Intercepted messages reveal huge Qatari ransom payout
LONDON - Intercepted text messages reveal that Qatari diplomats handed out large payouts to dubious sources to free nationals captured while on a hunting trip in Iraq, back in 2015.
The Gulf state had entered negotiations then to free 25 of its citizens in what became a blackmailing opportunity for a half-dozen militia and foreign governments.
“The Syrians, Hezbollah-Lebanon, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iraq - all want money, and this is their chance,” wrote Zayed bin Saeed al-Khayareen, Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq in a message. “All of them are thieves”.
Qatari officials squirmed but eventually paid a total of at least $275 million to free nine members of its royal family and 16 other nationals kidnapped.
Secret records revealed by The Washington Post showed additional payments of $150 million in cash to intermediates including Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Kata’ib Hezbollah and an Iraqi paramilitary group linked to lethal attacks against US troops.
The intercepted documents also reveal that the total could have been as high as $1 billion once taking into consideration the larger deal, which included payments to governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq and at least two Syrian opposition groups, including al-Nusra Front, a Sunni jihadist faction linked to al-Qaeda.
Qatar consistently denies paying groups regarded by Washington as involved in international terrorism.
“The idea that Qatar would undertake activities in support of terrorism is false,” ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani wrote in a letter.
He does not deny paying a ransom, but insists recipients were government officials in attempt to “strengthen bilateral relations [with Iraq] and ensure the safe release of the abductees.”
Qatar’s bargaining with militias might prove a flash point in the larger feud between the country and it’s Arab neighbours, who have already accused Doha of having close ties to Iran, financing terrorism, and supporting Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
The rift prompted President Donald Trump to blast Qatar as ‘funder of state terrorism at a very high level”.
- Hunting Ground -
It all started when a large party of Qataris entered southern Iraq’s Muthanna province in late 2015 to practice the traditional pastime of using falcons to hunt desert game.
At the time, Iraq was a very dangerous place, with a third of the country occupied by Islamic State (ISIS), while bands of Kurdish and Shiite militiamen roamed towns and villages elsewhere.
When the hunting group reached its destination on December 15th 2015, heavily armed fighters took 28 members of the group hostage, including 25 Qataris, two Saudis, and a Pakistani.
The fledgling stages of discussions between Qatari diplomats and the kidnappers were confusing. Khayareen said that Kata’ib Hezbollah initially asked for money, but then increased its demands to include Qatar’s complete withdrawal from Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, in a move that appeared to benefit Iran.
“Your requests are not logical at all”, Khayareen wrote to kidnappers in a March 2016 text.
Negotiations dragged on hopelessly for months until late 2016, when the Kata’ib grew impatient and demanded a quick financial solution.
How much money the Qataris ended up paying is not spelled out in the intercepted documents, but amounts earmarked for individuals who assisted in delivering the hostages were explicit.
On April 27, 2017, Khayareen gives Qatar’s foreign minister the breakdown over the phone: five recipients who would receive $150 million in Qatari cash.
“Qassem, 50. Sulaymaniyah [provincial government official who facilitated the negotiations], 50. Abu Hussain, leader of Kata’ib, 25. Banhai [Iranian official involved in the talks], 20.”
His next voicemail confirmed that all payments had been made.