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Terrorism

Qatar and the Terrorism Blame Game

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

Between January 19, 2018 and January 24, 2018, a delegation of researchers and academics from the U.S. think-tanks and non-profit organizations, which also included researchers from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), paid a visit to Qatar to meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense, the Governor of the Central Bank of Qatar, academics, and other high-level and leading figures of Qatar to shed light on the recently imposed sanctions on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Bahrain, and Egypt, citing the Qatari government’s alleged support for terrorism.

Doha The dispute between Qatar and the powerful Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Egypt and Bahrain continues to attract public attention. The diplomatic and economic blockade imposed on Qatar by the aforementioned four countries stems from the allegations that Qatar is meddling in the internal affairs of its neighboring states. Tensions have arisen especially in light of charges that it supports the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Hamas, and al-Qaeda affiliates, as well as for its relationship with Iran.

The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt remains a polarizing factor in most of the Gulf States, notably inSaudi Arabia, Egypt, and the U.A.E.. Following the toppling of Hussni Mobarak’s regime in 2011, Qatar poured billions of dollars in support of the Brotherhood-led government in Egypt. Following the 2013 crackdown against the Brotherhood members in Egypt, leading to the group being outlawed and designated by Egypt as a terrorist organization, Qatar continues to be criticized by Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., and Egypt for providing a safe haven and citizenship to Islamist renegades, including members of the Brotherhood, from other Gulf Countries.

Qatar is also criticized of supporting Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood in Gaza.It has repeatedly been accused of pouring billions of dollars into the Gaza strip, largely investing in infrastructure, building hospitals and creating jobs, despite it being under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.The growing clashes between Shia militants and the Saudi security forces in the east of Saudi Arabia, the fight against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the 2011 uprising by the majority Shia population in Bahrain are all charged in part to Qatar and its alleged support for anti-government militias in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain.

While it is true that Qatar is a supporter of groups like Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and the fact that such support serves as prime focal point in linking Qatar’s alleged terror- support and terror-funding schemes, things may not be as simple as they seem.

Amidst other accusations directed against Qatar was the distrust over its state-funded broadcaster in Doha, al Jazeera, which is seen by the blockading countries as a purveyor of extremism. The accusations against al Jazeera are longstanding and have been made for years by many countries. For instance, it faced criticism by Saudi Arabia and other blockading countries for its coverage of the Arab Spring and unfavorable portrayal of monarchies and governments in the Middle East. In the past, prior to the age of social media, terrorist groups wanting to air their messages would turn to al Jazeera (surreptitiously providing video tapes to the channel). Chechens holding 800 hostages in the 2001 siege of the Dubrovka Moscow theater, for instance, did so, as has Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Nowadays, terrorists upload their messages directly to the Internet and rely on their social media networks to distribute them, but in reality, by such measure, nearly all news media outlets could be considered guilty of providing platforms for violent extremist and terrorist groups, including ISIS, to distribute their messages, as these same uploaded messages are replayed on most major Western news channels as well.

While the English broadcasting version of al Jazeera does not serve as a platform for extremism, some non-Qatari citizens offer claim that the Arabic version gives an undue platform to extremists. In a non-scientific polling of a small sample of Iraqi, Jordanian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Syrian and Arab speaking American, French, and Belgian viewers to understand al Jazeera’s role in spreading extremism, ICSVE researchers found varying sentiments, from strongly worded responses such as “the Qatari owned network is a podium for spreading extremism” and that “it has certain shows which inflame the public opinion and influences the minds of youth” to more measured statements that it “sometimes gives an opportunity to some extremists to express their opinion, much like mainstream Western media might let a far-right or racist white supremacist speak.” One respondent stated that the channel “allowed terrorists a podium, but with a bit of toning it could also be used to expose terrorists and maybe pave way for dialogue.” Others believe that “al Jazeera is covering different sides and point of views that some people don’t want to see.” One respondent noted, “Al Jazeera is like CNN over Trump… they concentrate for or against, according to the emir’s will.” One respondent noted that during the 2003 U.S.-led Coalition invasion of Iraq al Jazeera provided counter balancing coverage to Western media’s coverage of the same. Perhaps most tellingly, one Arab respondent pointed out that al Jazeera may be considered tame in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s al Arabia, and many of the other regionally sponsored networks.

