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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

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Terrorism

Trends of Online Radicalization in Bangladesh: Security Implications

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Online radicalization poses a formidable threat to the stability of the country. With the imposition of lockdown in the last year, the nefarious fundamentalist   factions have ramped up their activities. As the country’s law and enforcement agencies are playing a vigilant and commendable role in combating heinous fundamental radicalism in Bangladesh, these radicals have instead resorted to the online mediums to recruit, sensitize and radicalize the youths of the country.

Bangladesh has historically been a bastion of pluralism as the country’s constitution provides primacy to the secular character of the republic. However, in keeping with the global trend of militancy Bangladesh had also witnessed spate of militant activities in the preceding decades culminating in the seige of Holi Artisan Bakery.

Since the catastrophic militant activities in 2016,Bangladesh government has taken  a slew of stern measures to combat the budding radicalism in the Bangladesh and to safeguard the country’s pluralist character.Hence, terrorist and radical factions didn’t gain ground in the succeeding years and last few years Bangladesh has enjoyed enviable stability from the untoward disturbances of these militants.

However, with the technological revolution in the country, it turns out that militants have adapted their tactics to the needs of the new epoch. While previously militants had a hard time in radicalizing people owing to the vigilance of the law enforcement agencies, in the realm of the online media militant find their fortress and esconsced themselves in various social media and web platforms.

In contrast to the traditional process of radicalization, militants found online radicalization much advantageous as it provided them with the opportunity to disseminate their diabolical propaganda to more people and help them conceal their identity.

Parallel with the acceleration of the online radicalization efforts, the character of the militants victims has also changed significantly.Previously, militants sprung mainly from the disadvantaged and destitute section of the country who were ridden by poverty and devoid of traditional schooling. Radical outfits found these militants easy prey  in their efforts to mobilize gullible youths to destabilize the country.

However, with the changing mediums of radicalization, the socioeconomic background has also witnessed c. In contrast to the impoverished background of militants, the  militants radicalized through online mediums represented instead deviated youths from very affluent backgrounds and these youths possessing modern university education. 

The radicalization of these urban university-educated students has baffled the policymakers and law-enforcement agencies of the country as the motivation of these youths don’t have any compelling rationale to join these militant organizations peddling medieval agendas.

The online radicalization is attributed as the  reason for the proliferation   of more urban educated militants. These urban credulous youths are allured by the rhetoric and propaganda of the militant leaders.

The online radicalizers remain within the shroud of online platforms and try to radicalize the youths with inflammatory speeches which seek to vilify the western liberal ideals and the democratic government.

They rail against the intention of the democratic government and attribute all the blame of muslim plights to the western machination. They selectively portray  the violence in conflict ridden nations like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan and cherry-pick the graphical images and videos to sensitize the deviant youths that their religion is in peril and only the youth can safeguard the religion from the clutches of western imperialism through radical activities. This evokes a kind of jihadi zeal in the youths which persuade them to engage in millitant mission to safeguard the honor of their religion . 

 These factors prod the youths to join the radical forces  which takes huge toll on the stability of the country.Besides, online radicalization also exacerbated the comunal rifts in the country which is manifested in frequent assault on country’s minority groups based on fictitious allegation of desecration. These attacks on minority is orchestrated by shrewd fundamentist to vitiate the prevailing communa

Regulating online platforms is much more difficult than traditional platforms which make combating these propaganda very arduous. 

One of the scapegoats of their propaganda is the democratic government in the country. These propagandists portray the democratically elected government in bad light through advancing their conspiracy theories and propaganda. These propaganda distort the conception of the general people about the government even when the people don’t engage in radical activities. 

 Waging wars through propaganda have also  become an attractive option for these radicals as these radical outfits launch smear-campaigns against the government and vitiate the government image to the general people through heinous propaganda machinery. Besides, these online radical outfits peddle conspiracy theories and a simplified understanding of the history and economics of the world. Unfortunately, even the majority of the educated young youths believe in these conspiracy theories and possess a skewed vision about  liberalism and modernity. 

 During the Covid-19 era with the imposition of the repeated lockdowns, numerous such online platforms sprung up. Under the facade of providing Islamic knowledge they are pedding nonsensical and harebrained propaganda and conspiracy theories to mobilize the youth in their efforts to destabilize the country and vitiate development.

