Tuesday, September 9, 2014
CAIRO — Standing at the front of a conference hall in Doha, the visiting sheikh told his audience of wealthy Qataris that to help the battered residents of Syria, they should not bother with donations to humanitarian programs or the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
“Give your money to the ones who will spend it on jihad, not aid,” implored the sheikh, Hajaj al-Ajmi, recently identified by the United States government as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
Qatar is a tiny, petroleum-rich Persian Gulf monarchy where the United States has its largest military base in the Middle East. But for years it has tacitly consented to open fund-raising by Sheikh Ajmi and others like him. After his pitch, which he recorded in 2012 and which still circulates on the Internet, a sportscaster from the government-owned network, Al Jazeera, lauded him. “Sheikh Ajmi knows best” about helping Syrians, the sportscaster, Mohamed Sadoun El-Kawary, declared from the same stage.
Sheikh Ajmi’s career as fund-raiser is one example of how Qatar has for many years helped support a spectrum of Islamist groups around the region by providing safe haven, diplomatic mediation, financial aid and, in certain instances, weapons.
Sheikh Ajmi and at least a half-dozen others identified by the United States as private fund-raisers for Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise operate freely in Doha, often speaking at state-owned mosques and even occasionally appearing on Al Jazeera. The state itself has provided at least some form of assistance — whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons — to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
Now, however, Qatar is finding itself under withering attack by an unlikely alignment of interests, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, which have all sought to portray it as a godfather to terrorists everywhere. Some in Washington have accused it of directly supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — an extremist group so bloodthirsty that Al Qaeda has condemned it — a charge that Western officials, independent analysts and Arab diplomats critical of Qatar all call implausible and unsubstantiated.
“That is just disinformation,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Doha for the Royal United Services Institute, a British research center. “I am not going to excuse what Qatar has done: It has been grossly irresponsible when it comes to the Syrian conflict, like many other countries,” he said. “But to say that Qatar is behind ISIS is just rhetoric; it is politics getting in the way of things, and it blinds people to real solutions.”
Propelling the barrage of accusations against Qatar is a regional contest for power in which competing Persian Gulf monarchies have backed opposing proxies in contested places like Gaza, Libya and especially Egypt. In Egypt, Qatar and its Al Jazeera network backed the former government led by politicians of the Muslim Brotherhood. Other gulf monarchies long despised the Brotherhood because they saw it as a well-organized force that could threaten their power at home, and they backed the military takeover that removed the Islamist president.
Qatar is hardly the only gulf monarchy to allow open fund-raising by sheikhs that the United States government has linked to Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front: Sheikh Ajmi and most of the others are based in Kuwait and readily tap donors in Saudi Arabia, sometimes even making their pitches on Saudi- and Kuwaiti-owned television networks. United States Treasury officials have singled out both Qatar and Kuwait as “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorist fund-raising.
In many cases, several analysts said, Qatar has sought to balance a wager on the future of political Islam as a force in the region with a simultaneous desire not to alienate the West. It has turned a blind eye to private fund-raising for Qaeda-linked groups to buy weapons in Syria, for example, but it has not provided direct government funding or weapons. At times, Mr. Stephens and other analysts said, Western pressure has moved Qatar to at least partly suppress some of the overt fund-raising.
Qatar openly provides a base for leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas — deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel — as well as money to help prop up its government in Gaza. But American and Israeli officials say Qatar has stopped short of providing the group with weapons, as Iran does.
Qatar has allowed members of the Taliban to open an office and make their homes in Doha, but as part of deals approved by Washington.
In Libya, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are now backing rival sides in Libya’s escalating domestic unrest, each with unsavory ties: The U.A.E. is backing former fighters for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and members of his ruling elite, while Qatar is backing a coalition that includes militant Islamist groups.
During the 2011 uprising in Libya, Qatar supported an Islamist militia in Benghazi known as Rafallah al-Sehati that had relatively Western-friendly leaders but extremists in its ranks. The extremists later broke away to form Ansar al-Shariah, the militant group that played a role in the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.
Now Qatar is still backing militias at least loosely allied with the group in their fight against an anti-Islamist faction backed by the United Arab Emirates.
But Qatar has also tried to draw lines, according to Western diplomats and Islamists who have worked with Doha. Since the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt, for example, Islamists in exile say that Qatar has given them sanctuary but has pointedly refused to provide money to the Brotherhood for fear of further alienating its gulf neighbors who backed the takeover.
“They try to calibrate,” said one Brotherhood leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Qataris.
Many analysts say it is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood that has drawn accusations from other gulf states that have charged that Qatar is funding terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.
“The big falling-out is over Egypt, not Syria,” said Paul Salem, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Now, he said, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other gulf states “are putting the squeeze on Qatar.”
Since the military takeover in Cairo, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. And Israel, which once praised Qatar as the only gulf state to open bilateral relations, appears to be capitalizing on the split to pressure Qatar over its support for Hamas. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, recently called Doha “Club Med for terrorists” in an opinion article in The New York Times.
The United Arab Emirates have retained an American consulting firm, Camstoll Group, staffed by several former United States Treasury Department officials. Its public disclosure forms, filed as a registered foreign agent, showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising.
“All the gulf intelligence agencies are competing in Syria and everyone is trying to get the lion’s share of the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh Shafi al-Ajmi, also recently identified by the United States as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, said in an interview on the Saudi-owned Rotana television network last summer.
He openly acknowledged his role buying weapons from the Western-backed military councils, who sometimes received arms from Qatar. “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me,” he said.
He defended the Nusra Front despite its ties to Al Qaeda. “We should not stop supplying them with weapons, because they are still fighting Assad,” he said. And he shared a joke with the host about Kuwait’s well-known role as the hub for Syrian rebel fund-raising. (Both Shafi al-Ajmi and Hajaj al-Ajmi are Kuwaitis; lawyers for both have said they raise money only for legitimate Syrian causes.)
Qatar says it opposes all “extremist groups,” including ISIS. “We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions,” Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, said in a recent statement about the allegations.
In early 2013, when the West stepped up pressure on Persian Gulf states to crack down on Qaeda-linked fund-raisers, some complained that Qatar was turning against them. Other sheikhs “were welcomed as heroes at a conference in Doha and given lots of gifts, all to cut the support for the Nusra Front and to support the military councils, the pagan coalition,” Hamid Hamad Hamid Al-Ali, another Kuwaiti-born preacher designated last month as a terrorist fund-raiser, protested in an Internet posting in March 2013.
But social media posts and television appearances show that at least a half-dozen United States-designated terrorist fund-raisers, some designated years earlier, continued to frequent Doha.
In 2010, an arm of the Qatari government made a donation to help build a $1.2 million mosque in Yemen for a sheikh, Abdel Wahab al-Humayqani, designated as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (Qatari Embassy officials and Yemeni government officials both attended the opening.)
In 2011, Harith al-Dari, an Iraqi sheikh and tribal leader designated as a terrorist fund-raiser in 2008, appeared on Al Jazeera praying at the opening of a state-owned mosque in Doha just steps from the crown prince of Qatar.
“Arab countries won’t let us in to discuss things with them and complain to them — except one or two,” Sheikh Dari said in a television interview in January. He spoke on Al Jazeera from Qatar, which was evidently among the “one or two.”