Yoichi Shimatsu, Senior Advisor to the 4th Media, based in Hong Kong, covered the rise of Islamic militancy in North Africa in the 1990s for the Japan Times group.
In the 2005 political thriller “Syriana”, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, Qatar is at the heart of an international intrigue. The title was based on the concept of “Pax Syriana”, a secret arrangement between two mutually hostile powers to divide a region into their respective spheres of dominance.
Washington think-tanks use this term to describe a reshaping of the Middle East to suit American interests, but in the knowledge that this goal is attainable only through covert cooperation with the enemy, namely the elite financial sponsors of Al Qaeda and the Islamic Brotherhood.
The thinly veiled fiction was based on the political reality of that thumb of desert that juts out of the Arabian Peninsula into the Gulf – the emirate of Qatar. Home of the state-owned Al Jazeera network, Qatar is on the surface the pro-Western host of the U.S. Central Command and an active supporter of “democratic revolutions” now sweeping the Mideast. It is also accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
Chemical weapons looted
It may puzzle and perhaps dismay young protesters in Benghazi, Cairo and Tunis that their democratic hopes are being manipulated by an ultra-conservative Arab elite, which has underhandedly backed a surge of militant Islamist radicals across North Africa. Credible U.S. intelligence reports have cited evidence pointing to the emirate’s long-running support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and jihadist fighters returning from Afghanistan
The links to Qatar uncovered by anti-terrorism investigators in the wake of 9-11 need to be reexamined now that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an on-and-off affiliate of Al Qaeda, has seized armories across half of the North African country. Libya’s well-stocked arsenals contain high-power explosives, rocket launchers and chemical weapons. LIFG is on the State Department’s terrorist list.
Most worrying, according to a U.S. intelligence official cited by CNN, is the probable loss of chemical weapons. The Federation of American Scientists reports that, as of 2008, only 40 percent of Libya’s mustard gas was destroyed in the second round of decommissioning. Chemical canisters along the Egyptian border were yet to be retrieved and are now presumably in the hands of armed militants.
After letting slip that the earliest Libyan protests were organize d by the LIFG, Al Jazeera quickly changed its line to present a heavily filtered account of “peaceful protests”. To explain away the gunshot deaths of Libya soldiers during the uprising, the Qatar-based network presented a bizarre scenario of150 dead soldiers in Sirte having been executed by their officers for “refusing to fight”. The mysterious officers then miraculously vacated their base disappearing into thin air while surrounded by angry protesters! Off the record, one American intelligence analyst called these media claims an “absurdity” and suggested instead the obvious:-that the soldiers were gunned down in an armed assault by war-hardened returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many Libyan Army units have “defected” to the opposition if for no other purpose than to try to recover the troves of weapons seized by the militants. Al Jazeera’s role in erasing the fingerprints of the armed militants vindicates the earlier conclusion of Western anti-terrorism experts of Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorism.
Payments for terror
According to a Congressional Research Service report of January 2008, “Some observers have raised questions about possible support for Al Qaeda by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Qatar’s Interior Minister provided safe haven to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed during the mid-1990s, and press reports indicate other terrorists may have received financial support or safe haven in Qatar after September 11, 2001.”
The national security chief, Interior Minister Abdullah bin Khalid Al Thani, is further mentioned as paying for a 1995 trip by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed “to join the Bosnia jihad.” The report recalls how after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, FBI officials “narrowly missed an opportunity to capture” the suspect in Qatar. “Former U.S. officials have since stated their belief that a high-ranking member of the Qatari government alerted him to the impending raid, allowing him to flee the country.”
Qatar’s spymaster also “welcomed dozens of so-called ‘Afghan Arab’ veterans of the anti-Soviet conflict in Afghanistan to Qatar in the early 1990s. These ties go back to the late 1980s, when “the United States and Qatar engaged in a prolonged diplomatic dispute regarding Qatar’s black-market procurement of U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.The dispute froze planned economic and military cooperation, and Congress approved a ban on arms sales to Qatar until the months leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, when Qatar allowed coalition forces to operate from Qatari territory.”
The hidden connections to the terrorist network broke out into public view when an Egyptian suicide bomber attacked a Doha movie theater in 2003. Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, reacted in haste and anger calling it an “act of unpardonable treachery by Bin Laden.” His slip of tongue led to the discovery that from the start of the first Gulf War Qatar had been paying millions of dollars to Al Qaeda as compensation for its hosting of the U.S. Central Command during the Iraq War. .Anti-terrorism experts allege that Doha upped its payments following the theater bombing.