During the  languorous lockdowns the youths provided prolific idle times which have come as a windfall to these radical outfits as they have accelerated their heinous propaganda amidst Covid-19 lockdown. There are several reasons for the sudden rise in online radicalization in Bangladesh. Firstly, as mentioned above the young people are compelled to spend more time online as the day to day activities including the education of the university has shifted to online platforms. Therefore, this extra time significantly amplifies the vulnerability of the country’s youth to these terrorist activities. 

 Secondly, Covid-19 induced pandemic has unmasked the cleavages of our societies as the middle class youth find their family income shrinking and face difficulties. Besides, the pandemic has worsened the depression and grievances of the youths with the prevailing system which further increase their vulnerability to the radical impulses. 

 Thirdly, unemployment remains one of the persistent blights in youth vitality. While the country has been  significantly developed in the previous decades, the economic prosperity didn’t translate to adequate job creation which has failed the country to channel youthful energies to the further development of the country. Instead, unemployment has reached epidemic proportions. The Covid-19 pandemic has further thrown into uncertainty the future of the country’s youth, exacerbating the employment scenario of the country and disrupting education for a prolonged period. These unemployed youths find the radical ideologies attractive as these ideologies are capitalized on the grievances of these disenchanted youths. Therefore, unemployment greatly heightens the risk of youth falling prey to radical preachers. 

 Against this backdrop, the government needs to take adequate measures to counter the surging trends of  online radicalization. To that end, the government should enact proper legal measures to incorporate the online area into the laws. Besides, the government should avert the heinous propaganda campaigns by meting out proper justice to nefarious propagandists. Moreover, the government should ensure a counter sensitization of the country’s youth with the ethos of liberation war and the pluralism of the country. 

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Terrorism

Russia’s War on Terror(ism)

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The chaotic US exit strategy from Afghanistan, the quick Taliban takeover, the resurgence of Isis-K attacks and the rise of militant factions have emphasized the need for other international actors to fill the void left by the United States and map out a strategy for Central Asian stability. In the words of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the US withdrawal has opened “a Pandora’s box full of problems related to terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and, unfortunately, religious extremism”. What if Afghanistan turns out to be a hotbed for international terrorism?

Terrorism in Russia has always been a pain in the neck since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not by chance that the very word “terrorism” is mentioned at least fifteen times within the new 2021 Russian National Security Strategy. In late August, Putin took a hard line against the West’s proposal of housing refugees in Central Asia before they apply for visas to move to the United States and Europe. The message was pretty clear: “we don’t want to experience again what happened in the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s”. The traumatic years of the two Chechen Wars, the 1999 apartment bombings or the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis are still considered to be haunting phantoms. The question came up again especially in mid-2015, when the Kremlin began to fear North Caucasian returnees who had joined the Islamic State’s insurgents in the Syrian conflict.

If it is true that Russia may not have recovered from the Afghan syndrome yet; still, the risk of a fresh terrorist wave truly seems to be around the corner. In the last weeks, three special operations were conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) which ended up in the detention of a group of fifteen terrorists coming from Central Asia in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. Another similar operation was carried out in Ingushetia, where some supporters of the Islamic State planning attacks.

The formation of a new Taliban government ad interim itself poses serious threats to the stability of the entire region. The new Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund and the Minister of Internal Affairs Sirajuddin Haqqani are considered “terrorists” by the United Nations. The latter is the leader of the renowned Haqqani network which is said to have ties with Al-Qaeda. Last but not least, the Taliban themselves as an organization are still officially believed to be a terrorist group in Russia under a 2003 Russian Supreme Court’s ruling. According to the Russian political scientist Andrey Serenko, the Taliban victory may be a factor pushing for radicalization in other countries such as Russia.

In the last days, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov took part in a discussion hosted by the new government in Kabul with the representatives of China and Pakistan. Terrorism was among the covered topics. Immediately after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban sought to reassure the neighboring countries that the Afghan soil would not turn out to be a mushrooming ground for militant groups. However, as both Lavrov and Peskov stated, Russia is so far watching how their security promises will be kept before attempting any risky move. While keeping an eye on Kabul, Moscow is not sitting back.

Peace Mission-2021

Between September 20 and 24 the annual drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were hosted by the Russian Federation at the Donguz training ground in the Orenburg Oblast. According to the commander of the troops of the Central Military District, Colonel General Aleksander Lapin declared that about 5,000 troops took part in the exercise.

