Qatar’s support of extremists alienates allies near and far
CAIRO — The visiting sheik told his audience of wealthy Qataris in Doha that to help the battered residents of Syria, they should not bother with donations to humanitarian programs or the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
“Give your money to the ones who will spend it on jihad, not aid,” implored the sheik, Hajaj al-Ajmi, who the United States recently identified as a fundraiser for al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
Qatar is a tiny, petroleum-rich Persian Gulf monarchy where the United States has its largest military base in the Middle East. But for years it has tacitly consented to open fundraising by al-Ajmi and others.
Al-Ajmi’s career as a fundraiser is one example of how Qatar has for many years helped support a spectrum of Islamist groups around the region by providing a haven, diplomatic mediation, financial aid and, in certain instances, weapons.
Now, however, Qatar is finding itself under withering attack by an unlikely alignment of interests, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, which have all sought to portray it as a godfather to terrorists everywhere.
Some in Washington have accused it of directly supporting the Islamic State group, a charge that Western officials, independent analysts and Arab diplomats critical of Qatar all call implausible and unsubstantiated.
“That is just disinformation,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Doha for the Royal United Services Institute, a British research center. “I am not going to excuse what Qatar has done: It has been grossly irresponsible when it comes to the Syrian conflict, like many other countries,” he said.
“But to say that Qatar is behind ISIS is just rhetoric; it is politics getting in the way of things, and it blinds people to real solutions,” he added, using the acronym for another name for the Islamic State.
Propelling the barrage of accusations against Qatar is a regional contest for power in which competing Persian Gulf monarchies have backed opposing proxies in contested places like Gaza, Libya and especially Egypt. In Egypt, Qatar backed the former government led by Muslim Brotherhood politicians.
Many analysts say it is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood that has drawn accusations from other gulf states that have charged that Qatar is funding terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.
“The big falling-out is over Egypt, not Syria,” said Paul Salem, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Now, he said, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other Gulf states “are putting the squeeze on Qatar.”