Of all the major headlines and news stories anticipated to break this week, few expected one of the largest rifts in GCC relations to happen now. While the news left many reeling for explanations, GCC observers have watched over the years as the divide and tension between Qatar and its neighbors has grown and ultimately, boiled over.
The central pillar in the current diplomatic row between a number of Arab States and Qatar is the issue of Qatar’s direct support for terrorism. Given the threat of terrorism in the Middle East and the wider world, taking action to target sources of funding should come as no surprise; especially when the government is a central actor. In the case of Qatar, the evidence of direct support for terrorist groups, or allowing groups to use Doha as a fundraising venue, has been well documented by international organizations and in-depth studies.
Qatar has given lip service to its legal obligations and political pressure in the fight against terrorism but, for the most part, has taken little substantive action against individuals and groups designated as international terrorists who freely operate in Qatar. The direct support for terrorists and extremist individuals and groups, and overlooking the actions of private individuals are clearly destabilizing and a threat to international peace and security.
Qatar’s support for terrorism is not new. A 2003 New York Times report cited U.S. intelligence information regarding Qatar’s support and harboring of Al Qaeda leadership; a matter that was said to “infuriate” the then CIA Director George Tenet. In 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, publicly spoke of the “permissive jurisdiction” Qatar provided, along with Kuwait, for terrorist funding and support activities.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee has consistently designated a number of Qatari nationals, and others, living and operating in Qatar as terrorists. The Security Council Sanctions Committee through Security Council Resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) provide for the designation of groups as terrorist organizations and designates individuals as persons involved in the funding and support for Daesh and Al Qaeda. Required actions in response to designations include freezing financial or economic assets attached to the designated individuals and groups “without delay” and preventing designated individuals from entering or transiting through the territory of a Member State. These Security Council resolutions establishing the sanctions designation have been adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter making the obligation to act a requirement upon all states. Qatar has somehow considered them optional guidelines, choosing the option of doing nothing in the case of Sa’d bin Sa’d Muhammad Shariyan al-Ka’bi, Abd al-Latif Bin ‘Abdallah Salih Muhammad al-Kawari, and several others.
In terms of private financing activity, a 2014 piece in Foreign Policy documented the growth of Doha as “an extremist hub” involving influential figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and the burgeoning “start-up” industry of fundraising by Syrian based extremists and terrorists. The government has been named as a source for direct funding to the Nusra Front in Syria, as well as providing open support and accommodation for Al Qaeda and Hamas.
The GCC states have attempted to persuade Qatar to end its support for various extremist groups. In 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Qatar and in 2014 three GCC states withdrew ambassadors in response to Qatar’s continued support for extremists. This led to the 2014 Riyadh Agreement where all GCC members declared a commitment to, amongst other things, preventing the support of terrorist and extremists. Qatar’s failure to adhere to the 2014 agreement has led to the current measures being taken by a range of Arab states.
Qatar now needs to change its behavior and demonstrate not just to the GCC, but to the world that terrorists cannot find a safe haven there. Where the UN has sanctioned an individual or a group as affiliated with terrorism, Qatar, as with any other state, needs to act through domestic legal measures or extradite the individuals to a state that will take action. The GCC is committed to take action against terrorism, but that action is useless if Qatar provides such a permissive jurisdiction for terrorists and their supporters to freely operate.
The GCC has now put the U.S. in a position where it needs to make up its mind where it stands on Qatar. The U.S. Treasury Department has made it clear that Qatar is extensively at fault in permitting the financing of terrorism. But it appears the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. State Department are happy to overlook all of this due to Qatar providing space for a major military installation. Ultimately, this is self-defeating approach. How can the U.S. justify using the Qatar base for counter terrorism when the host of the base is funding the very same groups the U.S. and its allies are taking military action against?
Europe also needs to take a stronger look at Qatar’s record for supporting extremists. Qatar hosts the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi and the state owned Al Jazeera channel provides him with a regular mouthpiece. Al Qaradawi is seen as the intellectual leader of the Brotherhood movement and is the Director of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, based in Ireland. Al Qaradawi has spoken of Islam returning to Europe victoriously, and will be subject to the return of the Islamic Caliphate. Such rhetoric is directly influencing a wide range of individuals who are adopting extremist views and undertaking terrorist acts across Europe.
Qatar has been providing an open platform for extremists and terrorists having a global impact on international security. GCC nations have been trying to get Qatar to comply with the values of the region. Action is needed to change Qatar’s behavior so that it effectively contributes to international peace and security and does not act as a direct obstacle to these objectives. The 2014 agreement set out what Qatar needed to do—end the funding of terrorism on its territory, stop providing direct support for terrorists, and prevent extremists from having an open voice through its media. Now it is up to Qatar to provide more than lip service to its international obligations and the security of others.
About the authors: Ahmed Al-Hamli is the president of TRENDS Research and Advisory, an independent and progressive research center based in Abu Dhabi. Richard Burchill is the Director of Research and Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory.