Qatar: "Worst" on Counterterroism in the Middle East?

On Sunday, WikiLeaks revealed a State Department cable last December that labeled Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich Gulf nation, as the Middle East's "worst" participant in counterterrorism efforts, the New York Times reports. According to the cable, Qatari security was "hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals."

Another cable from December 2009 stressed increased counterterrorism efforts as a talking point for the Emir's January 2010 visit.

The details offered in these cables are particularly strange when compared with a 2008 Congressional Research Service report for Congress.

The U.S. State Department called Qatar's terrorism support since 9/11 "significant," according to the CRS report. Since the attacks, Qatar established both a Combating Terrorism Law and the Qatar Authority for Charitable Activities (QACA) in March of 2004. The QACA was meant to monitor the operations of all Qatari charity organizations and ostensibly make sure the charities weren't funneling cash to terrorist organizations. But there was an asterisk: The Emir could stop the QACA from overseeing a particular organization's activities whenever he wants.

"U.S. concerns regarding alleged material support for terrorist groups by some Qataris, including members of the royal family, have been balanced over time by Qatar's counterterrorism and efforts and its broader, long-term commitment to host and support U.S. military forces being used in ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism," wrote Christopher M. Blanchard, the Middle East affairs analyst who authored the CRS report.

So what changed between 2008 and 2009?

Probably not much. The discrepancy in rhetoric is likely more an issue of what the United States is willing to say in public, and in private.

"Keeping U.S. basing rights in Qatar and ensuring the stable flow of oil and LNG gas [liquefied natural gas] are both more important than Qatar's willingness to deal seriously with its citizens involvement in terrorism," says Toby Jones, an assistant Middle East history professor at Rutgers University. "The cost of [the United States] pressuring them publicly to take counterterrorism seriously, it seems, might come at too high an economic cost."

But U.S. officials may have reason to be suspicious of Qatar. Members of the royal family reportedly hosted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, in the late '90s and may have helped him evade U.S. capture. In 2005, officials discovered another link between Qatar and al Qaeda: Qatar paid al Qaeda (and some speculate it may still be paying) millions of dollars each year so al Qaeda wouldn't attack it. Qatar struck the deal before the 2003 Iraq invasion and renewed it in March of 2005, when an Egyptian suicide bomber attacked a theater in Doha. Many believed the bomber was part of al Qaeda. "We're not sure that the attack was carried out by al Qaeda, but we ratified our agreement just to be on the safe side," a Qatari official said at the time. "We are a soft target and prefer to pay to secure our national and economical interests. We are not the only ones doing so."

It's true: Qatar is one of many nations that have allegedly funded Islamic movements to save their own citizens, and that funding was another topic of discussion slated for last January's meeting. "Officials should make known USG concerns about the financial support to Hamas by Qatari charitable organizations and our concerns about the moral support Hamas receives from Yousef Al-Qaradawi," the December, 2009 cable said. "It is also essential to stress that high-level Qatari political support is needed, if financial flows to terrorists are to stop."

But in a region rife with secret terrorist ties and illicit deals, it may seem strange that the only nation to host a U.S. military base could earn the dubious-least-valuable player title.

Yet America's chummy relationship with Qatar is a key reason for Doha's hesitancy to comply with every U.S. demand and its apparent eagerness to appease threatening countries and organizations. That relationship is, partly, what makes Qatar such a ready target.

Because it hosts the Al Udeid airbase and Camp As Sayliyah, a pre-positioning facility of U.S. military equipment, Qatar is at greater risk of terrorist attacks than neighboring countries, whose ties to the U.S. are less tangible. Notably, Qatar pays for the upkeep of the American military bases in its borders; the U.S. pays no rent, and no utilities.

So while countries like Saudi Arabia and the emirate of Abu Dhabi have aligned themselves strongly with the U.S. counterterrorism strategy because they rely somewhat on U.S. power and protection, Qatar has no such dependence. "[Qatar isn't] fully behind the United States in the same way that Abu Dhabi clearly is," explains Dr. Christopher Davidson, a United Nations and Middle East Policy Council expert on the Gulf monarchies, and a professor at Durham University in England. "This explains why there's been some criticism of Qatar not being tight enough on counterterrorism. "

Beyond Qatar's alleged funding of al Qaeda and its ties to Hamas and Iran, it has also tried to bolster its reputation by allowing money to flow freely through the country, no questions asked. Implementing more scrutiny would likely anger terrorist groups and put Qatar at greater risk.

"If the funding is cut, or if the Qatari authorities listen to America and try to tighten things up so money can't flow as easily, then you have the real risk of jihad coming home to Qatar," Davidson explains. "The smaller Gulf states have never really faced a stage of serious terror attacks like Saudi Arabia has, but they all certainly live in fear of that."