In any case, al Jazeera may be the most pressing and challenging issue for Qatari leadership. Using their state- owned television station to poke at their neighboring countries in ways that their neighbor’s leadership finds highly irritating, if not threatening, is challenging indeed. For a television station that holds as its motto, “Giving voice to the voiceless,” supported by a country that is less fearful of the changes happening throughout the Arab world, it may be too willing to voice opinions that other neighboring countries simply do not want supported. For instance, when the Arab Spring of 2011 sent shock waves throughout the region, giving millions of Arabs hopes for regime change and democratic governance, al Jazeera was giving these events full coverage.

While the blockading countries of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain sought to erect a seawall barricading their regimes from the popular wave of change emanating from the Arab Spring, the Qatari government stood more patient; it was more content to wait for events to progress naturally, and towards more democratic forms of governance, as pointed out by Qatari government officials, while not fearing for their own regime’s downfall. Moreover, through the Arab Spring, and even before it, Qatar has supported and allowed for al Jazeera, the state-funded broadcaster in Doha, which officials claim to be quasi-independent, to criticize the records and policies of neighboring states on human rights and other issues, infuriating and causing them to fear a popular backlash.

The government of Qatar confident in its own popular support was not opposed to the groundswell of popular demand for regime change when it resulted in Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Abidine Ben Ali being ousted, and democratic elections held to allow the people to choose their own leaders. The political win by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt caused concern among those who feared that the Brotherhood’s Islamists aspirations could lead to a dismantling of the very democratic processes that had brought them to power, but Qatar did not share that worry.

While other nations stood back watching to see what would happen, Qatar stood by the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing them access to the media via the Qatari network of al Jazeera and by giving them large tranches of financial support to help them continue to govern. Yet, in Egypt, the political elites and the military conspired against the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in the 2013 military coup that ousted and labeled their group as terrorists, with a non-elected government coming to power, at least temporarily. Al Jazeera was kicked out of the country. Its journalists were arrested. Qatar ended up taking Muslim Brotherhood exiles into their nation, and in many cases providing them with Qatari citizenship.

In defense of his country’s policies in regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatari Ambassador Mutlaq al Qahtani, the Special Envoy for Qatar’s Foreign Minister, responded that “Qatar’s position is to respect the will of the people in regard to who rules them.” The Ambassador further noted that neither the U.S. State Department nor the United Nations have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Given Qatar’s stance on respecting the will of the people in choosing their political destiny, as well as their deep desire to see a stable Egypt progressing through the Arab Spring, Qatar gave the Muslim Brotherhood their full support following the fall of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood into power through democratic elections, despite angering its neighbors for such actions, the Ambassador noted. He also pointed out that “Washington works with the Taliban, which is recognized by the U.N. Security Council as a terrorist group” whereas Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are not designated, so we don’t have issues; yet we get accused.”

The United Arab Emirates has a particular quarrel with Qatar over the Muslim Brotherhood, as its members were accused of trying to overthrow the Emirati government. The wife of an Emirati opposition leader seeking asylum in Doha served as the crucial nerve-point leading to the quarrel and aggressive attacks against one another in the media, and even served as one of the primary reasons for the blockade, according to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al Thani. Her case has caused a quarrel between the two countries over the demand by the U.A.E. to extradite her and Qatar’s refusal to do so.

Citing both legal and Islamic traditions, Qatari officials commented that she was there on political asylum and not guilty of any crimes, and as a woman, Qatari officials would not be willing to turn her over against her will to a country that might imprison or otherwise harm her. When ICSVE director was in the U.A.E. this past month, Emirati government officials cited Qatar as harboring Muslim Brotherhood members from other countries, and even providing them with passports to enable their travel abroad. While some view such actions as highly irritating, including Egypt and the U.A.E., among others, Qatari officials adamantly deny such actions as constituting  support for known terrorists or terrorist groups. In fact, officials cite the 2012 legitimate and overwhelming victories of Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in post-Mubarak parliamentary elections.

