Qatar's denial of backing ISIS met with skepticism

The denial by Qatar's foreign minister has not eased concerns that money is flowing to ISIS.   Photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

ON-THE-GROUND

"It's sort of like the politician averring that he doesn’t beat [his] wife and he won’t do it anymore, or Nixon insisting [he is] not a crook. If you’re confident that there is no reason to think you’re involved in this, why issue a statement?"
– Hussein Ibish, UAE columnist

Full Briefing

Qatar's foreign minister issued a statement Aug. 23 denying media allegations that his country provided support to the Sunni militants calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS). The statement hasn't calmed concern on all fronts, however.

The denial by Khalid al-Attiyah appears to have fueled suspicion in some policy corners, rather than quelling it.

"Qatar does not support extremist groups, including ISIS, in any way," he said in the statement e-mailed to the media. "We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions. The vision of extremist groups for the region is one that we have not, nor will ever, support in any way."

The statement itself, however, "actually prompts more speculation," says Hussein Ibish, columnist at the UAE newspaper The National. "It's sort of like the politician averring that he doesn’t beat [his] wife and he won’t do it anymore, or Nixon insisting [he is] not a crook. If you’re confident that there is no reason to think you’re involved in this, why issue a statement?"

Just hours after the statement was released, Qatar's government helped broker the release of an American hostage, Peter Theo Curtis, from Al Qaeda's Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS is an offshoot of the Nusra front, though the two groups have since actively clashed on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

MGO reported earlier this month that concerns over ransom payments to terrorist organizations could limit Qatar's negotiating in such circumstances. Commenting on the hostage release, US officials said they had specifically asked Qatar not to pay a ransom in this case. Relatives of the freed hostage told the media that while they were not privy to the exact terms of the exchange, they were told that no ransom had been paid. Further, Qatar officials have stated that Qatar did not pay a ransom to Nusra for the release of Mr. Curtis, as it has in previous hostage releases brokered in Syria and elsewhere.

Mr. Ibish says it is unlikely that Qatar's government would have contributed directly to ISIS. However, Doha's clear connection to militant groups will increase scrutiny over the country's' counterterrorism finance record, which has already been sharply criticized by the US Treasury in recent months.

In March, Qatar was singled out together with Kuwait by Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen, who described the countries as "permissive jurisdictions" for terrorism finance. As with Kuwait, Doha may now face increasing international pressure to improve surveillance of its financial system. The US Treasury continues to issue new designations of individuals involved in the financing of both ISIS and Nusra. Most recently on Aug. 22, two Gulf nationals were placed on a list of "Specially Designated Global Terrorists." Listed members have all US-based assets frozen. International sanctions sometimes follow if the United Nations follows suit by adding the individuals to international sanctions lists. More US Treasury designations are likely forthcoming.

Greater scrutiny on the banking system could prompt banks to take preemptive measures, for example, by requesting more information from clients and limiting interaction with certain types of individuals or groups. Other Gulf countries have limited Syrian expatriates' ability to open and maintain bank accounts, fearing a connection to the conflict in that country.

Still, there is a limit to the pressure that Western countries may be willing to exert on Qatar's financial system. European officials in particular may be wary, as many countries have sought – and received – heavy investment from Qatar in recent years.

Mr. Attiyah's statement followed remarks by Germany's development minister, Gerd Müller. "You have to ask who is arming, who is financing ISIS troops. The key word there is Qatar," he said on Aug. 20. The foreign ministry, however, almost immediately apologized for the comments, saying they had merely been the minister's understanding of media reports.

Qatar holds stakes in German companies including Volkswagen, Siemens, and Hochtief. German exports to Qatar were worth $1.3 billion in 2013, according to the German Foreign Ministry.

[Editor's note: This MGO correspondent is normally based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.]