U.S. Ally Qatar Shelters Jihadi Moneymen

The world's most two-faced nation fights ISIS while letting terrorists raise money. Why won't Washington stop them?

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It has been dubbed the most two-faced nation in the world, backing the U.S.-led coalition against the militants of the Islamic State while providing a permissive environment, in the words of one top American official, for terrorist financiers to operate with impunity. And despite a growing furor on both sides of the Atlantic, Qatar, the tiny but super-wealthy Gulf emirate, shows scant willingness to clamp down on the jihad moneymen. Indeed, it may never unless Western powers start raising the political stakes.

A new report identifies more than 20 funders designated as terrorist-linked by the U.S. or UN who have benefited from a mixture of benign neglect or support in Doha. “With every important case of suspected terror finance involving a Qatari national in past years, the government in Doha has refused effectively to crack down,” according to the study, “Qatar and Terror Finance,” released Wednesday by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.

Author David Weinberg, a former congressional staffer, argues Qatar has “consistently failed to indict, arrest, convict, and hold behind bars individuals who have been sanctioned by the international community on charges of terror finance.”

The list is long and includes Jarallah al Marri, who was repatriated from Guantanamo Bay on Qatari assurances that he would be kept on a tight leash, but was allowed to travel and has recently backed militant fundraising campaigns on his Twitter account.

Even when financial facilitators are arrested, incarceration is brief. Some of the accused moneymen enjoy close ties to members of the emirate’s ruling family or have held jobs in government ministries or at state-funded universities.

Abdulrahman al-Nuaymi, a Qatari who has been accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of transferring millions of dollars to al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, was described by the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, as an “old friend” who helped to keep him in touch with “men of Islamic political thought,” according to the Arab press. Those thinkers included a former mentor of Osama bin Laden, Abulmajeed al-Zindani, and the founder of Palestine’s Hamas movement, Ahmed Yassin.

Al-Nuaymi, who has also been fingered by the UN and the European Union as a funder of terrorism, has held major roles in official Qatari organizations, including serving as a board member on charities backed by the government and at the Qatar Islamic Bank. He is a past president of the emirate’s football association. “Doha refuses to arrest him, a choice that speaks volumes about its priorities on terror finance,” according to Weinberg.

When funding networks are exposed and attract high levels of Western protest, some action is taken by Qatari authorities to curb the excesses but charges are not filed, no one is imprisoned, at least for long, and then the actors resume their activities when the scrutiny disappears.

A Qatari fundraising campaign for Syria called Madid Ahl al-Sham has been endorsed by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a conduit for donations—a validation the campaign advertises on its own Twitter page. Yet it was allowed to operate for 10 months after al-Nusra’s endorsement before finally it shut down. It remains unclear whether Qatari authorities intervened or the organizers decided to close up shop because of media attention.

The paper on the role of Qatar as a conduit for terror funding comes just weeks after David S. Cohen, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, accused the Qatari authorities of allowing top financiers to live freely in the emirate despite the fact they are on international blacklists. Speaking at a Washington think tank after a trip to the Gulf, Cohen was blunt: “There are U.S.- and UN-designated terrorist financiers in Qatar that have not been acted against under Qatari law.”

He cited by name al-Nuaymi and Khalifa al-Subaiy, a onetime employee of the emirate’s central bank who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the UN and in 2008 was convicted in absentia by Bahrain on charges of financing terrorism.

Cohen’s public comments in October appeared to be an administration effort to increase the pressure on Qatar. But 24 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee aren’t satisfied. They sent a letter Tuesday to the Treasury Department requesting “specific public updates on Treasury’s discussions with the Qatari government on previously designated, Qatar-based terrorist financiers that the Qataris have yet to act upon.”

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Washington politicians aren’t alone in expressing frustration. When the country’s new ruler, 34-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, met with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and British intelligence chiefs in late October, they urged him to do more.