Qatar’s position seems to be no different than the other Arab countries in standing firm for a solution with Israel and seeing Hamas both as a legitimate political force and governing party, much like many others now see Hezbollah. Similar to other Arab States, Qatar allows Palestinian refugees to reside in their countries, but fails to provide them with passports, continuing to insist on their right of return. A jeep driver who gave us a great ride and amazing adrenaline rush barreling over cliffs in the sand dunes outside of Doha shared his experiences of having been born in Qatar but still unable to obtain citizenship due to his Palestinian citizenship.

Qatari diplomats insist on Israel adhering to U.N. resolutions and finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Qatar being firmly in favor of a two-state solution. Qatar does not officially recognize Israel, though Qatari officials do not deny having diplomatic relations with Israel which indirectly recognize their statehood, such as in the case of having a Qatari official serving in Jerusalem and in charge of funneling humanitarian aid that is approved by Israel, through Israeli territory into Gaza, to rebuild the war-torn area.

While Qatar is accused by its neighbors of supporting terrorists, the United States Air Force is comfortably hosted at al al-Udeid Air Base, which serves as a main operations and logistical hub for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) areas of operation. The General and Colonels we met with, who lived off base in Doha with their spouses and children, said that the cooperation between the two countries was crucial for the U.S. Air Force to act at peak performance supporting missions as far away as Afghanistan and in providing air support and supplies for the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. One of the Qatari officials cited Qatar’s financial support for the expansion of the base and their intention to build a school and community there, although U.A.E. officials have countered by offering to build the same facility to replace the al-Udeid Air Base on Emirati soil.

Most of the military members we spoke to at al-Udeid airbase had children who attended the international school in Doha. Their parents remarked that their children were mixing with members of the royal family and that everyone felt safe in Qatar and there was no sense of hostility against the presence of U.S. troops, which was very positive for all of them. While there has been at least one incident of an attempted attack on the airbase, involving a man with a Kalashnikov trying to enter the base in 2001, the U.S. military credited the Qatari security forces with having a tight hold on who enters their country and for what purpose. It is also noteworthy that Qatar was responsible for brokering the prisoner swap to free U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network and helped free American writer Peter Theo Curtis from al Nusra.

Qatari officials stressed that some of the reasons behind the blockade were jockeying between the regional players for influence as well as jealousy over Qatar’s wealth and ability to pour resources into their global efforts. Indeed, Qatar is a wealthy state.

While the blockade has caused deep concern for Qatari officials, they seem to be weathering the storm quiet well. The Governor of the Central Bank of Qatar, Abdulla bin Saoud al-Thani, expressed enthusiasm about the country’s economy and investment funds in general, although some financial experts we spoke to pointed out a mass flight of capital from the bank—that is, Saudis and other blockading country citizens withdrawing their cash, in the early days of the blockade. One of the solutions was to call upon Qatari citizens living abroad to repatriate their money, which many did out of patriotic concern and nationalistic ardor.

The Central Bank of Qatar officials also pointed out that since 9-11, they have significantly tightened controls on money flowing out of the country, particularly by allowing only two organizations (The Qatar Charity and the Red Crescent) to wire funds or make cash disbursements outside of the country. Yet, banks are not the only way in which one can hinder flows across international financial networks when it comes to terrorism, nor hinder the way in which terrorist groups and militias are financed. A case in point is when a party of 26 Qatari falconers—some from the royal family—were taken hostage in southern Iraq in 2015 by a Shia militia, Qatar flew millions of U.S. dollars to buy their freedom, calling some to question where the money went and whether it was an appropriate response. Iraqi intelligence officials, however, informed ICSVE researchers that the plane load of money from Qatar was intercepted by Iraqi intelligence officers. The hostages were ultimately freed through Iraqi brokering and  the money remains in a frozen account.

Accusations have also been made about how al Nusra and ISIS managed to finance themselves in their first days of their formation following the uprising against Syrian President Assad. In fact, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are accused of supporting Ahrar al-Sham, an organization with direct ties to Al-Qaeda. Stories abound about Sunni Arab businessmen sending money to Sunni Syrians trying to stand up against Assad’s atrocities, including one told to us from a high-level U.S. diplomat of Kuwaiti businessmen sending large sums of money to arm the rebels. In the early years of the Syrian uprising, journalists uncovered money trails moving via Turkey to Syria, through payments made to President Erdogan, and then passed to Sunni rebel groups. There are allegations that Qatar, too, was involved in these payments. Arguably, even the U.S. was part of such concerned parties scrambling to find the correct partners to arm and fund in the uprising against Assad.

