Al Mesbar – Editorial Board
In May 2013, a perception emerged in Western circles that Qatar had “taken a lead in arming the Syrian opposition” in coordination with the CIA. International wire reports described an arrangement whereby the U.S. would work with Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia to ensure that arms did not fall into the hands of “groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.” The plan would have Qatar support rebels operating in the Syrian north, while Saudi Arabia sent munitions to the south. Qatari officials stated that their shipments included AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades, and ammunition, along with “instructions on battlefield techniques such as how to rig weapons on vehicles.” A Western source who spoke to a Reuters reporter seemed nonetheless aware that “sometimes weapons sent in by Qatar do in fact reach hardline groups” — but ascribed the phenomenon principally to the fog of war. For the record, Qatari foreign minister Muhammad al-Attiyah stated in 2015, “We talk with all the Syrians, with the exception of Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS.”
The same year, however, the U.S. Treasury Department charged that Qatar was not fulfilling its commitment to restrict the flow of funds to extremists in Syria, and specifically mentioned support for Jabhat al-Nusra. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen dubbed Qatar as well as Kuwait “permissive jurisdictions” for the funding of Nusra and Islamic State.” A Western diplomat speaking anonymously, for his part, charged that “there are eight to12 key figures in Qatar raising millions of pounds for the jihadis” in Syria, “in large part to Al-Nusra.”
Yet a difference of opinion over the evidence subsequently emerged within the Obama Administration. On the one hand, a statement by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes conveyed satisfaction that Qatari counterterrorism efforts had expanded. The Obama administration also felt that they had persuaded Qatari authorities to behave more responsibly. On the other hand, annual reporting by the State Department on terrorist training maintained that “entities and individuals within Qatar continue to serve as a source of financial support for terrorist and violent extremist groups, particularly regional al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Nusra Front.”
Nonetheless, subsequent reporting gleaned from Treasury documents and other open source materials provides substantial evidence of Qatari support for Al-Nusra, as well as its successor organization Jabhat Fat’h al-Sham. To be sure, much of the support was provided through non-government actors, or offered in the context of other dealings. But the many instances point to a consistent pattern which strongly suggests that the indirect nature of the aid was designed either to obscure a government role or enable plausible deniability. The evidence may be summarized as follows:
- As of January 2017, as outlined by scholar David Weinberg at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, at least six men with ties to Qatar have prolifically provided financial and weapons support to Al-Nusra in Syria. Five of them were under counterterrorism sanctions both by the U.S. and the UN. They include Qatari national Ibrahim ‘Isa al-Bakr; Qatari nationals Sa’d bin Sa’d al-Ka’bi and ‘Abd al-Latif bin ‘Abd Allah al-Kawati; two Jordanian nationals with Qatari ID cards (the brothers Ashraf ‘Abd al-Salam and ‘Abd al-Malik ‘Abd al-Salam, also known as ‘Umar al-Qatari); and the Jordanians’ father, nicknamed Abu Abdulazziz al-Qatari. Weinberg added in his report that the list of six figures was not exhaustive, as “additional Qataris who are not designated have been accused of aiding fundraisers now sanctioned on charges of funding Nusra.”
- Between 2013 and 2016, funds in excess of $27 million were reportedly transferred by the Qatari government to Syria, reaching Al-Nusra, in the form of a series of ransom payments. The hostages included Lebanese, Turkish, Spanish, and American nationals. According to reporting by Reuters, several Western diplomats believe that the payments amounted to a means of fueling Nusra “through the backdoor” — though the Qatari government denied the charge.
In seeking to understand the logic of Qatari support for Al-Nusra, opinions among Western policymakers differ. But the record of assistance is substantial, and the need to probe the phenomenon more deeply has become all the more urgent.