President Obama and his national security Cabinet expressed confidence this week in a still-secret agreement with the kingdom of Qatar to keep watch over the five senior Taliban figures released from Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
But privately, many U.S. military and intelligence officials say it’s unwise to rely on Qatar to monitor the Gitmo 5. U.S. officials have had long-standing concerns that Qatar has often turned a blind eye to terrorist financing inside its borders and failed to keep track of a former Guantanamo inmate who was transferred to the emirate at the end of the Bush administration. “We know that many wealthy individuals in Qatar are raising money for jihadists in Syria every day,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “We also know that we have sent detainees to them before, and their security services have magically lost track of them.”
As the deal is publicly described, Qatar will monitor the former detainees in a loose form of house arrest for a year, after which time they will be free to leave the small Gulf kingdom.
U.S. intelligence officials, however, tell The Daily Beast that the deal also would allow the U.S. government to monitor the senior Taliban figures, but the exact terms of that monitoring would have to be approved by Qatar’s intelligence and security agency, known as Qatar State Security.
As The Daily Beast reported earlier this week, the promises of Qatar’s young emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, were a factor in swaying James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to lift his objections to releasing the five Guantanamo inmates.
But Qatar’s track record is troubling. In 2008, when the Bush administration transferred Jaralla al-Marri, a Qatari citizen who spent six years in U.S. captivity, from Guantanamo to Qatar, Doha provided similar assurances to the ones it has provided about the Gitmo 5.
But less than six months after the July 2008 transfer, al-Marri traveled to the United Kingdom ostensibly to go on a speaking tour with other former Guantanamo detainees. In a February 26, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Doha, the State Department complained that Qatar was not living up to its promises.
“Al-Marri was returned to Qatar from Guantanamo Bay in July 2008, with the explicit understanding (made via exchange of diplomatic notes) that he would be subject to a travel ban, and that the GOQ would notify the USG if al-Marri sought to travel,” said the cable, first disclosed by WikiLeaks. “Reftel gave post’s assessment, now clearly wrong, that the GOQ would honor these assurances.” GOQ refers to Government of Qatar.
The U.S. government had serious suspicions about al-Marri but couldn’t prove much. His 2007 Pentagon dossier—first disclosed by WikiLeaks—says al-Marri was evasive when asked about money transfers to his brother, who was suspected of being a sleeper agent inside the United States. The dossier, however, only asserts that al-Marri traveled to al Qaeda training camps and guest houses, and concludes he is a “medium risk” to harm U.S. allies.
That is not the case with the Gitmo 5, who were all deemed a high risk of returning to hostilities against U.S. interests if they were released. The five prisoners who arrived in Qatar this week include Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Mohammed Nabi Omari. Reports this week said they were free to roam around Qatar and were not confined to house arrest.
But there are other reasons U.S. intelligence officials are worried about Qatar. The emirate is a good place to raise money for terrorist organizations. Late last year, the Treasury Department placed sanctions on Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, a Qatari history professor and human rights activist, for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen.
In March, David Cohen, the undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a speech to the Center for a New American Security that while Qatar is a longtime U.S. ally, it also has “for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability.” Cohen also referenced press reports that indicated Qatar’s support for extremists in Syria.
The State Department’s latest report on counterterrorism says that while Qatar has cooperated with the United States in some important areas of counterterrorism, its efforts to stop fundraising for terrorist groups have been inconsistent. “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 said.
In his March speech, however, Cohen did express optimism that Qatar’s new emir, who ascended to the throne only a year ago, could provide an opportunity for better cooperation on counterterrorism.