Concerns have been voiced as well about where U.S. money and guns might have ended up in Iraq and Syria. In discussing specifically about the arms that were supplied to ISIS and other violent extremist groups by both internal and external actors, Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs pointed out that even American weapons made it into the hands of such groups. Namely, he stressed that in a chaotic war situation where factions rapidly shift and switch loyalties, it can be difficult to know who to arm. He also noted that ISIS captured many of their weapons from competing factions. Indeed, ISIS defectors interviewed by ICSVE researchers cited instances of having to unwrap new weapons from their cellophane protectors and receiving large weapon supplies from many unknown sources and donors, as well as capturing massive supplies of arms from Assad’s troops. When it comes to terrorism financing, Qataris have prosecuted those identified of terrorism financing, although their exact sentences are not known given these facts are not made public.

Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, al Thani, also noted that Qatar has joined the military theaters of operation in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and that it was helping to train and arm the rebels alongside the Turks, Arabs and Americans, further noting, the “Red line is ISIS and al Nusra, but we helped the regular groups that are not designated as terrorists. When we [along with other nations] helped establish the Free Syrian Army, we worked very hard to unite them.” However, he stated that things changed with Russia’s involvement, and many seeing Syria as occupied by foreign powers, with the war being one of liberation.

Regarding the future of Syria, the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs remained steadfast about supporting the will of the Syrian people: “We want it to look like what the people want.” When asked about the possibility of Assad remaining in power, he stated, “Assad did even more crimes than ISIS committed. So, how can we tolerate to deal with a war criminal as a leader in the area? Then we create a precedent for this?”

When one examines the numbers of Qataris who joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters, the total numbers are small, with reports varying depending on cited statistics, from 8 to 15 total, whereas neighboring Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia had thousands of foreign fighters. Ambassador Qahtani explained that the high numbers of foreign fighters coming from Jordan and Tunisia are a direct result of dictatorship, while stating that the few Qataris who joined the conflicts in Syria went after viewing on the media, as he put it, “our people [Sunnis] being killed and feeling hopeless. Qataris went for humanitarian reasons and then got manipulated on the ground,” he explained. Indeed, this echoes what ICSVE researchers have repeatedly heard of those who joined the Syrian conflicts early on from many places around the world.

As alliances in the region shift, particularly in light of the blockade, concerns have been raised about the new nexus of power arising out of Qataris isolation from the blockading countries, including Qatar’s increasingly close relationship to Turkey and Iran. When asked whether there are any such concerns related to Qatar gravitating towards Iran in pursuit of its geo-political and economic goals, a U.S. military leader at the al-Udeid base we spoke to pointed out that it likely made their base safer—Iran would be unlikely to attack a base located on the territory of their ally. In addition to launching a huge airpower build up, such as through the purchase of dozens of Typhoon fighters and Boeing F-15QAs, among others, and pumping up their military capacities and offering more support to the American troops located at the al-Udeid Army Base, Qataris have also extended their hospitality to Turkish troops who have requested an increased presence in the region. In addressing the influx of Turkish troops in Qatar for joint training exercises and Qatari capacity building, many of the Qatari officials pointed out that the Turks had explored possibilities of locating their presence in Saudi Arabia first. They also mentioned that Turkey, at least for the moment, remains a key NATO member and an American ally.

While the blockade may seem to outsiders a case of serious sibling rivalry among Arab royals, or a case of the pot calling the kettle black, in Qatar there were some serious concerns about a military invasion and change of regime being forced as a result. Khalid Bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, Qatari Defense Minister, cited his and his country’s concerns that Saudi Arabia felt emboldened to move against Qatar after their November 2017 successful hosting of President Donald Trump and the negotiation of a large investment in the United States that ensued. “We were very worried about an imminent invasion, but three things warded it off,” the Defense Minister explained. The first was “Turkish President Recep Erdogan endorsing deployment with Qatar on our behalf; this scared them [the blockading nations]. The second was, “They [the blockading nations] also thought that the Europeans will align behind them, but they did not, Germany only, then France and Italy and then the U.S. [failed to join]. Lastly, they also thought the U.S. was with them but ignored that the U.S. is an institutional nation.”

