How Qatar carefully nurtured al-Nusra to sow mayhem

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A video showing Al-Jazeera anchor Ahmad Mansour interviewing the leader of the al-Nusra Front in Syria or Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, has reappeared on social media platforms.

While Mansour drew attention to the fact that there is no difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, the most interesting part remains the target of the dialogue itself.

The goal of Al Jazeera anchor was to whitewash Al Nusra Front and present it as a militant party with an honorable cause.

The interview brings to the forefront the issue of Qatar’s relationship with terrorist organizations, and most importantly al-Nusra Front.

What proves that Qatar is involved in supporting terrorism is that al-Jazeera arranged the meeting with the leader of al-Nusra Front to try to promote its ideology, improve the image of its leader Mohammad al-Julani to support him to take power in Syria after Assad, although he (al-Julani) is internationally recognized as the leader of a terrorist organization.

Sources said then that Doha had suggested financing the front if it gets detached from other extremely violent groups, and al-Julani had agreed.

Sources revealed that the mediation by the Kuwaiti Salafist Umma Party between al-Nusra Front that is pro al-Qaeda in Syria, has the ulterior aim to disconnect the Front from other groups in order to remove it from the lists of terrorist organizations and add it to moderate Islamist factions in Syria.

The al-Nusra Front leader al-Julani, according to reports, told his followers that he wanted to declare an emirate and revoke his outfit’s long-standing allegiance to al-Qaeda. He told his followers that when he pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, it was an allegiance of war and not a general pledge of allegiance, and thus, he can revoke it since he has already established his own Emirate, which had been repudiated by al-Zawahiri.

Reports said that Doha had then sent a representative to meet with al-Nusra leaders, including Abu Faraj al-Masri (who was later killed), to arrange a television interview with al-Julani and support him as a moderate figure. Then Ahmad Mansour met with the head of the front, but the latter insisted on hiding his face.

ALSO READ: Al Jazeera anchor: No difference between Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda

The reports added that after holding these discussions with Doha, al-Nusra Front split and an internal division took place as the first faction led by Palestinian Abu Qatada rejected the appearance of Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of the Front, on the Qatari al-Jazeera channel with Ahmad Mansour. However, this interview was welcomed by another al-Nusra dissident faction led by Abumaria al-Qahtani.

A series of assassinations targeting the leaders of al-Nusra began, and among them was Ahmad Salama Mabruk, known as Abu Faraj al-Masri.

Al Nusra is one example in a vast Qatari network of so-called Islamist-leaning proxies that spans former Iraqi and Syrian generals, Taliban insurgents, Sudanese rebels, Somali and Yemeni Islamists.

One of the earliest signs of the ties with the terrorist group was when Qatar conducted negotiations with al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, that freed American writer Peter Theo Curtis in August. “Done,” Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim Khalifa al-Kubaisi reportedly texted a contact after the release was completed, according to many US media outlets.

In the 1990s, activist Salafist activists merged the ideology of Gulf’s clerical establishments with the politicized goals of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was one of repercussions that were seen in the aftermath of the curbs that Muslim Brotherhood members were subject in many Arab countries, especially in Egypt.

Some of these thinkers would become the first incarnations of al- Qaeda, and one of them was the current leader of al-Qaeda itself Ayman Zawahiri, while others gained a strong foothold in liberated Kuwait, where the first activist Salafi political party was formed.

But over the last 15 years in particular, Doha has become a "de facto operating hub for a deeply interconnected community of Salafists living there," Foreign Policy wrote in 2014.

Controversial scholars have been hosted by ministries and charities like the Sheikh Eid bin Mohammad al Thani Charity, regulated by the Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which is “probably the biggest and most influential activist Salafi-controlled relief organization in the world,” according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Foreign Policy magazine added that in 2003, the US Congress was made aware that Qatari charities have financial ties with figures from al-Qaeda, providing employment and documentation.

In 2010, an arm of the Qatari government made a donation to help build a $1.2 million mosque in Yemen for a sheikh, Abdel Wahab al-Humayqani, designated as a fund-raiser for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (Qatari Embassy officials and Yemeni government officials both attended the opening.)

Salah Eddin Elzein, head of the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, a think tank associated with the Qatar-owned satellite network, was quoted by Foreign Policy in 2014, as saying “Islamists came [to the region] in the 1980s, and Qatar was trying to ally itself with the forces that it saw as those most likely to be the dominant forces for the future.”

The first battlefield test of Qatar’s proxy chain was in Tunisia and especially in Libya.