More worrisome is the February 9, 2000 cable from the American Embassy in Doha, issuing a security alert on Qatari resident in the U.S. named Mohamed Ali Dahham Mansoori, who guided a three-man team that allegedly scouted the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty and the White House for the upcoming 9-11 attack. The three suspects traveled under aliases with Qatar passports. Their air tickets to Los Angeles and hotel rooms were paid for by a “convicted terrorist,” according to the FBI asserted. The trio’s role in 9-11 was subsequently tomb-stoned with all evidence suppressed, probably due to the warming US diplomatic relationship with Qatar’s royal family.
Mirage or Reality?
Doha, a cluster of shiny towers and fountains in a peninsula that is otherwise barren,seems the unlikeliest spot for financial and institutional support for Islamist terrorists. In Qatar, however, mirages are real, and reality is a mirage. Hailed as a model of political reform by Western diplomats and think tanks like the Brookings Institution, which has a Doha center, Qatar’s legal code is nonetheless firmly based on sharia law. Its education system , with links to dozens of American and British universities, is also the academic platform for the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the intellectual champion of the Muslim Brotherhood and advocate of suicide bombings.
The emirate’s insistence on preserving Gulf Arab traditions stands in contrast to Qatar’s business-savvy role as the region’s biggest supplier of natural gas. Per-capita GDP is estimated at about $90,000 a year; and average income around $65,000. Excluding small tax-haven countries, its population is the richest in the world. Qataris, then, are the Swiss of the Arab world, and their small nation, like Switzerland, is a haven for arms trafficking, illicit money transfers and other skullduggery.Even something as innocuous as TGI Fridays, a struggling fast-food chain in America, is in Doha an upscale retreat for off-duty Marine officers, petroleum engineers, international weapons dealers and their incognito clients from across the Mideast.
Despite the many connections with terrorism, Qatar got back into the good graces of the Obama administration with donations to the Clinton Foundation, including one of up to $5 million in 2008. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reciprocated with a February 2010 visit to inaugurate the Carnegie Mellon University in Doha’s Education City complex, which also houses Qaradawai’s Islamist institute. In early January, just before the Tunis and Cairo protests, she took a longer sojourn for the Forum for the Future, co-hosted by the royal family.
The relations between Washington and Doha has been sold to the public as a partnership for democracy and human rights, but beneath the smiles and photo ops is the hard fact of a Syriana-type arrangement to carve up the “future Mideast” between the Anglo-American energy industry and an ultraconservative elite set on imposing sharia law. For this “enemy of my enemy” alliance, the common foes are the secular governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and next Algeria.
Blowback in Libya
Covert cooperation between the West and sponsors of Islamic extremism is not new . In the 1950s, the CIA provided money and weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood for their battle against Egyptian independence leaderAbdul Gamal Nasser. US. intelligence operatives trained and armed mujahideen insurgents in the anti-Soviet Afghan war, including Osama bin Laden, then known by his cover name Tim Osman. According to former UK counterintelligence officer David Shayler, the British MI-6 hired Libyan militant Anas al-Liby, from the Al Qaeda-friendly Al-Muqtaliya group and later linked to the bombing of US embassies in East Africa, to assassinate Colonel Muammar Qadhafi in 1996.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, under the leadership of Abu al-Laith al-Libi, formally merged into Al Qaida in 2007. Two years later, Libi disowned armed violence and negotiated with Qadhafi for acceptance of LIFG as an above-ground political association. The sudden rejection of violence coincided with the Muslim Brotherhood’s makeover as a democratic force and Qatar’s advocacy of political reform across the Mideast. As a legal entity, it incited the first protests in Benghazi in mid-February. Within days of the uprising’s start, however, the LIFG reverted to its old ways, brandishing automatic weapons. What it plans to do with chemical weapons and advanced explosives is anyone’s guess, while one psychological point remains clear: The militants are eager to pay back Americans and Europeans for10 years of bombing, maiming and torture.
The constant temptation in a partnership between enemies is betrayal. The White House had counted on the protests to nudge Saif al-Islam Gadhafi to replace his father in a relatively smooth transition to democracy. The Gadhafi clan, however, united against the threat of an Islamist resurgence. Washington also miscalculated the potential for Al Qaeda elements and Brotherhood acting independently of high-level deals made in Doha.
Possible outcomes – from the collapse of the Qadhafi regime to the partition of Libya – could easily prompt Al Qaeda allies and the militant arm of the Brotherhood to establish the Libyan-Egyptian border as the next global training center for jihadists, now that the Afghan-Pakistan tribal regions no longer provide a safe platform for jihad operations. Any US or NATO intervention will only lead to a third front in the endless war. The more easily grasped alternative to a Syriana duopoly is an even older political formula: The winner takes all.
On this 10th anniversary year of the 9-11 attacks, Washington is staggering under a huge “blowback” from an out-of-control North Africa, self-inflicted by its own greed for oil and uranium, fears of declining influence, deceitful ambition and misplaced trust.