While President Trump at first appeared to agree with the blockading nations, he later reconsidered his position, and in fact, most Western countries have made it clear that the blockade should stop as it is likely illegal from an international law point of view.

The threat of military escalation continues with Emirati jets accused of violating Qatari airspace and the counter accusation of Qatari jets buzzing an Emirati passenger jet flying on the border of their airspace. Qatar’s Defense Minister stated that the official position of Qatar was to arrest and return foreign fisherman found violating Qatari waters to their home countries, although they were angered to find on one such boat five Emirati troops. “Two days ago, the boat came from Bahrain, a bigger size, and military people from the U.A.E. were on the boat. It was not a mistake,” the Defense Minister explained. He went on to explain that there are absolutely no direct military or other communications between Qatar and the blockading countries. “In the Cold War there were back doors, but not in our case. We are totally in dark,” he noted.

Despite the aggravation, however, Qataris seem to feel more confident in their alliances with Turkey and the United States, while also citing the prospects for increased alliance with Iran and Russia—alliances strengthened over feelings of necessity. During the briefing on the topic, Director of Communication at the Ministry of Defense, Lt. Col. Nawaf al Thani noted that he had just received a Reuters report of the Emiratis warning their pilots to not escalate the military tensions.

During a visit to Education City in the heart of Doha, where the campuses of Northwestern, Georgetown, and several other prominent U.S. universities are housed, one cannot help but notice an interesting trend. Students from the blockading countries stayed in country and continued their enrollment uninterrupted, although they are now inconvenienced to travel indirectly when they visit home. Equally interesting is the fact that both Emiratis and Bahrainis have passed laws making it illegal and punishable offenses for those residing in their respective countries to express support for Qatar. Qatari websites are also suppressed in Abu Dhabi, as noted by some of the respondents during our visit to Qatar’s Education City, yet professors and students in Qatar shared that these issues are discussed openly, that free speech and academic freedom is practiced and encouraged on the campus.

Aside from fearing a military invasion, Qataris who were in the middle of observing the holy month of Ramadan, which according to Qatari officials represents a peak food consumption period, were faced with immediate food shortages. Their neighboring countries slammed land barriers and ports down, forcing Qataris to rely on new and more expensive alternatives, such as supply chains for milk and products not normally farmed or produced inside Qatar. Officials cited their resilience, while proudly joking about the herd of “first class cows” that were shipped into the country by air and now housed in air-conditioned barns to resupply the milk and dairy chain. Likewise, Hamad Port, located south of Doha, was officially opened in September of last year. They also began to rely on the Omani port of Sohar. While Qatar now supplies much of its food from Turkey and Iran, they also began high-tech food production inside the country and expect to continue, stating that the blockade in many ways forced them to bolster their self- reliance. “We are now 60 to 70% self-producing and self-sufficient,” the Governor of the Central Bank of Qatar proudly stated.

With the continued cooperation between the U.S. and Qatar it is interesting to consider the different perspectives that are taken by Qatar and the U.S. in regard to fighting terrorism. As Ambassador al Qahtani, explained, “The Qatari perspective is that we focus on root causes of terrorism and violent extremism, whereas Americans often focus on military solutions but underestimate the local drivers of ongoing conflicts, which include dictatorship, poverty, and exclusion.” He went on to explain that Qatar’s answer to terrorism has three prongs: education, aiming to provide educations for 60 million children globally (with Qatar currently providing education for 10 million children in 40 countries); economic empowerment and initiatives that provide employment opportunities for young men and women (having achieved this for 2 million persons, a majority from Jordan, Tunisia, including Saudis, but also aiming to provide job opportunities in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi and Yemen); and engaging in preventing conflict and preventative diplomacy.

