The New York Times audio recording

In an attempt at damage control, Qatar is airlifting in late July some of the wounded in Somalia’s bombings.
Saturday 27/07/2019
People look at a vehicle destroyed following a car bomb near Somali parliament in Mogadishu on June 15, 2019. (AFP)
People look at a vehicle destroyed following a car bomb near Somali parliament in Mogadishu on June 15, 2019. (AFP)

On July 22, 17 people were killed and dozens injured in a bomb attack near Mogadishu perpetrated by al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group. The usual scenes of carnage and devastation followed. The city morgue was inundated with bodies.

In June, 26 people were killed and 56 injured after an assault by al-Shabab on a resort hotel in Somalia’s port city of Kismayo.

With al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups lurking in the shadows, the horror never seems to stop in Somalia. So do questions about the role of local, regional and international actors in the endless misery of the poverty- and piracy-stricken country.

An article July 22 in the New York Times shed light on an unsuspected dimension in Somalia’s continuing bloodshed.

The authors of the article, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick, reported on an unusual telephone conversation May 18, about a week after another car bomb shook the Emirati-managed port of Bosaso in northern Somalia. The Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the blast.

The cell-phone conversation of which the Times obtained an audio recording was between Qatari Ambassador to Somalia Hassan bin Hamza Hashem and Qatari businessman Khalifa Kayed al-Muhanadi, whom the newspaper described as “close to the emir of Qatar” and said “frequently travels with the emir.”

The businessman is quoted as reassuring Doha’s ambassador: “Our friends were behind the last bombings.”

When Muhanadi refers to extremists as “our friends,” it is difficult not to see hints of a dangerous connection between Doha and extremists involved in the attack.

The businessman explained that the attack was “intended to make Dubai people run away from there.” He rejoiced at the prospect of the terrorist acts chasing away Emiratis from Somalia. “Let them kick out the Emiratis so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.”

Qatar, which was once described by US President Donald Trump as having been historically “a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” has gone out of its way to deny the accusations but its “clarifications” stretch the limits of plausible deniability to the extreme without credibly dispelling obvious suspicions raised by the newspaper’s report.

Qatar tried to distance itself from Muhanadi and position itself as a country that does “not meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.”

The New York Times was deeply sceptical. It noted that the Qatari ambassador “expressed no protest or displeasure at the idea that Qataris had played a role in the bombings.”

Doha has reportedly requested a copy of the incriminating recording, supposedly to help it investigate the allegations. The request was turned down by the newspaper.

In an attempt at damage control, Qatar is airlifting in late July some of the wounded in Somalia’s bombings.

The most recent case was the transportation to Qatar of six suicide attack victims out of Mogadishu at the end of July. This seems to fit a particular Qatari pattern of behaviour. A former Defense Department official told The New York Times he “would not be surprised if Qatar was trying to play both sides to its own advantage.”

The New York Times noted that last February, a foreign manager of the Emirati company DP World was killed in an attack claimed by al-Shabab. The company announced in 2017 a $336 million investment for the purpose of developing Bosaso Port.

The United Arab Emirates’ presence in Somalia includes economic, commercial and humanitarian activities as well as helping in the fight against terrorism.

The New York Times’ report raises fundamental questions about the so-called “regional competition for influence” in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Economic and strategic competition is fair game, regionally and internationally but acquiescence to terrorism should not be part of any such competition. Even more so when it is between regional neighbours.

The New York Times’ article raises serious questions about the credibility of Qatar both when it claims to be committed to good ties with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries or when it rejects the accusations levelled at it by the Arab Quartet countries regarding its ties to extremist organisations and its increasingly cosy relationship with Tehran. Such accusations have been at the core of a major row between the Arab Quartet and Doha since June 2017.

The New York Times’ report raises fundamental questions deserving less official statements than serious policy reassessments in Doha.