Nine countries were involved, among which Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan. The exercise simulated the scenario of a sudden escalation of tension in Central Asia due to terrorist threats. In Colonel General Lapin’s words, the exercise was as a complete success as it showed joint combat readiness and proved to be the largest drills in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Peace Mission-2021 shows the need for Russia to engage with relevant actors in Eurasia such as China. As the Chinese fear about their Wakhan corridor and the risk of extremism increases in the Xinjiang province, both Moscow and Beijing highlight the strength of the Russo-Chinese entente also in the field of anti-terrorism.

Building a thick security belt

Just as the SCO drills were unfolding, some Russian troops were involved in another exercise at the Doytym An practice range in Mongolia. No need to say that the annual drill Selenga 2021 between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar focused right on fighting international terrorism. At the beginning of September, a major counterterrorism exercise, Rubezh-2021 (Frontier-2021), together with Kyrgyz and Tajik units. Such an extensive commitment from the Mongolian steppe to the Edelweisse training range is indicative of Moscow’s will to build a thick security belt around its borders.

However, the five Stans are now not acting as a unified bloc against the Taliban threat. Kyrgyzstan has decided to send a delegation to Kabul and Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan has shown its readiness to do business with the Taliban. Tajikistan, instead, is now holding the lead of the anti-Taliban front.

As there is no “Central Asian way” to deal with the newly formed government in Kabul, Moscow is trying to tighten its grip on the region especially by betting on Dushanbe. As the risk of extremist spillover appears to be increasingly tangible, Moscow has equipped its 201st military base in Tajikistan with a batch of 12.7-mm large-caliber machine guns Utes to strengthen its combat capabilities. Moreover, after a CSTO high-level meeting in Dushanbe and the assessment of an exacerbating security situation in Central Asia, the member states decided to deploy troops along the 1300-kilometer border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Despite this, looking at the Afghan developments only as a threat is misleading. This is a unique opportunity for Moscow to reaffirm the importance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and to secure its role as top security provider in Central Asia. Despite talks between Rahmon and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to safeguard regional peace and stability, Moscow’s towering military presence and influence in the region is hard to overcome.

Resuming international cooperation?

Russia’s commitment within its backyard, however, seems not to be enough in order to fight international actors such as terrorist groups. On the anniversary of the 9/11 twin towers attacks, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov released a statement in which he called for the revival of anti-terrorist cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Back in 2018 and 2019, the Foreign Ministries of the two countries had in fact contributed to build bilateral dialogue on counterterrorism despite a conceptual gap about the nature of this threat.

In July, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that Moscow would not approve any US troops deployment in Central Asian countries. Despite this, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and the Chief of Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov met in Helsinki to discuss joint ways to fight terrorism and extremism.

Still, resuming dialogue on anti-terrorism does not reveal a total opening toward the United States. During the UN General Assembly, in fact, Lavrov did not miss the opportunity to criticize the US for its withdrawal. The Finnish meeting must be rather understood as a sign of the Kremlin’s pragmatism in foreign policy. A few weeks after the seventeenth anniversary of the Beslan school siege, Russia is firmly committed to fight any direct or indirect threat by all means. The War on Terror(ism) continues.

From our partner RIAC

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Terrorism

India’s view of “terrorism: at the UNGA?

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At the recent United Nations’ general Assembly session, India was furious at mention of Kashmir by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. India’s ennui is understandable. It considers the freedom movement in the occupied Kashmir as “terrorism”.

There are unanswered questions why India shrugs off terrorist acts sponsored by it in its neighbourhood. Several books by Indian diplomats and its intelligence officers have confirmed that India has been involved in sabotage, subversion and terrorism in neighbouring countries.

Terror in Islamabad

The book Terror in Islamabad has been published by an officer Amar Bhushan who happened to have served as a diplomat at the Indian High Commission Islamabad. Before being posted to Islamabad, Bhutan had served an officer of India’s premier intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, Border Security Force Intelligence, and State Special Branch for quarter of a century. His book mentions another RAW officer, Amit Munshi (real name Veer Singh) posted as Cultural Attache.

Bhushan’s book reveals that Singh’s assignment was to “identify potential Pakistanis for subversion”. The familiar elements of intelligence craft are espionage, sabotage and subversion.

Insurgencies in neighborhoods

India added one more element “insurgency” to the intelligence craft if we go through another RAW officer’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane. B. Raman makes no bones about India’s involvement up to the level of prime minister in Bangladesh’s insurgency. India’s army hief, in a video interview, acknowledges that Indira again and again directed him to attack Bangladesh.