Indeed, these are important issues that require attention. Soft power approaches are badly needed alongside the heavy U.S. kinetic focus. Ambassador Qahtani underlined that, “the U.S. is a strategic partner of Qatar and we have ongoing dialogue with them,” referring to the upcoming high level Strategic Dialogue meetings occurring between the two countries in Washington, D.C. this week. “Of course, we need the military defeat of Daesh, winning the war in Syria and Iraq, but we also need to defeat the ideology and to tackle root causes. Addressing root causes has another timeline for success,” the Ambassador noted, stating Qatar’s pride about being a founding partner, funder and only Muslim country on the board of the G-CERF, an organization devoted to tackling root causes of terrorism.

Historically speaking, Washington has long been frustrated with its Gulf counterparts, including Qatar, for not taking a stronger stance when it comes to combating terrorism financing. While some Middle Eastern experts would argue that when it comes to the Middle East, terrorism financing is a function of regional socio-political dynamics and carefully crafted strategic calculations, the issue remains serious, nonetheless. The concerns over state and private support for terrorism are particularly egregious to Americans knowing that Israel has suffered long at the hands of Hamas. The ties and friendship with Iran also raises serious concerns.

Qatar’s support for Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, remains the crucial nerve-point leading to the quarrel among Qatar and the blockading states. While domestically Qatar’s support for such groups during the Arab Spring might have served to echo Qatar’s determination to respect the will of the people and push for a more progressive stance towards Islamist groups in the region, the question remains if, as suggested by some analysts, Qatar can continue to use them as a counterbalance or shield against its regional neighbors—and if so, at what cost?

Government officials stressed the important role of al-Jazeera in promoting media pluralism and media transparency. Al-Jazeera is seen as a powerful voice in swaying Arab public opinion—and doing it in both English and Arabic. It also serves to promote a diversity of cultural expressions, as noted by some respondents. While al-Jazeera continues to face backlash by the blockading countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, it remains defiant. Arguably, al-Jazeera is there to stay—at least for some time to come, as are the other regionally sponsored networks. Perhaps removing content that plays directly into extremist hands and lends support to violent narratives, without encroaching on its editorial freedom, could be one way to deal with it.

Although the extent to which the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar support radical or violent extremist groups in Syria remain debatable and subject to verification—both are accused of supporting Ahrar al-Sham, an organization with direct ties to Al-Qaeda. The ongoing dispute between the two countries could in fact undermine finances to the Syrian opposition and therefore weaken efforts to oust Syrian President Assad. In addition, the ongoing dispute between Qatar and the blockading countries could have repercussions beyond the domestic policies of such countries and endanger U.S. operations in the Middle East as well.

The fact that Qatar hosts a major U.S. military base, with over 11,000 U.S. and coalition troops deployed there, goes to show that the U.S. provides it with existential security. Qataris are showing a strong desire to be upright allies of the United States and to stand firm with our allies in the global fight against terrorism. The recently signed U.S.- Qatari memorandum of understanding on anti-terrorism financing and Qatar’s legal amendments to its domestic anti-terrorism financing laws, including the upcoming January 30th, 2018, meeting between the U.S. President Trump and the high-level Qatari delegation comprised of Qatar’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Defense, among others, remains promising for the future Qatari-U.S. relationship.

Overall, Qatar seems to live up to its commitments to fight terrorism. That said, the continued standoff between Qatar and the blockading states, unless resolved soon, may have a direct impact on the U.S. and the interests of its allies in the fight against terrorism in the region and globally, a reason we may wish to help broker an end to the blockade.

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (January 29, 2018) Qatar and the Terrorism Blame Game. ICSVE Research Reports

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Terrorism

Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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Terrorism

The UK’s “Separation Centres”: Re-visiting counter-terror measures

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Prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation within their walls and recruitment for terrorism acts carried out post the inmates’ release. The leaders’ personality and ability to cultivate a cult-like following among the potential recruits mould the fruition or failure of these security threats worldwide. While this is not a novel security challenge, as the following portion about the rise of the Islamic State attests, the Boris Johnson-led administration appears to now bolster its efforts to confront the complex reality.

