Commanders of militant groups and government officials in the region told the Financial Times that Doha spent the money in a transaction that secured the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party in southern Iraq. They also ransomed 50 militants captured by jihadists in Syria.
The results of these transactions are that Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces in the Middle East, an al-Qaeda affiliate who is fighting in Syria and Iranian security forces.
The deal was completed in April and it heightened the concern of Qatar’s neighbors about the small gas-rich state’s role in the region. Monday was the outcome of that concern, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain took the step of cutting off diplomatic ties and transport links to Qatar, alleging the country fuels terrorism and extremism. Essentially, this put Qatar, a land-locked country, in the position of being under siege.
However, Doha denies it backs terrorist groups and dismissed the blockade by its neighbors as “founded on allegations that have no basis in fact”. While the Qatar government didn’t respond to requests for comment on the hostage deal, an official close to the government did acknowledge that payments were made, although he declined to name amounts or specify where the money went.
Doha has a history of reaching out to all kinds of controversial groups, touting itself as a neutral player that could serve as an intermediary in regional conflicts. But critics, most notably Saudi Arabia and UAE, allege it also uses such interventions to play both sides and fund radical Islamist groups, most recently in Libya and Syria. The hostage deal is just seen as further evidence of that role.
“If you want to know how Qatar funds jihadis, look no further than the hostage deal,” said a Syrian opposition figure who worked on the hostage swaps in Syria. “And this isn’t the first – it is one of a series since the beginning of the war.”
Around $700 million was paid both to Iranian figures and the regional Shia militias they support, according to regional governmental officials, with $200 to $300 million went to Islamist groups in Syria. Most of that money went to the Tahrir al-Sham, a group with links to al-Qaeda.
But the biggest issues to Qatar’s Gulf neighbors is the money given to Iran, who has been accused of fueling conflicts in the Arab world. The history of the hostage situation started when Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia, known as Kata’eb Hizbollah, kidnapped the Qataris in December 2015. Three Iraqi militia leaders indicated that the hostages were then transferred to Iran and held hostage there.
Two regional diplomats indicated that they believed one of the Iraqi group’s motives for the kidnapping was to give Hizbollah and Iran leverage to negotiate the release of Shia fighters in Syria. A Western diplomat said the hostage situation was used to create a cover for financing and facilitating the evacuation of four towns in Syria.
“The hostage deal was perhaps a miscalculation,” said Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Qatar. “This would have been done in good faith in order to return hostages – there would have been no intention to funnel money to Iran.”
Those who were involved in the deal in Iraq felt they were shortchanged, as Iran took the larger amount of the $700 million. Qatar, of course, denies all charges and no proof has been officially presented.
Yet this opens up a double standard, as Saudi Arabia has also been accused of supporting terrorists.
“I think people who are harboring terrorism are now accusing other people who are also harboring terrorism of harboring terrorism…We started feeling the heat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia three months ago when the affiliates that are being funded by both states started bickering and fighting each other in Syria. That was the first mark that started a war of words between them, which concluded in what happened today,” said Marwa Soman, a Middle East analyst.
Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly accused of sponsoring terrorism alongside Qatar. “You could look at the terrorism report that was banned from being released in the UK just yesterday because it spoke directly against Saudi Arabia and pinpointed Saudi Arabia to be a funding and supporting force for terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Soman. She noted that while they might be trying to make Qatar out as the only terrorist harboring nation in the region, that is not the reality.
In the end, these larger countries are funding Iran and in turn, Iran is funding militias to keep the region in chaos. All the finger-pointing in the world will not change the actions of these nations