-ils vraiment nos amis?' ('Our Dearest Emirs, Are They Really Our Friends?') in 2016 and 'Qatar Papers, comment l’émirat finance l’islam de France et d’Europe' ('Qatar Papers, How the Emirate is Financing Islam in France and in Europe') in 2019.

"Initially, we had in mind in the first book of this trilogy to focus on investments, education and sport and we played down the role of Qatar in proselytism and in the promotion of political Islam that was not visible at the time. In the second book, published three years later, we began to look at this aspect, to talk about Qatar Charity, including the ambiguous role of Qatar in Mali and Africa. It was only with the third and last book and because we had access to concrete and verifiable documents did we discover the extent of this hidden strategy.

A copy of "Qatar Papers," written by Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.
A copy of "Qatar Papers," written by Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.

"Until then, Qatar has never boasted of having financed Salafist mosques in France and in Europe. That had baffled us because we later discovered a whole project, a programme. It was not a question of financing a mosque here and there but a project on a European scale. We’re talking here about 140 projects spread from the Norwegian far north to Sicily in the south and all over Europe, in Ukraine, Spain, Poland, Germany, France, et cetera.

“The extent of the implementation of this programme was impressive and exceptional. This whole programme was conducted through an NGO named Qatar Charity. We already knew the NGOs that boasted of dealing with relief, humanitarian action, development but we did not know this shadowy organisation, which, without being secret, remained out of the media lights, rather hidden under the mantle. When we got hold of all these documents, all those figures contained in a USB key, we were dumbfounded.

TAW: How did you get this trove of information?

CC: "It was Georges Malbrunot, who received the USB key at Le Figaro. For us, the source still remains a mystery."

TAW: Someone from inside the Qatari power circle?

CC: "We can’t really say. Rather than raise questions about the sources, we proceeded with the authentication of the documents by enlisting the help of specialists. Once the verification was done, we proceeded with checking the authenticity of the information on the field and it was only from there that we made the decision to write a book about it.

“It is true that there were questions about the source but the information was so overwhelming, exceptional, truthful and irrefutable that we decided as journalists, whose primary mission is to inform the public, to disseminate it. What had pushed us even more to publish them was the duplicity of the people quoted and their double language despite the documents -- cheques, transfers, correspondences, et cetera -- that we had presented to them."

TAW: This is not your first book on Qatar. How would you explain the fact that a small gas monarchy of just 10,000 can have such a bold and even aggressive strategy of political, economic and ideological influence directed at much bigger and more powerful states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt? What kind of protection is Qatar counting on?

CC: "In our three books on Qatar, we explained that this country is first and foremost a money strongbox. A colossal fortune simply fell on the Qataris. They, however, always felt inferior to their neighbours Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh. They needed to exist and this was especially clear during the reign of Hamad, the father of the current emir.

“They couldn’t do that militarily, given their demographic and geographical size. So, they started building a whole base of soft power through military alliances with the United States and Great Britain but also through sports, education, culture, investments. At one point, they had a historic opportunity: the ‘Arab spring.’ From 2011-13, they took themselves for the kings of the Arab world.

"At that time, as they are astute and opportunistic people who know the power of money well, they hijacked the Arab League, paving the way for the war against Libya and the expulsion of Syria from this league.

“It happened at a time when a revolution was taking place in Egypt, Libya was in tatters, Syria was busy with its wars and Iraq was traumatised by the American invasion, Algeria was absent and the Gulf countries were paralysed by the fall of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

“Qatar found itself standing alone in the arena and Emir [Sheikh] Hamad [bin Khalifa al-Thani] thought he was the commander of the Faithful in the Arab world and since the West leaned rather favourably towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which it considered to be representative and democratic, Qatar, thinking that the winds of history were in favour of political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, jumped on the opportunity to ride this wave, arming, financing this brotherhood and the satellite Islamist groups of this nebula everywhere in the Arab world.

“Except that, at some point, there was a surge then ebb and there will be a downfall. In 2013, Emir [Sheikh] Tamim [bin Hamad al-Thani] succeeded his father in Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Muhammad Morsi was ousted in Egypt. We are still in the ebb phase."

TAW: In spite of what you called the surge and the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood, one has the impression that the Qatari leaders persist on the same path.

CC: "I do not know if they will persist. However, it is clear that after the release of our book followed by the broadcast of our documentary on ARTE, they stopped funding some of their projects for political Islam in Mulhouse, Switzerland and elsewhere but this is only camouflage because it has become obvious that they are pursuing their strategy via the Turks.

“I think this new tactic of handing over the baton to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s regime, their great ally, deserves a new book. We have some clues about this relay but we will need to check them out on the field.

“What is certain is that the Qatari money will no longer be invested directly to finance political Islam but it will go through the networks of the Turkish Muslim Brothers.

“The Qataris do really have a nerve, especially that they are aware that they have a lot of money with which they can buy, or so they think, everybody. With it, they can buy the silence of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, by buying weapons from them, buying the [Paris Saint-Germaine FC] PSG and so on and so forth."

Reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot speak at a panel discussion.
Reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot speak at a panel discussion.

TAW: With such a small geopolitical dimension, how dare they play in the big leagues?

CC: "It was between 2011 and 2013 that they had blown a fuse when they decided to move from soft power to hard power. Previously, they took the role of mediators and reconcilers between Palestinian factions. They intervened in Darfur and in Lebanon in 2008. It is necessary to look again at the last interview given by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa to the Financial Times on October 24, 2010, in which he boasted of being a peacemaker and against wars and for sustainable development.

