Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Feb. 1, 2017, 2:20pm

In today’s interconnected world, confrontational state actors and violent non-state groups can no longer rely on their crimes going unnoticed. As the Iraq war unfolded on television screens across the world, war entered a new, more accessible era. In an age characterized by easy access to information from all corners of the globe, governments concerned with human rights and democratic values have struggled to forge peace without becoming dangerously involved with brutal state leaders and/or violent non-state groups. Qatar’s leaders, however, have chosen a different approach to statecraft. In an effort to brand themselves as international peacemakers, and more covertly to yield unique global influence, leaders in Doha have cultivated partnerships with some of the world’s most ruthless players.

Qatar’s foreign policy strategy has steadily come into the world’s view in recent years. Through strong support for controversial regimes and rebel factions in Libya and Syria, Qatari leaders aspire to carry a punch much more powerful than most countries with similar economic (much less population or territorial) measures. Today, Qatari influence is spread across Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, and beyond.

In the case of Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories, Qatar has hosted members of the Taliban and Hamas leadership who frequently participate in talks focused on building peace deals in their respective countries. But, rather than an indication of a national commitment to peacebuilding, Doha’s willingness to meddle with terrorists and their sponsors constitutes the government’s strategy to wield influence over actors beyond the willing reach of Western governments. In 2014, in just one example, the U.S. was reminded of the advantages of Qatar’s connections as the Gulf State successfully negotiated a prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The tiny Gulf state remains the most effective point-of-contact for governments hoping to reach dangerous groups undeserving of traditional ties in the Middle East.

Qatar’s self-branded peacemaking initiatives have also extended into Darfur, where years of brutal conflict have left some of the continent’s most violent actors in contention for power. In July 2011, the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), forged by Qatar, was signed by the government of Sudan, led by a President wanted by the International Criminal Court, and the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM). The Doha peace process and the subsequent agreement, the DDPD 2011, garnered significant recognition and praise (especially according to Qatar’s state-run and state-affiliated news sources)  but has failed to bring an end to the violence in Darfur. Two years later, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) added its name to the signatories followed by the breakaway Sudan Liberation Movement-Second Revolution (SLM-SR) rebels in January 2017.      

While the effectiveness of Doha’s mediatory exercises remains unproven, it has not been for a lack of effort. Qatari political leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud, have continued to stress the need to bring new groups to the negotiating table. Not only has Qatar hosted leaders from Darfur in Doha, but they have also ensured that they maintain strong relations with al-Bashir’s Sudan. Unsurprisingly, the bilateral relationship is backed up by the increasingly politicized Qatar Charity.

In the international community, creating direct lines of communication with dictators (Omar al-Bashir) and/or terrorist organizations (Hamas and Taliban) requires careful consideration. Working links with terrorist groups and dictators, albeit strictly for peacemaking purposes, can garner negative attention and place the desired peacemaking label at risk. In short, one does not construct working partnerships with terrorists or dictators without hoping to reap major benefits.

In striving to become the internationally recognized mediator of the Darfur War, albeit with minimal success, Doha is attempting to replicate the influence-exertion model it has tested in the Palestinian Territories. In Gaza and the West Bank, Qatar has come to the rescue of the faltering PA and Hamas by trading desperately-needed services for soft-power influence over the political environment in the West Bank and Gaza. In Darfur, Qatar has flown the peacemaking banner while shoring up the al-Bashir regime and exploring new levers of influence among the rebel groups. Qatar’s strategy of supporting the al-Bashir government was made abundantly clear when the rich Gulf state gave $1 billion to the isolated Sudanese regime. Having come to power more than 25 years ago in an Islamist-supported coup, the regime in Khartoum matches the description of Qatar’s preferred patrons.

And while Doha’s $1 billion gift to Khartoum was clearly a public move, and the country’s role in lifting U.S. sanctions on Sudan only partly hidden, Darfur’s rebels have claimed that Qatar Charity, an NGO connected to the royal family, has worked behind the scenes in support of the Sudanese government. According to Yahia Sadam, an official in the Sudan Liberation Movement, Qatar Charity has channeled its funds to supporting government troops and “building housing complexes in remote and isolated areas to harbor and train extremist groups to destabilize security and stability in Africa and some Arab countries.” Sadam also claimed that the director of the charity’s camp in Darfur lives inside the Sudanese army’s barracks in Nyala.

Qatar’s willingness to forge working ties with terrorists and ruthless leaders should be met with concern. By coordinating with the al-Bashir regime, Doha is pursuing a strategy that has already played out in the state’s relations with Hamas, the Taliban, and powerful Islamist militias operating in Syria. By establishing ties to dangerous groups for supposed peacemaking purposes, Qatari leaders are hoping to retain unique access to powerful groups and opportunities to extend the country’s regional influence.

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