Leaked messages point to big Qatari ransom payouts to terrorist groups

The ransom amount of $1 billion is likely to be the highest paid to terrorist groups.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Dangerous bribes. Members of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades carry flags during a ceremony in Baghdad, last June.                                                      (AFP)
Dangerous bribes. Members of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades carry flags during a ceremony in Baghdad, last June. (AFP)

LONDON - Private correspondence between top Qatari officials indicates that Qatar paid more than $1 billion to terror groups to release 26 people kidnapped in Iraq. The ransom amount is likely to be the highest ever paid to terrorist groups.

Text and voice messages obtained by the BBC purportedly show Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani and Qatari Ambassador to Iraq Zayed al-Khayareen engaged in drawn-out negotiations involving large sums of money with designated terror groups to secure the release of prominent Qatari hostages.

The hostages, including members of the Qatari royal family, were kidnapped by Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary group supported by Iran, during a falconry excursion in southern Iraq in December 2015.

The messages suggest Qatar paid more than $1 billion, plus $150 million in kickbacks, to various terror groups to have the hostages released. The recipients of the payments included Kata’ib Hezbollah, Lebanese pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a renamed al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as well as individuals acting as mediators.

It was also revealed that Qatar helped facilitate a deadly “four-towns deal” in Syria, mediated by Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who was a central player in the hostage negotiations. That arrangement saw thousands of Syrian citizens forcibly uprooted and resettled as part of an Iranian plan to shift the country’s demographics.

The ransom deal, and Qatar’s suspicious dealings with Soleimani, widened the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, analysts said.

“The payment of the largest ransom sum to terrorist groups took place about a month and a half before Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed their ties with Qatar,” wrote Saudi commentator Salman al-Dossary in Asharq Al-Awsat. “The ransom deal could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Members of the Saudi-led quartet have waited for too long and tried to change the behaviour of Qatar but to no avail. Blatantly financing terrorist groups, however, sent a clear message to the four countries that Qatar will not end its destructive behaviour,” he wrote.

Qatar has denied funding extremist groups and said the presumed hostage payments were made to the Iraqi state but the BBC report contradicts that stance.

In one leaked message, Khayareen points out specific terror groups that expected payment: “The Syrian, Hezbollah Lebanon and Kata’ib Hezbollah Iraq all want money and this is their chance,” the ambassador texted the foreign minister.

“Soleimani met with the kidnappers yesterday and pressured them to take the $1b[illion],” the ambassador said in another message. “They didn’t respond because of their financial condition… Soleimani will go back.”

In addition to detailing recent ransom payments, the leaked recordings hint at a longstanding pattern of Qatari support for terror.

In one voicemail for a Kata’ib Hezbollah leader, Khayareen references a payment to the terror group signed off by the country’s former emir: “You should trust Qatar, you know what Qatar did, what His Highness the Emir’s father did,” Khayareen said. “He did many things, this and that, and paid 50 million and provided infrastructure for the south.”