The issue of terrorist financing has been at the heart of the Gulf crisis since late June 5th. In the eye of the storm, Qatar has been criticized in recent years for its benevolent policy towards radical Sunni groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. What exactly are these accusations based on? To clarify things, Qatar Observatory offers this analysis, initially published on the orientxxi website, by providing precise answers to this crucial issue in international relations.
Since the series of attacks that hit several Western countries from January 2015, many analysts and politicians have felt obliged to attribute the proliferation of jihadist-inspired terrorism to Qatar. Although regularly placed on the list of suspects, Saudi Arabia has taken over this story to justify the ground and air embargo and the multiple sanctions against his little neighbor.
To evaluate the relevance of these accusations, it must first be recalled that the root cause of the chaos on which the first jihadist push in Iraq developed is none other than the militarization of American diplomacy that occurred in response to September 11th. And point not to neglect at all is the second of the matrices of the new wave of radicalization which took place in Syria, beginning of autumn 2011.
Syria, land of incubation of the radical push
Launched in the wake of other Arab uprisings, the “Syrian spring” has during its first six months kept a peaceful tone essentially. Then from summer 2011, the regime’s systematic militarization of its repression led to the counter-militarization of part of its opposition. By the following winter, entire sections of the territory saw the development of fighting where heavy artillery and aviation caused appallingly heavy reports. It is in the context of this descent into hell that the Gulf countries will start their mobilization.
Encouraged by their opinions and religious circles increasingly sensitive to the brutality of repression, petro-monarchies decided in the summer 2011 to break off their relations with Damascus. If Qatar, whose emir had in 2011 completed the construction of a monumental palace in the suburbs of Damascus, worked behind the scenes to make Bashar al-Assad accept the option of a political opening, abandoned one of its precious allies, Riyadh (who had remained cautious until the end of 2011 – it then looked favorably on the weakening of the most powerful Arab ally of his Iranian rival). With the escalation of violence in 2012, everywhere in the Peninsula, voices are rising to give the Syrians the means to free themselves from an increasingly bloodthirsty power. In February 2012, the step was officially taken by Qatari Prime Minister Hamed bin Jassem who calls on al-Jazeera to concrete measures to “save the Syrian people”, among which he directly refers to “arming the opposition”.
From then on, the rallying of Gulf societies is taking shape. In unison with their governments but also in full agreement with a majority of Western chancelleries who claim to want to support the opposition, many religious leaders, as their reading of the conflict becomes confessional, argue for a Sunni imperative of solidarity. One of them, Kuwaiti tele-preacher Hajjaj al-Ajami, is filmed on the front line and is sending financial aid to the insurgents. The rebel factions have not yet been phagocytosed by jihadist organizations that remain largely embryonic.
At a time when it is assuming regional leadership, Qatar is struggling on several fronts to bring the final blow to a regime that seems dying. In Doha, the Emir strives to unify the many factions of the opposition under a common banner and in November 2012 won a diplomatic victory with the creation on his soil of the “National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces”. Everywhere, he mobilizes powerful humanitarian NGOs that raise tens of millions of dollars. At the same time, influential ulema are invited in the mosques to animate talks about the legitimacy of the “cause of the Shâm” such as Syrian Mohamed Rajeh Krim, known throughout the Muslim world for his knowledge of the readings of the Koran. In the beginning of 2012, Hajjaj al-Ajami also came to the city of al-Khor, in the North of the country, with the support of one of BeIN Sport’s leading journalists. Evidence of the popularity of the Syrian cause, Abderahman al-Nuaymi, former dissident of the al-Thani dynasty (disapproving of the liberal turn of the 1990s, he spent three years in prison before being released following international pressure in 2001), is joining forces to raise private funds for fighting factions.
The trap of retroactive readings
These two personalities (Abderahmane al-Nuaymi and Hajjaj al-Ajami) are often cited as the heads of networks that allegedly financed from Qatar jihadist organizations. In support of their accusations, the detractors of the emirate recall that both are on the blacklists of the US Treasury and the United Nations (respectively since December 2013 and August 2014). In their reports, these two institutions point out their close ties with Jabhat al-Nusra, the former Syrian subsidiary of al-Qaeda (now renamed Hay’at tahrir al-Sham and officially breaking ties with the parent organization).
But is this enough to incriminate Qatar? This would ignore the temporality of the chain of events which, between 2012 and 2014, deeply recomposed Syrian-Iraqi theater. It is, we know, one year after the beginning of March 2011 uprising that the situation in Syria is turning into drama. The plight of the population in the areas controlled by the opposition gradually exacerbates the feeling of betrayal of its Western sponsors and initiates an irresistible dynamic of disenchantment and radicalization. During the year 2012, the center of gravity of the rebellion moves in the direction of Jabhat al-Nosra, which begins to be a better bulwark against the violence of a regime that Iran, Russia and Hezbollah continue to strengthen. And when in December 2012, the United States classifies Jabhat al-Nusra on the list of terrorist organizations, this decision is widely denounced by the opposition forces, including in its secular component.
