Qatar's Swiss Cheese Terrorism List

By David Weinberg | Washington Representative for International Affairs
  • April 11, 2018

The richest country in the world, the Gulf nation of Qatar, just issued its most comprehensive public list of designated terrorist groups and actors.  Qatar’s list provides striking substance to its ruler’s 2014 declaration that his country has a rather different view of what constitutes terrorism than countries such as America.

Indeed, Qatar’s new terrorism list still falls short in some crucial regards, omitting those terrorist groups responsible for the greatest number of fatalities in America, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, for example. 

In part because of Qatar’s willingness to play all sides in the region, the country has long been characterized as “the Switzerland of the Middle East”. Yet Qatar’s public efforts to designate terrorists still contain so many problematic holes that the country’s counterterrorism posture could also be likened to Swiss cheese.

The Positive:

That Qatar’s new list was published at all seems to be a significant consequence of U.S. engagement, as well as pressure from an Arab quartet comprised of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. 

One month after these four Arab states imposed counterterrorism sanctions on Qatar last June, the tiny Gulf nation accepted a U.S. Memorandum of Understanding on combating terrorist financing, and then days later Qatar’s Emir issued a decree creating a domestic authority for publicly designating terrorist organizations and individuals for sanctions.

Qatar published its first announcement under this framework in October, joining the U.S. and all the other Gulf monarchies in sanctioning eleven individuals, a charity, and one company in Yemen for ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State’s Yemeni branch.  That list included a onetime Qatari government official who, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, reportedly went on to run a provincial branch of AQAP.

By issuing a second list of designations on March 21st under its new legal framework, Qatar now seems to be inching closer to the positions of its neighbors Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, all of which have already issued comprehensive lists of banned terrorist entities.  Qatar’s new list goes beyond Yemen, designating individuals in Qatar and multiple other countries, as well as an actual terrorist group and not just commercial institutions accused of serving as terrorist fronts.

As such, this is a positive step by Qatar, albeit a limited one.

Qatar’s newest includes six Qatari citizens or former residents of Qatar who were already subject to U.S. and U.N. sanctions for several years on charges of funding al-Qaeda.  This is the first time that Qatar has publicly designated its own nationals as terrorist actors.  And the fact that Qatar is tackling local terror financiers publicly is a positive change from past practice.

Also included on Qatar’s new list are several Qatari nationals who are not under U.S. or U.N. sanctions but were designated as terror financiers last year by the Arab quartet, as well as another Yemeni charity sanctioned by those countries as a front for al-Qaeda.  Some citizens and corporations on Qatar’s new designation list have never even been targeted for international sanctions at all.

The Negative:

Qatar is a founding member of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, and yet its new list of banned terrorist groups still does not include the Islamic State’s central branch in Syria and Iraq.  Only the group’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula is proscribed by Qatar’s new list, a significant omission given that Islamic State branches and loyalists carried out attacks in over 20 countries in 2016 alone.

Also excluded from the list is Muthanna al-Dhari, an Iraqi subject to a United Nations travel ban for allegedly funding IS’s forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq, to the tune of over a million dollars.  Al-Dhari has been let into Qatar numerous times – including in the last year – and was hugged and kissed by Emir Tamim’s father in 2015.

Although some internationally-designated funders of al-Qaeda in Syria and Yemen are on Qatar’s published lists, al-Qaeda itself is not, nor are any of its regional branches.  Indeed, the absence of even a single terrorist group in Syria or Iraq from Qatar’s lists is particularly puzzling given Emir Tamim’s assertion in 2014 that Qatar does indeed consider at least “certain movements” in Syria and Iraq to be terrorists.

Qatar’s terrorism list omits a range of South Asian terrorist organizations, including the Taliban, the Haqqani Group, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.  Fundraisers for all three of these groups are thought to have exploited Qatari territory.  Qatar hosts a political office for the Afghan Taliban and negotiated the release of U.S. hostage Bowe Bergdahl for the release of five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo.

In 2016, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar, labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization.  But Hezbollah is not on the new terrorism list issued by Qatar.  Nor are any other Iranian-backed terror groups, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq or Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, or Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. 

Although it is possible that Qatar does consider some of these other groups as terrorists, its continued refusal to designate them as such publicly – even after creating detailed regulations for doing so and applying those regulations to dozens of entities – will undoubtedly feed existing uncertainty as to whether Qatar truly stands opposed to major terrorist groups.

However, Hamas’s continued absence from this list seems particularly intentional in nature.

Qatar’s rulers clearly cherish their close relationship with Hamas’s leadership.  Qatar’s state-backed television network Al Jazeera provides the group with unfettered airtime and regularly lionizes its terrorists as “martyrs.”  As a concession to international pressure, Qatar reportedly asked several Hamas commanders to move abroad last summer, but Doha continues to host many other top leaders and operatives for the group, in spite of its genocidal ambitions and attacks against Israeli civilians.

Unlike Qatar’s public terrorism lists, the contents of its terror finance memorandum with the United States are still a closely held secret, to the consternation of Members of Congress from both parties. 

It is therefore impossible for outside observers to assess whether or not Qatar’s first public, multinational terrorism list helps fulfill the letter of that agreement.  But American leaders should certainly ask their Qatari counterparts whether such gaps fit with that deal’s spirit.