 RAW officers Raman’s and RK Yadav’s disclosures

In a published letter, Yadav made  startling revelation that India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi, parliament, RAW and armed forces acted in tandem to dismember Pakistan’s eastern wing. The confessions in his letter are corroborated by B. Raman’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW. He reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented, from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta.

Kao, through one RAW agent, got a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore. Indian army chief Manekshaw initially refused to carry out Indira Gandhi’s order because of the impending monsoon when rivers flooded in East Pakistan and troops’ movement became difficult. Not only intelligence officers but also officers of armed forces were employed to carry out subversion and sabotage inside Pakistan.

Doval’s revelations

Doval is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s sensitive provinces. He is inspired by India’s nefarious efforts which resulted in the secession of East Pakistan. Naila Baloch’s `free Balochistan’ office has been working in New Delhi since 23 June 2018. BJP Indian legislators and RAW officers attended its inauguration.

 Doval publicly claims that he acted as a spy under a pseudonym in Pakistan for 11 years, seven years in Lahore.  Doval is a retired director of Indian Intelligence Bureau. He boastfully dons the title of “Indian James Bond”. He lived in Pakistan’s Lahore, disguised as a Muslim for seven years. During his years in the country, he befriended the locals visiting mosques and lived among the predominantly Muslim population. “

Acknowledged as a master of psychological welfare” in India, Doval, as a part of his job also spied on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence. Doval, credits himself with brainwashing a group of freedom fighters led Kukkay Parey who detected Kashmiri freedom fighters and killed them.

Sharing an incident from his time in Pakistan, he said that he was once identified as a Hindu by a local from his pierced ears. Doval then underwent plastic surgery to prevent his cover from blowing. Narrating his account, Doval shared, “I was coming back from a Masjid. A man sitting in the corner, who had an intriguing personality and a white beard, called me. He asked, are you a Hindu? I replied saying no. He asked me to come with him, and took me to a small room and shut the door. He told me, ‘See you are a Hindu. Your ears are pierced.’ The place I come from, as a child there is a tradition to pierce the ear. I told him it was pierced when I was born. He told me, get plastic surgery for this, it’s not safe to walk like that. Then I got it (plastic surgery) done.”

India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar’s role in Afghan insurgency

With the consent of then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, he `coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces’… `helicopters, uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud’, delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach’. When New Delhi queried about the benefit of costly support to Northern Alliance chief Massoud, Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”

Kulbushan Jadhav unmasked

 Jadhav was an Indian Navy officer, attached to RAW. His mission was to covertly carry out espionage and terrorism in Pakistan. Pakistan alleged there were Indian markings on arms deliveries to Baloch rebels pushed by Jadhav. To India’s chagrin, India’s investigative journalist Praveen Swami ferreted out the truth from Services Gazettes of India that he was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1987 with the service ID of 41558Z Kulbhushan Sudhir. A later edition of the Gazette showed his promotion to the rank of commander after 13 years of service in 2000. His passport, E6934766, indicated he traveled to Iran from Pune as Hussein Mubarak Patel in December 2003. Another of his Passports, No. L9630722 (issued from Thane in 2014), inadvertently exposed his correct address: Jasdanwala Complex, old Mumbai-Pune Road, cutting through Navi Mumbai. The municipal records confirmed that the flat he lived in was owned by his mother, Avanti Jadhav. Furthermore, in his testimony before a Karachi magistrate, Karachi underworld figure Uzair Baloch confessed he had links with Jadhav.

India’s prestigious magazine Frontline surmised that Jadhav still served with the Indian Navy. Gazette of India files bore no record of Jadhav’s retirement. India told the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Jadhav was a retired naval officer. But, it refrained from stating exactly when he retired. The spy initially worked for Naval Intelligence, but later moved on to the Intelligence Bureau. He came in contact with RAW in 2010.

Concluding remarks

India portrays the freedom movement in Kashmir as `terrorism’. What about India’s terrorism in neighbouring countries? The conduct of Indian diplomats amounts to state-sponsored terrorism. For one thing, India should close the `Free Balochistan’ office on her soil, and stop resuscitating propaganda skeletons of pre-Bangladesh days. Will the world take notice of confessions by India’s former intelligence officers and diplomats?

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