On the ground, the reputation of the jihadist group, whose strategy and methods make it hostile to the massive incorporation of foreign fighters, is then relatively good in the ranks of the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and in a wide fringe of Arab opinion. Reflecting this perception, Laurent Fabius, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, declares in the end of 2012 that the organization is doing “a good job”. In order to get out of its isolation and better melt into the national resistance, al-Nusra will then, as demonstrated by Thomas Pierret, begin a phase of doctrinal reorientation, by gradually giving up its rhetoric of religious exclusivism. In support of its aggiornamento, the group besides announces not wanting to strike the West and alliances with other moderate factions in the management of certain portions of released territories. During 2012, this dynamic of convergence emerges as one of the most likely to bring down the regime and it is around this coalition in the making that a military alliance is formed called “Syrian Islamic Front” “(SIF).
Dominated by the powerful Islamic-nationalist faction Ahrar al-Sham, this new group does not forbid tactical collaborations on the ground with all the revolutionary forces, including al-Nousra. At a time when the views of the Arab world are traumatized by the large-scale massacres perpetrated by the regime (like the Ghouta chemical attack, which caused more than 1,000 deaths in summer 2013), support networks for Syrian opposition redoubled activism in the Gulf countries. It was at this moment that Abderahman al-Nuaymi sent large sums to a certain Abu Khalid al-Suri. Chief of Ahrar al-Sham in the Aleppo region and veteran of Afghanistan, al-Suri is one of those who advocate the coordination of all armed groups, refusing to exclude al-Nusra. It is in these transactions that the US Treasury believes it can detect evidence of the involvement of Qatari agents in the financing of Jabhat al-Nusra and therefore “terrorism”. But at the beginning of 2013, not only has the filiation between the jihadist group and its al-Qaeda headquarters not yet been made public, but the accusation of “terrorism” does not make sense for a large part of the Syrian opposition that sees the savagery of loyalist forces as the root cause of all radicalizations.
The shifting sands of the notion of “terrorism”
Obsessed by the fall of the regime they think imminent, the Gulf countries are at this time (first half of 2013) determined to carry the final stalemate. While in Kuwait, a public campaign advocates the financing of 12,000 combatants for the Syrian front, Doha delivers to the groups in the orbit of the SIF a first shipment of Chinese-made ground-to-air missiles (type FN6). Purchased in Sudan, these new weapons are designed to reverse the balance of power. According to the elite in Gulf, the goal is to bring down the regime before the Islamic State Organization (ISIS) comes to shatter the Syrian revolutionary ideal. But the decision of the United States to stop the delivery of surface-to-air missiles that coincides with the inexorable rise in power of the al-Baghdadi organization redefines in the second half of 2013 the priorities of the actors. For Doha, stopping the supply of sophisticated weapons does not preclude continued funding for groups now fighting both regime soldiers and the ISIS forces whose ultra-violent sectarianism is condemned even in the ranks of al-Nusra. When in February 2014, rebel groups allied with Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra launch a violent offensive against ISIS, the operation is naturally well-regarded in Doha. Ironically, Abu Khalid al-Suri, symbol of alleged terrorist connivance of Qatar in the eyes of US services, is killed by a kamikaze of ISIS against which he then led the fight in the region of Aleppo.
His case illustrates clearly the divergence of approaches between the Obama administration and the Gulf emirates; while for the first time, al-Suri is considered infrequent, the urgency of “liberating” the Syrian people caught between the horror of the regime and the terror of ISIS pushes the second to support indiscriminately all factions of the resistance. For them, assisting the inclusive branch of al-Nusra (represented for a time by his “mufti” Abu Mariya al-Qahtani with whom al-Jazeera makes regular interviews) cannot be criminalized because of its military centrality in the opposition and the doctrinal reorganization that now limits its engagement within the borders of the Syrian state. At most, the emirate, through the voice of his former Prime Minister Hamed ben Jassem conceded in a televised speech (October 25, 2017), that, citing al-Nusra, “a support may be brought to the wrong factions “.
Old regional rivalries
From June 2014, the rise of ISIS in Syria following the Iraqi blitzkrieg will change the situation on the ground. While it was indeed engaged in a movement of rapprochement with other more moderate groups, al-Nusra took the path of an ideological outbidding. It intends to compete with the announcement by ISIS of the restoration of the caliphate. This radicalization pushes Turkey to qualify al-Nusra, at the end of 2014, as a terrorist organization. In addition to growing pressure from Washington, this climate of confusion will force Qatar to restrict the list of groups it supports. Concomitant with the coming to power of the new Emir Tamim, this turning point manifests itself in increased surveillance of the actors operating in Syria from its territory. Sign of this turn, Kuwaiti Hajjaj al-Ajami, familiar with long stays in Doha, is invited to return home in early summer 2014. At the same time, the government is taking a series of measures to further control flows through its banking institutions. And while asserting its reserve for a possible normalization with Bashar al-Assad, limits its diplomatic relations in Syria to the only humanitarian field.