Also, two lawmakers, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) are calling on the Obama administration to impose new sanctions. In a letter to Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew Wednesday they note Qatar’s bankrolling of the Palestinian Hamas group, and the two lawmakers write:  “The United States must escalate its monitoring and sanctioning of individuals, charities, and other organizations sponsoring terrorism in Qatar.  We respectfully request that you provide us with a report detailing the extent of public and private financial support from within Qatar for terrorist organizations including Hamas, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the al-Nusra Front, as well as what actions Qatar is taking to enforce its own terror financing laws.  We further urge you to aggressively designate terrorist operatives and Qatari financial institutions that allow Hamas to store and transfer funds”.

Former Thatcher-era foreign minister and Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the British parliament’s intelligence panel, warned the Qataris publicly they could no longer “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” And the country’s top-selling quality broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, launched a Stop the Funding of Terror campaign, highlighting Qatari terror financiers and facilitators and exploring their network ties to the emirate’s political elite.

But the British message of disapproval was undercut by Cameron’s appeal to the emir for Qatar to plow more of its vast oil and gas wealth into British infrastructure projects, including a high-speed rail line. The emirate already has huge, high-profile investments in London, where it owns such landmarks as the iconic Harrods department store and the British capital’s tallest building, the Shard.

American criticism, meanwhile, is blunted by the U.S. need to maintain its major military base in Qatar.

As long as Western governments talk tough one minute and hold out the begging bowl the next, not much is likely to change. Weinberg argues that they need to change the political calculus so there are real consequences if Qatar continues to have such woeful enforcement.

WikiLeaks cables show that in 2009 one U.S. diplomat noted the Qatari government “will continue to be an inconsistent partner on combating terrorist financing unless continually prodded.” But Western nudging only goes so far. Under Western pressure, Qatari authorities established in 2004 a Financial Intelligence Unit and six years later an anti-terrorism committee, but those have failed to sanction any Qataris for illicit funding and in the past decade, only one financial crime has been referred to prosecutors.

So, what do the Qataris think they are up to? U.S. diplomats have said in the past they don’t fully understand.

Some reluctance can be traced to the tiny emirate’s feelings of vulnerability located in the tough neighborhood of the Gulf. The ruling family has been adept at trying to neutralize potential threats—including ones from jihadis—while enhancing its clout in the region through patronage and through the media. Al Jazeera, the global satellite network that broadcasts in Arabic and English—and now throughout the United States—was created by the government of Qatar in the 1990s.

Qatar is just a little spit of land that looks like a polyp on edge of Saudi Arabia. By keeping its profile high with everything from diplomacy to soccer’s World Cup, it has hoped never to be overwhelmed by its enormous and not always friendly neighbor. The Qataris famously play every angle, cutting deals, for instance, with the Israelis as well as the Iranians.

But as Weinberg suggests, that’s a dangerous game when it comes to dealing with today’s terrorists, and not only for the West, for Qatar itself.

A Qatari official speaking on background tells The Daily Beast that part of the problem can be traced to the byzantine politics within the royal family, which numbers about 3,000 members, and the pressure to maintain balance among the factions. The political divisions are a microcosm of regional fractures among modernizers, religious conservatives and Machiavellians, whose support for one of the other two factions can determine outcomes in disputes.

The modernizers are clustered around the current ruler, his father, and his mother, Sheikha Mozah, who is the driving force behind the wealthy Qatar Foundation. But they have faced considerable internal family opposition over the years, and in the summer of 2009, those splits triggered a serious palace coup attempt. The then-chief of staff of the army, Gen. Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, and the country’s prime minister were aware of the plot but refrained from intervening, according to a member of the royal family.

U.S. diplomats at the time dismissed rumors of the putsch attempt, which failed because guards at the main royal palace refused to join in. But two senior government officials told me that the coup effort had been triggered by religious conservatives’ disapproval of the then-emir’s political direction and his ties to Washington.

Had the coup succeeded, the Qatar problem might have become still worse than it is.