Terror finance worries may curb Doha kidnap mediation

The Taliban office in Doha. Qatar’s behind-the-scenes role in securing the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Taliban operatives was a classic move by the tiny Gulf state.   Photo: Osama Faisal/AP

ON-THE-GROUND

"The latest ransom revelations may bolster the case for those in Washington who ... seek to designate Qatar or Qatari officials as sponsors of terrorism."
– David Weinberg, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Full Briefing

Qatar's government is believed to have paid ransoms to branches of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Syria in recent years – funds that the US Treasury says added $120 million to the terrorist group's coffers between 2004 and 2012.

Qatar has developed a reputation as a key international mediator in hostage negotiations, a service that American and European governments have been relying on for nearly a decade. But that capacity and rolodex of contacts throughout the Islamic world has helped fund the very groups that the West has fought hard to disempower.

With turmoil in Iraq and Syria posing a heightened terror threat in the Middle East, Doha's traditional role as an interlocutor of Islamist groups now poses a difficult dilemma for counter terror financing authorities, particularly the US Treasury, which has in recent months escalated its outreach to Gulf governments, as we have noted.

"To some extent US officials already knew about this trend," says David Weinberg, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who recently testified before the US Congress on this issue. "However, the Treasury Department and Members of Congress are certainly concerned about Qatar's support for Hamas and other jihadist groups, so the latest ransom revelations may bolster the case for those in Washington who ... seek to designate Qatar or Qatari officials as sponsors of terrorism."

If Qatar comes under increased scrutiny from the US Treasury, as seems likely, banks operating in the country may seek to limit their exposure to illicit funds from or intended for countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, or Afghanistan. Financial institutions elsewhere in the Gulf have preemptively cut transactions to countries such as Syria, for example, or closed expatriate bank accounts linked to countries experiencing armed conflict.

US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David S. Cohen told The Wall Street Journal July 29 that bribes paid by European countries as well as one unspecified Gulf state – likely Qatar – are now the main source of Al Qaeda's cash.

Among the recent known cases of ransom involving Qatar are: a payment of $4 million to Al Qaeda's official Syria branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, in March to secure the release of 13 nuns; and a joint payment with Oman of $20.4 million to Al Qaeda in Yemen in exchange for four hostages in 2013. Other unconfirmed reports allege that Qatar paid to secure the release of nine Lebanese hostages from a rebel brigade in Syria in 2013.

Qatar also helped secure the release of US hostage Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners of the Afghan Taliban. Although no ransom has been reported, initial negotiations had centered around a ransom payment of $10 million, Buzzfeed reported June 26.

Qatar also directly funds some of the groups to which it has allegedly paid ransom. Jabhat al-Nusra and its key allies in the Islamic Front alliance of Syrian rebels, for example, have reportedly received non-ransom financing from Doha.

Private citizens in Doha are also believed to be involved in financing terrorist groups, and Qatar is already under pressure to reform what Mr. Weinberg describes as "a permissive jurisdiction for illicit and terrorist finance."

Last December, the US Treasury listed Qatar University professor Abdulrahman al-Nuaymi as having supported groups in Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Doha "did little to restrain him despite being well aware of his radical profile," says Weinberg.

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