"All of this declaration of principle will turn out to be pure dissimulation. This was clear in Libya. For the first time, the Qataris will have 12 Mirage fighter planes integrated into the NATO forces in the War Room, side by side with the Americans, the French, the British and the Turks. There, they forgot their soft power and engaged militarily. With this participation in the war against Libya, they moved to another stage. This is their turning point and their transition to hard power. It was like the story of the frog that wanted to be as big as the ox."

TAW: They also took advantage of protections.

CC: "They have indeed benefited from the protection of the Americans, who have a base in Qatar, and used their monetary strength to buy alliances, silence, complicity. They ventured very far playing with fire in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and especially Saudi Arabia. Our book, however, focused mainly on their role in Europe, even if in the famous USB key, there were huge damning documents and revelations about their involvement in Africa, in the Arab world and elsewhere."

TAW: Qatar wanted to organise the Islam of France in order to turn it into a powerful lobby but this project was unsuccessful.

CC: "We talked about it in our previous book explaining the reasons for this failure. The Algerians and Moroccans were furious and they had informed [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy of their anger. The Qataris wanted to create a Muslim CRIF (Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France, the umbrella organisation of Jewish organisations in France) of sorts, and this by including all of their networks that are close to the Muslim Brotherhood through the huge Salafist mosques they financed.

“They have, in this case, in particular, pushed their pawns too far and burned their fingers. Their image has been tarnished in Western public opinion, not to mention in the Arab world where they are being denounced for their destabilising role and their financing of terrorism. Their Al Jazeera channel has lost all credibility. They now have a reputation as corruptors and of being the Trojan horse of the Muslim Brothers."

TAW: What role does Qatar Charity play in Qatar's diplomacy?

CC: "In all the documents to which we had access, there was no doubt that this pseudo-NGO is one of the tools used by the state of Qatar to carry out its strategy. It is a sort of a ministry of humanitarian affairs that is under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All donors are from public institutions in Qatar, the al-Thani dynasty and their dependents. It has no financial, political and decision-making independence. All their money transactions and transfers go through their embassies."

TAW: Could you explain to us why Qatar is using the Muslim Brotherhood in its strategy of influence in Europe and of infiltration of the Muslims of France?

CC: "There is ideological proximity between the Brothers and the ruling family. This is not recent. [Yusuf] al-Qaradawi has been living in Qatar since the ‘60s. Qatar's universities and schools are infiltrated by Muslim Brotherhood teachers and activists mainly from Egypt. They relied on them to carry out their strategy of spreading political Islam.

“The Muslim Brothers have had a foothold in Europe since the ‘50s and the Qataris naturally have resorted to them. They have somehow bought an existing network of influence, unlike the Turks, who have less money but a lot of people. The Islamist regime in Turkey can rely on this community to spread its ideology while the Qataris have no such community. That's why they rely on the Muslim Brotherhood network."

TAW: But they also act through their media, including Al Jazeera but also on the internet, not to mention financial and economic investments.

CC: "Yes, they tried to exercise their influence through these networks. They even projected, through their media outlets, of course, to overplay the affair of the headscarf and Islamophobia."

AW: You have not been pressured?

CC: "There was a letter from Qatar's Communications Officer in France asking ARTE not to broadcast the documentary. The channel, however, did not comply and maintained the broadcast.

"On the other hand, there were consequences. Qatar Charity, following this documentary, stopped financing several of its offending projects in Europe. We received calls from Reims, Poitier and other cities where mosques were financed by Qatari money to tell us that they took note of these documents and that they will act accordingly."

TAW: How to explain the fact that Qatar, after the revelations you made public, still does not budge in its strategy and refuses to let go of the Muslim Brothers, despite the regional and international problems that this strategy is causing them?

CC: "I think they are currently reconfiguring their approach. As they abandon their blatant financing of certain projects in Europe, they rely on their Turkish allies to pursue this strategy. Qatar finances the Turkish economy in crisis and benefits, in return, from a Turkish military base on its territory. They are pursuing the same strategy in their region, especially in Syria and Libya, and with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood. Insofar as they feel they are spared by Westerners, at least until the World Cup in 2022, there is likely to be no change.”

TAW: Would France consider declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation?

CC: "It was the Americans who had contemplated such a measure. In France, this is not the case yet but one feels through the speech of [French President] Emmanuel Macron when he speaks of communitarianism, of political Islam, that there is a new awareness. Our book has pushed a little towards that. It wasn’t about Islam but about a country that instrumentalises and finances a political-religious group at the service of communitarianism. It is important for us to enlighten public opinion about what is happening at this level in our country."

TAW: Qatar has excellent relations with both Hamas and Israel. How would you explain this game of doing the splits?

CC: "It is a bit like their communication discourse: 'We are friends with everyone.' They call themselves 'friends' with the Americans, the Taliban and Hamas but this game has gone so far that it is no longer credible. Now Qatar is a country that raises questions, doubts and suspicions. There is now a big question mark about everything Qatar does. It is not like it used to be."

TAW: Any thoughts on how all of this will end?

CC: "Since it started to meddle in the affairs of others, to finance specific groups, to talk about religion, etc., not only did Qatar irritate its neighbours but everyone else.

"My feeling is that until 2022, this strategy will continue. Once the World Cup is over and the spotlights are out, Qatar will slip back into anonymity."