How the Qatar crisis became a priority in the Trump White House

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Accusations over Qatar’s support of terrorism, which has led Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to sever ties with Doha, have become a chief concern of American national security, according to figures close to President Donald Trump.

“I think the single most important thing that’s happening in the world is the situation in Qatar,” former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said Monday. “What’s happening in Qatar is every bit as important as what’s happening in North Korea.”

Bannon was one of several political figures from both parties who demanded that Qatar do more to fight terror at the “Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood” conference hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC on Monday.

The hardline attitude expressed by Bannon and others seemed at odds with Rex Tillerson’s efforts to reduce the sanctions on Qatar imposed by the Saudis, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain in June. Tillerson was the Qatari capital of Doha on Monday.

“Qatar had to be called to account for their continued funding of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Bannon said.

The White House's increased focus on the Qatar crisis was confirmed by another former Trump administration official, Sebastian Gorka, a terrorism expert who was a deputy assistant to President Trump until August and attended the Qatar event.

“It was one of the most important national security issues in the White House,” Gorka said. He added that there “needs to be a greater understanding of how much of a bad actor Qatar has been in the past. The Qatar crisis is that moment of clarity in which we can come together with our other Sunni allies in the GCC and Qatar’s elite stop backing the wrong people starting with the Ikhwan Muslimeen," he said using the Arabic term for the Muslim Brotherhood

Barack Obama’s former Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, and his former CIA director, General David Petraeus, also spoke of the need for Qatar to make good on its promises to end the crisis.

Dennis Ross, who has served almost every president since Ronald Reagan, said Qatar must abide by a memorandum of understanding it agreed upon with the United States regarding terrorism financing. Anyone on the list should be expelled or arrested by Qatar. Qatar should shut down all financing for terrorism and phase out subsidies for Al Jazeera, Ross said.

Republican congressmen Edward Royce of California and Michael McCaul of Texas called on congress to pass a new bill targeting Hamas and for sanctioning members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“If Qatar is to remain an ally it must renounce its terrorist affiliation,” McCaul told the assembly after condemning Qatar’s past behavior.

Representatives from embassies of Russia, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Countries attended the event that also included senior members of the Trump administration.

Not a new issue, skeptical on change

Lincoln P. Bloomfield, a Former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs and a veteran of the past five Republican presidential administrations said that Qatar’s role in terror finance was not a new issue.

“It has been a long-standing issue, and Qatar is a very small state obviously, and they have used financial power in their view to mediate certain conflicts. In some cases, it may have been constructive and some cases it may have not. However, today with terrorism finance everyone needs to show progress,” he told Al Arabiya.

Bloomfield said he was encouraged by Tillerson’s trip to Doha but, others in the crowd were less than enthusiastic.

“I am very skeptical about any change. This is going to go on for a while longer, I don’t think this will happen, unfortunately, I don’t think that Qatar will concede on this issue any time soon,” he said. However, the diplomat seemed pleased with the turnout of the event which was attended by hundreds - despite the presence of three pro-Qatar protesters early in the event.

“When I see Bannon, Panetta, and Petraeus representing a bipartisan interest in this issue and different backgrounds I am happy to see that this issue is being taken seriously at the highest-levels,” he said.

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