By JONATHAN SCHANZER, POLITICO—
Qatar’s ambassador to Washington, Mohammed Bin Abdullah al-Rumaihi, is about to receive a letter that will put his diplomatic skills to the test.
Congressmen Peter Roskam (R-IL) and John Barrow (D-GA) are circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter on Capitol Hill this week, collecting signatures to challenge the uber-wealthy Persian Gulf emirate over its financial ties to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
The draft letter, addressed directly to Rumaihi, acknowledges that “longstanding, strategic bilateral relations between the United States and Qatar, including a strong defense pact, are of critical importance to both countries.”
“However,” it continues, “we believe that Qatar’s relationship with Hamas empowers, legitimizes, and bolsters an organization committed to violence and hatred.”
Qatar is a valuable ally for Washington. The sprawling al-Udeid Airbase near Doha is a crucial asset for CENTCOM, particularly in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, Qatar has played a key role in organizing, financing, and arming the opposition to Bashar al- Assad’s regime in Syria at a time when the U.S. government has failed to reach consensus.
However, Roskam, Barrow, and a growing group of other legislators don’t believe that should absolve the Qataris of their support for a terrorist group best known for suicide bombings and firing rockets into civilian areas. Of particular concern is Qatar’s reported pledge of $400 million in financial aid to Hamas last year, and the fact that Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshal, now hangs his hat in Doha. Meshal recently delivered a sermon at Qatar’s Grand Mosque in which he affirmed Hamas’s commitment “to liberate Jerusalem” – a euphemism for the destruction of Israel.
The congressional letter also notes that Qatar’s recently-retired emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, made “the first visit by a foreign leader to Gaza since Hamas took power in 2007,” and further expresses alarm that the emir chartered a private plane in April for Hamas militants to visit Doha.
Of course, the emir recently abdicated the throne to make way for his son, Tamim. And it’s possible that Tamim will eschew his father’s Hamas policy. Rumors in the Arabic-language press even suggested that Tamim gave Meshal 48 hours to vacate Qatar after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt last week.
It is clear now that these were only rumors. Qatar’s policy has not wavered. But what if congressional pressure could force Tamim to change course?
The timing of this letter is critical. It coincides with the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was one of Hamas’s most important patrons. One senior Israeli security official told me that he viewed Egypt as the “back office” for Hamas. Cairo, for example, hosted the group’s internal elections earlier this year, and allowed one of its more senior leaders, Mousa Abu Marzouk, to be based there. More importantly, underground tunnels connecting Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip serve as a crucial lifeline for the smuggling of weapons, goods, and cash.
With Egypt’s Brotherhood down for the count, the Egyptian junta is now shutting down the Hamas tunnels. With few allies left in the region, Hamas is now clinging to Qatar for financial and political assistance. If Congress can successfully challenge that relationship, the Israeli security official believes that it “can weaken or even destroy” the movement.
Roskam and Barrow’s letter to al-Rumaihi is expected to drop sometime this month. It will fall far short of labeling Qatar a “state sponsor of terror,” but it will undoubtedly encounter stiff resistance from the State Department, which jealously protects its alliance with this tiny but influential state.
Roskam and Barrow are apparently prepared for this battle, particularly if Secretary of State John Kerry weighs in. As they note in their letter, in 2009, then-Senator Kerry warned: “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” We’re about to find out if that’s true.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.