For example, the emergence of the Islamic State traces its roots to Camp Bucca in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its earliest leader, received absolute leeway in conducting his virulent sermons and fomented the surge in radical recruits. His followers eventually assumed leadership positions in one of the deadliest terrorist outfits of the modern era. However, the prison officials had essentially allowed him to run amuck due to his ability to contain in-fighting and resolve tensions between his fellow jihadist prisoners, despite his record of violence displayed during the Sunni insurgency after the United States-led invasion in 2003. Having found themselves in a foreign land and inadept at recognising the socio-cultural and sectarian sensitivities, the American officials presumably refrained from challenging the status quo that had emerged within the camp to minimise tensions and violent episodes engulfing the Iraqi state. However, this meant that the radical Islamist narrative spun by him and disseminated by his followers played a central role in laying the foundations of the carnage and the now dismantled “caliphate” that would follow suit.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy is now being revamped. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has announced the strengthening of a team, to the tune of £1.2 million, to assist the British government in devising a framework to segregate radically influential and “charismatic” Islamist terrorists from at-risk inmates serving their sentence. This would primarily happen by isolating them in specialised centres to house such high-risk prisoners. Nevertheless, there is a catch. The challenge that this administration will face is in determining who poses a substantial threat and will find a place in the centres. Although three of them are currently operational, until April 2022, only 15 individuals in one prison have made it to the list.

Mr. Raab asserted that the current dispensation is “going to take a more decisive approach in [our] prisons, not allowing cultural and religious sensitivities to deter [us] from nipping in the bud early signs of terrorist risk.” He argued his case by underlining how the right to socialise in prisons traditionally accorded as per the Human Rights Act would remain suspended. In addition, inmates making their arguments against their referrals to such centres would find it a mounting challenge to plead their claims successfully. Furthermore, the empowered Prison Governors will notably have considerable authority to strike down any attempts by radical inmates to undermine national security and instigate chaos spurred by radicalisation.

Driving the policy change

On the surface, this comes on the heels of the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall QC, an independent reviewer of terrorist activities in Welsh and English prisons. Nevertheless, it is improbable to disassociate this policy decision from the debates concerning the viability of Prevent, which is a core tenet of the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It was initially introduced in 2003 by former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Understandably, the brutal assassination of former parliamentarian Sir David Amess in October 2021 and the subsequent conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for life, the perpetrator in April 2022, have triggered the incumbent administration to counter the catapulting national security crisis decisively.

On the other hand, violent incidents within jails in the recent past are the root of why Mr. Raab appears driven to confront this dilemma head-on. In May 2020, HMP Belmarsh’s-High Security Unit, one of the most secure prisons countrywide, witnessed a horrifying attack on Paul Edwards, a prison officer. He nearly lost his life due to a near-fatal assault by a trio of inmates. He was punched, thrashed, and struck with a chair after Hashem Abedi (the “emir” and brother to Salman Abedi; the Manchester Arena bomber), Muhammed Saeed, and Ahmed Hassan (Parsons Green Bomber) stormed his office. Led by Abedi, Saeed and Hassan were radicalised to retaliate against perceived unfair treatment by prison authorities.

Reportedly, these individuals were housed along with other violent criminals, sowing seeds for intensifying attacks, where discussions about their upcoming trials and information about jihad and terrorism were frequently exchanged. 

What is worrisome is that this prison has served as the scene for a spill-over to its other corners. Mohiussunath Chowdhury, who was imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh on terrorism charges after his sword attack on police officers stationed outside the Buckingham Palace in 2017, had a close affiliation with fellow jihadis, including Hassan, Abedi, and Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State terrorist infamously known as “Jihadi John.” He was re-convicted in 2020 for planning terrorist attacks after being cleared of prior charges in 2018. Additionally, Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people and was subsequently shot dead in February 2020, also had a prior conviction.  He was jailed for possession and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, before securing an early release days before his knife attack. He and Chowdhary were imprisoned around the same time.

It is equally problematic to discover that Anjem Choudhary, a militant and radical Islamist preacher who, until recently, was banned from making public speeches, and Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, are the by-products of a militant Islamist climate cultivated within the same prison as terrorists mentioned above. Khan and Choudhury also spoke alongside each other at a conference in 2009 about Sharia. Individuals like Khan were also mandated to undergo a de-radicalisation initiative termed “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” alongside his fellow detainees.

