Qatar’s a U.S. Ally Against ISIS, So Why’s It Cheerleading the Bad Guys?
New proof that the richest little emirate in the world is playing a double game with Washington and the so-called Islamic State.
The Imam Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab Masjid Doha is the biggest mosque in the emirate of Qatar, and it is a fountain of hate.
Built mainly in the first half of the 20th century mixing traditional and modern Islamic architecture, the air-conditioned, red-carpeted, chandelier-lit central hall can accommodate 11,000 men at prayer with a special enclosure for 1,200 women.
Re-inaugurated in 2011, the Grand Mosque was renamed after the founder of Wahhabism in the desert wastes of the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. Although his extreme and ascetic view of Islam has come to be associated mainly with the Saudis, it is also the official faith of incredibly rich little Qatar, which sits on a spit of land and a huge amount of natural gas in what most people know as the Persian Gulf. And Wahabbism, whether Saudi- or Qatari-funded (their zealous zillionaires compete), has provided the underpinning for the extremism in the Muslim world that spawned al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
So Qatar, which is also home to a major American military installation, to branches of major American universities (Northwestern, Georgetown, and Carnegie Mellon among them) and to Al Jazeera television, whose English and American branches are responsible for award-winning reporting, tries to be many things to many different audiences.
But the Islamic State and its self-anointed caliph are highlighting the deep contradictions, and nowhere is that more obvious than at the Grand Mosque.
Thus, Qatar’s authorities were quick to condemn this month the burning alive of captured Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh. One would expect such a reaction from a country that is part of the international coalition arrayed against the Jordanian’s murderers.
Yet in Doha’s cavernous Grand Mosque on the Friday after the ISIS barbarians posted a video of the grisly killing, an imam who is also a member of the country’s Supreme Judicial Council offered the considered opinion that the Jordanian should have been traded in a prisoner swap or ransomed in accordance with Islamic principles. This, even though ISIS clearly never had any such intention and had lied in negotiations, claiming al Kasasbeh was alive when he was most certainly dead.
In recent weeks, the Qataris have come under increasing pressure from the Obama administration and other Western governments to curb the emirate’s ties with radical Islamist movements—U.S. officials say Qatar has now replaced its neighbor Saudi Arabia as the source of the largest private donations to the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates.
When the spotlight is on—when jihad moneymen in Qatar and their funding networks are exposed and attract high levels of Western protest—Qatari authorities take some limited actions.
But there seems to be no persuading Qatar to stop running with the hare and hunting with the hounds—and that remains the case with providing platforms for ideological fellow-travelers of ISIS and al Qaeda or their supporters. And when Western attention is focused elsewhere, the Grand Mosque rings to sermons promoting the same intolerant strain of Islam endorsed by ISIS and used to justify the group’s barbarity.
On the Friday before ISIS posted the horrific footage of the burning pilot, a preacher sermonizing from the Grand Mosque’s minbar prayed for the destruction of the faithful of other religions. “Allah, strengthen Islam and the Muslims, and destroy your enemies, the enemies of the religion,” intoned Saudi cleric Sa’ad Ateeq al Ateeq. “Allah, destroy the Jews and whoever made them Jews, and destroy the Christians and Alawites and the Shiites.”
His comments wouldn’t have been out of place in ISIS-controlled Mosul or Raqqa. He also beseeched Allah to save the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam, from the “claws of the Jews.”
Al Ateeq, who was on his sixth visit to the state-supervised Grand Mosque since 2013, reserved his most bellicose remarks for the part of the sermon called the du’aa, when the preacher encourages the faithful to join in guided prayer.
Within minutes, Qatar’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs promoted al Ateeq’s remarks on Twitter. And the sermon was broadcast on several local television channels, including Qatar TV, the official state channel, signaling another stamp of approval, according to analysts Oren Adaki and David Andrew Weinberg of the U.S.-based think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), who unearthed the video of al Ateeq’s sermon.
“This is another example showing that Qatar’s commitment to the war on terror is ambiguous,” argues Weinberg. “The emirate shows one face to the international community projecting a desire to help in the fight against terrorist organizations, while providing a platform for the preaching in their own backyard of the same kind of hate-filled extremism of ISIS.”
Doha’s Grand Mosque has long been a stopover for militants from across the region heading to wage jihad in the Levant. And despite the emirate’s membership in the coalition against ISIS, and while U.S. warplanes launch their bombing raids on the militants in Syria and Iraq from the American airbase in Qatar, the landmark mosque has remained a top venue to hear radical Islamic sermonizing.
Last September, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani insisted while on a visit to Germany that the emirate “will never support terrorist organizations.” But in addition to the failure of the emirate’s authorities to stop Qatar being used as a hub for terror financing, there seems to be no will by the government to curb the promotion of a radical ideology that is helping to fuel jihadist groups.
Government invitations to extremist preachers have continued apace. Visiting preachers at the Grand Mosque in the past three years have included: Kuwaiti Hamid Abdullah al Ali, who has been blacklisted by the U.S. and UN for funding jihadists in Iraq and who in his sermon on March 2, 2012, praised the “great jihad” being waged in Syria by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra; Nabil al-Awadhi, another alleged jihad financier, who has delivered at least three sermons there; and Hamid Hamad al Ali, who refers to himself as an “al Qaeda commando.”
But then maybe it isn’t surprising there has been no letup in the roster of militants allowed to use the Grand Mosque. Harith al-Dhari, allegedly a major jihadist fundraiser, was a guest of honor when the current emir’s father inaugurated it in 2011.
Qatari officials reject the charge they are encouraging radical Islam, insisting they oppose extremists. “We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions,” Khalid al Attiyah, the emirate’s foreign minister, said in a statement last year in response to claims that Qatar has offered a variety of assistance—including sanctuary, money, and weapons—to radical groups from the the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas in Gaza to Islamist militias in Libya and jihadists in Syria.
But the Qataris’ claims of innocence as they leverage their wealth and strategic location to maximize their influence and hedge their bets across the region is increasingly frustrating allies in the coalition against jihadists.
Last month, the U.S. released the admitted al Qaeda operative Ali Saleh Kahlah al Marri from a federal prison prior to his completing a 15-year sentence, citing “time served,” and also as part of a repatriation agreement. Qatari authorities had sought his release from U.S. custody for years—offering among other things to swap him for an American couple held in jail in Doha.
On his arrival in Qatar, al Marri was welcomed as a returning hero. And not just by family members but by local celebrities and officials. As pictures posted on social media showed, he even received a congratulatory phone call from the emirate’s prime minister.