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Qatar Is a U.S. Ally. They Also Knowingly Abet Terrorism. What's Going On?

Jewel Samad/Getty Images

In a televised interview on September 25, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour confronted the emir of Qatar about allegations that his country is not a true ally of the United States. Doha hosts America’s largest military base in the Middle East, and at the same time allows private fundraising for American adversaries Al Qaeda and ISIS. Qatar has also been a big source of funding in recent years for U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas, a spinoff of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The 34-four-year-old emir replied to Amanpour: “I'm not in a camp against another camp. … I have my own way of thinking.”

The richest country in the world per capita has developed a working relationship with a particularly wide range of governments and groups, from Hezbollah to the Taliban. Qatar was also willing to engage Israelis after the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s. (Relations have since soured.) Qatar’s basic foreign policy approach is not uncommon among small, vulnerable states. Qatar has one of the smallest citizen populations in the Arab world (250,000), and the largest percentage of non-nationals in the world (88 percent). But Doha has pursued a maximalist version, often using its vast natural gas wealth to cultivate and sustain relations. To fully understand how this plays out you have to take a few central factors into account.

What are the goals of Qatari foreign policy? 

Two overarching goals have driven Qatari policy. One has been to maximize Qatar’s influence on the regional and international stage. This originally reflected the personal ambition of the former ruler and current emir’s father, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, and his foreign minister and eventual prime minister, Shaykh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani. The two men directed foreign policy until the father abdicated in favor of his son, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, in July 2013.

The second objective has been to preserve the security of the ruling family and state. Qatar juts out into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia, its much larger, more powerful, and sometimes hostile neighbor, with whom it shares its only land border. Iran, with whom Doha shares the world’s largest gas field, is a short distance across Gulf waters. Another large and challenging state in the neighborhood, Iraq, is across the Gulf to the north. Hosting a major U.S. military base since 2003 has provided existential security for Qatar. Courting Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafi groups has served as a power amplifier for the country, especially vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia.

Why does Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood? 

Qatar supported Muslim Brotherhood organizations in countries across the region during the Arab uprisings in 2011, believing they represented the wave of the future. From Qatar’s perspective, being at the front end of this trend would showcase the country’s supposedly progressive leadership.

Backing the Brotherhood represented a continuation of a strategy that was already in place. Doha had hosted Egyptian and, later, Syrian Brotherhood members for decades, including the maverick Egyptian cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi who has lived in Qatar since the 1960s. Qatar had also provided Brotherhood personalities an important means for disseminating their views via the state-funded media channel, Al Jazeera, since the mid-1990s.

Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood has functioned as an important bulwark against Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has viewed the Brotherhood as a significant domestic irritant since the 1990s, and designated it as a terrorist group in March of this year. Qatar’s patronage of and influence over some parts of the group have served as a stick to wield against its more powerful neighbor.

Qatar’s domestic environment reveals the complicated nature and extent of the country’s support for the Brotherhood. In Qatar, there is a total dearth of Islamist activism. The Islamist politics that Doha has championed in the broader region are illegal in Qatar. 

Politics in Qatar are reserved for an elite circle of ruling family members and their appointees. An elected municipal council advises on local services, but the establishment of a a semi-elected assembly, called for in the new 2004 constitution, has been delayed multiple times. Political parties and associations are forbidden. The most remote forms of political expression by Qataris with regard to their own government are not tolerated. A Qatari poet, for instance, was sentence to life imprisonment in 2012 (reduced to 15 years in 2013) for verses that offended political sensibilities.

In this context, it is easy to understand that Qatar calibrates its support for political Islamists according to the extent they are perceived as a strategic asset. Doha’s eviction of Egyptian Brotherhood leaders from Qatar in September showed that Doha had calculated that the political costs of their support for the group; in this case, not responding more strongly to Saudi pressure to cease support for the group had become a liability. But despite the dramatic fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt, the group still maintains important pockets of support across the region. Qatar is not likely to abandon the group anytime soon.

Why has Qatar funded terrorists in Syria and Iraq?

Qatar is believed to have directly supported some of the most radical groups fighting in the Syrian war through much of 2013. This may have included Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. Doha would have adopted this approach in order to advance its foreign policy goal of defeating the Assad regime.

Qatar likely adjusts the level and nature of support for groups like the Nusra Front based on strategic calculations, just like it does in its relationship with the Brotherhood. Late last year, it seems that Doha assessed the political price of backing radical groups in Syria, in defiance of Riyadh (which had just modified its own Syria policy) and Washington, and determined that it was too high.

However, the wealthy state still tolerates private fundraising for Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other radical organizations. In some cases, Doha encourages the private financing of extremist groups by inviting their prominent supporters to speak in Qatar. By outsourcing its foreign policy to middlemen fundraising for and financing the Syrian opposition, Qatar removes the liability of directly meddling in Syrian affairs, as detailed in a recent investigative report. Allowing local fundraising for groups operating in Syria and Iraq may also help direct Qatari citizen political inclinations outside the country and bolster the government’s so-called Islamist credentials both at home and abroad.

How bad is Qatar's involvement with terrorists? 

According to the U.S. Treasury, a number of terrorist financiers have been operating in Qatar. Qatari citizen Abd al Rahman al Nuaymi has served as an interlocutor between Qatari donors and leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, later renamed ISIS). Nuaymi reportedly oversaw the transfer of two million dollars per month to AQI for a period of time. Nuaymi is also one of several of Qatar-based, Al Qaeda financiers sanctioned by Treasury in recent years. According to some reporting, U.S. officials believe the largest share of private donations supporting ISIS and Al Qaeda–linked groups now comes from Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia.

There has been support among the royal family for radical Islamist groups, including ISIS’s predecessor network and Al Qaeda. According to The New York Times, one royal family member, Abdul Karim al Thani, operated a safe house for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who eventually established and led AQI, when he was traveling between Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Abdul Karim also provided Qatari passports and more than one million dollars to finance Zarqawi’s network. Another royal family member, Shaykh Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani, who held top ministerial posts over a period of two decades through mid-2013, sheltered on his farm other al-Qaeda members including Khalid Shaykh Mohammad, and welcomed Osama bin Laden there twice, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Khalid Shaykh Mohammad eventually became the mastermind behind September 11.

What might change Qatar's approach to terrorist support?

For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—two of America’s strongest counter-terrorist partners in the Gulf—it was the perception that the terrorists posed a real security risk inside their country. Al Qaeda elements have plotted against targets in Qatar, but Doha’s extraordinary financial and political patronage may help deter anti-Qatar planning. As the Qatari government’s security guarantor, Washington more than any other party holds the key to inspiring a different kind of approach.

This piece has been updated.