The Do’s of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation success & the need for overhaul

These are only a few of several examples within one prison to delineate why the British government is attempting to revamp its counter-terrorism strategy. Under a common roof, the amalgamation and collusion of violent extremist beliefs, followed by constant reinforcement undermines the stable ecosystem within and outside prisons. Moreover, despite their resources an well-trained personnel, the security agencies – MI5 and MI6 require adequate preparation and time to re-engage and subdue such terrorists between their release and their subsequent targeted attacks. During that time frame, these radicalised individuals persons have the potential for these radicalised persons to inflict more violence than before.

Therefore, the government’s rationale is evident and well-understood.

Overall, the presumption is that if such “separation centres” are set up and all high-risk terrorists isolated, the violence within and outside jails will become manageable, if not completely eradicated. This would provide the government, law enforcement, and security agencies sufficient room to re-allocate their resources and personnel towards nipping in the bud any potential radicalised recruits in the public domain before they join violent extremist organisations or carry out terrorist acts. It will also prevent the radicalisation of violent criminals and pre-trial prisoners as they remain disassociated from radical elements.

However, to ensure the centres’ success, challenges such as overcrowding, shortage of specially trained armed and civilian personnel (including de-radicalisation experts), and insufficient funds to procure advanced surveillance for monitoring the detainees’ daily activities need to be overcome. The government must also ensure that it sets up a core committee, comprising a therapists, a prison official, and a social welfare worker, and a law-enforcement and security officer (each), for each of these centres. In addition, 4 to 5 members to evaluate the successes and challenges after every months and accordingly underscore the scope of improvement and loopholes the centres face is also required. Only through a state of heightened monitoring, and constant re-evaluation can the administration hope to weed out terrorism and radicalisation from mainstream society and its fringes. Additionally, the political will of subsequent leaders and perseverance of MI5 and MI6 will also have a significant contribution to determining whether this initiative succeeds or whether is doomed to fail.

On the other hand, in conjunction with the government, the prison officials must also ensure prisoners being housed in such centres should not come into contact, particularly through illicit means, lest they develop a jihadist solidarity, strengthen their beliefs, and harm those safeguarding these places. Moreover, parameters, including the number of people these high-risk individuals have radicalised within and outside prisons, and those who have committed terrorist attacks post their release, the rigidity of their ideological indoctrination, record of violence, cyber activities, conduct as inmates, and the severity of crimes for which they have been convicted, should collectively feature into the framework laid down to decide who will be referred to the separation centres.

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Terrorism

U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

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KTJ Uzbek jihadists

The US Department of the Treasury and the State Department successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, putting constant and systematic pressure on them. The war on terrorism is fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. Over the past two decades, the US designated the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as the “Specially Designated Terrorist” (SDT) и “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO). Under the provision of the Act “Farrakhan Amendment,” US law enforcement freezes any assets and finances of global terrorist groups, designated SDT and FTO. The US has recently added the Uzbek jihadi group of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to global terrorist organizations.

US designated Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ has been added to the UN Security Council’s ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadist of KTJ.

The US designation noted that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.

The US Department of State’s statement also noted that “in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people.”

The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all property and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.

Uzbek Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of KTJ

On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the greatness of the US, as their decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression.”

Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounces its designation by the US and claims that “KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria, because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity.”

KTJ leader Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki

The major Central Asian militant group further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria” and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro and the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 20016-2017. At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologists claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS.” However, this claim is absolutely false.

It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.

During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ’s bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways ‘peacefully’ in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.

To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS’s auspices against Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.

The KTJ current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council’s report dated 3 February, 2022, “KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.

Noteworthy, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afg-Pak border zone as member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. Indeed, at that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.

So, militant Salafism is the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Jihadi-Salafi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda’s senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Thus, KTJ’s claim of no ties to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, who act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

US continues pressure on Central Asian jihadi groups

This is not the first time that the US government has designated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions against them. It is known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.

On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US missile airstrike has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.

According to the recent UN Security Council report, “IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.” Further, the UN report notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul.”

On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Asad regime. KIB is now led by ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has a close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.

In conclusion, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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