A burnt building at the U.S. consulate compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on September 13, 2012 following an attack late on September 11 in which the US ambassador to Libya and three other US nationals were killed.(AFP)
A burnt building at the U.S. consulate compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on September 13, 2012 following an attack late on September 11 in which the US ambassador to Libya and three other US nationals were killed.(AFP)

During the 2011 uprising in Libya, Qatar supported an Islamist militia in Benghazi known as Rafallah al-Sehati which has strong ties with Ansar al-Shariah, the militant group that played a role in the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and who stormed the US embassy in Tunis, the same day, and in many assassinations that took place in both Libya and Tunisia (among the assassinated the two famous opposition leaders in Tunisia Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi.)

In Libya, Doha "collected businessmen, old Brotherhood friends, and scholars, with tens of millions of dollars and 20,000 tons of arms,” the Wall Street Journal later estimated, and it worked and still working well for Qatar which decided to play the same game in Syria.

Like the tendering of a contract, Doha issued a call for bidders to help with the regime’s overthrow. “When we started our battalion [in 2012], the Qataris said, ‘Send us a list of your members. Send us a list of what you want — the salaries and support needs,'” Hossam, a Syrian restaurant owner, remembers in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Throughout 2012 and early 2013, activist Salafists in Kuwait teamed up with Syrian expatriates to build, fund, and supply extremist brigades that would eventually become groups such as al-Nusra Front and its close ally, Ahrar al-Sham.

One donor was the Kuwaiti Jihadi-scholar Hajjaj al-Ajmi, who was designated by the US Treasury Department as a funder of terrorism for backing al-Nusra Front.

Ajmi runs the so-called People’s Commission for the Support of the Syrian Revolution.

But back in June 2012, Qatar’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs invited him to speak in Al Khor, where he said that “the priority is the support for the jihadists and arming them not the humanitarian aid.”

His ‘second country’

One of Ajmi’s Kuwaiti colleagues, a person named Mohammad al-Owaihan, also used Qatar as a base, calling it his “second country” in a tweet, according to many media outlets.

Ajmi’s role as fund-raiser is one example of how Doha has increasingly managed its backing of a “spectrum of groups around the region by providing safe haven, diplomatic mediation, financial aid and, in certain instances, weapons,” according to New York Times.

The newspaper added in one of its reports, “after his pitch, which he recorded in 2012 and which still circulates on the Internet, a sportscaster from the government-owned network, Al Jazeera, lauded him.” “Sheikh Ajmi knows best” about helping Syrians, the sportscaster, Mohamed Sadoun El-Kawary, declared from the same stage.

In December 2013, former Deir Ezzor Free Syrian Army commander Saddam al-Jamal announced in a video that he was joining the ISIS because “as days passed, we realized that groups were projects that were funded by foreign countries, especially Qatar,” he said.

Qatar argued in late 2012 that the world should worry about radicals later. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al- Qaeda,” Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, then minister of state for foreign affairs, argued at a security conference in December of that year.

The same opinion was repeated by Emir Tamim in his interview with CNN, saying that it would be a “big mistake” to lump together all groups in Syria as extremists. Doha, in fact, never mentioned the al-Nusra Front by name when it comments on terrorist groups list.

With Syria and Iraq in chaos, both countries are now populated by a range of extremist actors whom Washington won’t want to negotiate with. Doha’s up for that job.

Release of UN peacekeepers

Qatar was called in to help negotiate the release of 45 UN peacekeepers taken captive by al-Nusra Front — and it announced that it had successfully won the soldiers’ release. Qatar insists that a ransom was not paid; perhaps the network of Doha-based funders gave the government a certain leverage over the group. Or it just may be that the al- Qaeda affiliate wants something even more valuable.

One player that has severely tested the effectiveness of Qatar’s strategy is the Nusra Front, which like the ISIS is widely regarded as unacceptable to all parties in the Syrian conflict and was not invited to Riyadh.

Al Nusra also released 16 Lebanese soldiers and policemen as part of a prisoner exchange brokered by Qatar, a deal that news outlets reported included a $25 million cash payment, which Qatar has again denied, according to previous Reuters' report.

Seeking legitimacy

“Al Nusra wants recognition, they want to be seen both in and outside Syria as a partner so they can establish a lasting foothold in the country,” said Marwan Shehada, a Jordanian expert on Islamist groups in an earlier interview with Reuters.

On many occasions, experts emphasized that in al-Nusra Front’s official demands regarding releasing hostages, for example, it had asked to be taken off the UN sanctions list as it wants to be seen as a legitimate partner.

One expert has told Foreign Policy that Qatar might be able to offer them a platform in the future. It added “that’s essentially what Qatar has long offered its friends: a platform, with access to money, media, and political capital.”

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