Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, doesn’t make statements often. Omar is so reclusive that some have even speculated that he is either dead, or otherwise incapacitated in Pakistan. But on Sunday the Taliban released a statement attributed to Omar, who declared the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.
The five Taliban leaders were undoubtedly among the most dangerous detainees held by the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. Over the weekend, however, the Obama administration announced that they had been exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban since 2009. The Taliban had long demanded the exchange as a prerequisite for beginning “peace talks” in earnest with the U.S. The talks have thus far gone nowhere. And it says much about the Obama administration’s approach to diplomacy that the U.S. was willing to drop its preconditions for the talks (including that the Taliban renounce al Qaeda), while the Taliban stuck to its upfront demands.
The prisoner swap would not have been possible without assistance from the government of Qatar, as all of the parties involved made clear. Mullah Omar heaped praise on Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, the Amir of Qatar, for his help in brokering the deal and for agreeing to host the Taliban leaders.
In earlier statements, both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry similarly thanked Qatar for its assistance. “For his assistance in helping to secure our soldier's return, I extend my deepest appreciation to the Amir of Qatar,” Obama said in his statement. “The Amir’s personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries.”
Kerry echoed this sentiment. “I extend my personal gratitude to the Government of Qatar – and especially to the Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani – who played such an instrumental role in returning Sergeant Bergdahl home,” Kerry said in his statement on the exchange for Bergdahl. “We work every day with Qatar on a range of critical foreign policy priorities. This effort – one that was personally so close to our hearts here – exemplifies how vital our partnership with Qatar is and will remain.”
President Obama and Secretary Kerry whitewashed Qatar’s troubling record in their statements. The Obama administration itself has documented, repeatedly, the permissive environment the Taliban and like-minded extremists enjoy in Qatar when fundraising for their jihad.
In 2012, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was so concerned with Qatar’s lax attitude towards the jihadists that he fought against the transfer of the Taliban Five. According to the Wall Street Journal, Panetta and other Defense Department officials were concerned because Qatar had “balked at U.S. demands that it take steps to ensure the detainees can't leave the country after they are handed over.”
The Obama administration has reportedly signed a memo of understanding with the Qatari government that bars the Taliban Five from traveling for just one year. The administration has declined to share this memo with concerned congressmen, and its precise details are unknown to the public. But the current Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has taken a softer stance than his predecessor and is satisfied with the arrangement.
Hagel has gone so far as to argue that the prisoner exchange may lead to a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban, which is wishful thinking, to put it mildly. There is no evidence that the Taliban is willing to change its course, especially with American forces being withdrawn from Afghanistan on a fixed schedule. They simply wanted their senior leaders freed.
Even if the Gitmo Five stay in Qatar for one year, they will have plenty of opportunities to aid their brethren. Senate Democrats openly objected to a similar deal in early 2012 for this reason. The Taliban Five are of great propaganda value to the Taliban for propaganda and can also help fundraise.
A leaked State Department cable, dated December 30, 2009, contains a summary of the problem (emphasis added):
Qatar has adopted a largely passive approach to cooperating with the U.S. against terrorist financing. Qatar's overall level of CT cooperation with the U.S. is considered the worst in the region. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, UN-1267 listed LeT, and other terrorist groups exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale. Although Qatar's security services have the capability to deal with direct threats and occasionally have put that capability to use, they have been hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals.
The situation has not improved since that cable was written in 2009. In its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013, which was released in late April of this year, the State Department again sounded the alarm on Qatar.
“Qatari-based terrorist fundraisers, whether acting as individuals or as representatives of other groups, were a significant terrorist financing risk and may have supported terrorist groups in countries such as Syria,” the report reads. And while President Obama and Secretary Kerry praised the Amir of Qatar as a valuable partner this past weekend, the State Department found that he had affected no change in Qatar’s pro-jihadist policies. The report continues: “The ascension of the new Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did not result in any political changes that would affect the Government of Qatar’s ability to counter terrorism.”
The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013 actually soft pedaled Qatar’s record when it comes to Syria, saying the Qatari-based fundraisers “may” have funded terrorists fighting in the rebellion against Assad. In fact, it is well-known that they have done so.
In December of 2013, the Treasury Department added a man named Abd al-Rahman bin 'Umayr al-Nu’aymi to the U.S. government’s list of specially designated global terrorists. Treasury described Nu'aymi as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.”
In 2013, Treasury says, Nu'aymi “ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via al Qaeda's representative in Syria, Abu Khalid al Suri, and intended to transfer nearly $50,000 more.” Until his death in late February, Abu Khalid al Suri served as the main Syrian representative for al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri.
In other words, an especially conspicuous Qatar-based terrorist financier was sending cash to al Qaeda in Syria and al Qaeda’s senior leadership just last year.
It strains credulity to believe that the government of Qatar doesn’t know what Nu’aymi is doing. Indeed, a leaked State Department cable from 2007 notes that Nu’aymi is “closely watched because of his hard-line tendencies.” At the time this cable was written, Nu’aymi had just hosted a conference for Somali jihadist groups, including those linked to al Qaeda. The cable’s author explained that while “there was no direct government support for the June conference, it had the tacit blessing of the [Government of Qatar].”
The 2007 cable also dryly noted: “The Qataris have a recent history of seeking mediation roles in regional conflicts (Palestine, Lebanon), usually on the side of the groups the U.S. opposes (Hamas, Hizballah).”
The Qatari’s approach to “regional conflicts,” such as in Syria or South Asia, is no different today. On Twitter, for instance, al Qaeda-linked jihadists openly advertise telephone numbers in Qatar that prospective donors should call to support the jihad in Syria. Prominent jihadist groups in Syria have reportedly benefited from Qatar’s largesse as well.
In the end, it is easy to see why the Taliban set up its “political office” in Doha, and why Mullah Omar is so pleased with Qatar’s Amir. The Obama administration’s whitewash of Qatar’s track record is more difficult to fathom.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.