The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on August 5 against two Qatari nationals accused of providing funding to al Qaeda in Pakistan, as well as to Al Nusrah Front in Syria and extremists in Sudan. The Treasury Department described the two men as “major facilitators” and “financiers responsible for supporting terrorists throughout the Middle East.”
This follows indications that Qatar shut down a fundraising network linked to one of the two men, Sa’d bin Sa’d al-Ka’bi, last year. However, a closer examination of how Qatar dealt with the case of Ka’bi and the other individual, ‘Abd al-Latif bin ‘Abdallah al-Kawari, provides new confirmation that Doha has been inexcusably negligent when it comes to cracking down on private terror finance. For example, a senior Obama administration official reportedly indicated this month that “Qatar has not arrested the two men.”
Additional sanctions on Qataris
The US government asserted in its announcement that Ka’bi, also known as Umar al-Afghani, “has provided support” to al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Al Nusrah Front, since 2012, and set up donation campaigns in Qatar through 2014 in response a fundraising request from an Al Qaeda associate for weapons and food. Further, he allegedly was involved in facilitating ransom payments for hostages held by Nusrah.
The second individual, Kawari, is accused by the US government of serving as an al Qaeda security official and collecting financial support for the group. The Treasury Department alleged that in recent years Kawari was involved in coordinating the delivery of funds to al Qaeda and the collection of receipts from the terrorist group, as well as facilitating travel for a courier with tens of thousands of dollars for al Qaeda.
The US asserted that Kawari’s involvement in terrorist finance goes back over a decade, indicating that he worked to fund al Qaeda in Pakistan in partnership with two US and UN-designated financiers, Qatari national Ibrahim ‘Isa al-Bakr and a Saudi national nicknamed Hassan Ghul. Ghul served as Osama bin Laden’s envoy to Iraq-based jihadi leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and provided intelligence that later led to bin Laden’s killing. Ghul did so in while in the custody of the US and its Kurdish allies, but was repatriated to another erstwhile US ally, Pakistan, which let him go in under a year.
Kawari is also accused of arranging “a fraudulent passport” for Ghul, which Ghul later used to visit Qatar in Kawari’s company along with al-Bakr.
The Treasury Department’s announcement follows reports that a fundraising network linked to Ka’bi was shut down by Qatari authorities in 2014.
The State Department’s latest Country Reports on Terrorism revealed in June that “Qatari authorities shut down the Madad Ahl al-Sham online fundraising campaign that was suspected of sending funds to violent extremist elements in Syria.” In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that US and Qatari officials said Doha had “shut a social-media website the US believed was used in raising money for al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria.”
Sa’d bin Sa’d al-Ka’bi, whom the US alleges “set up donation campaigns” in Qatar linked to the Nusrah Front, played a pivotal role in Madad Ahl al-Sham that was mentioned in several news reports. His name and phone number appear to be included on every single flyer that has been attributed to the campaign, typically as the first name listed. One of the ads can be seen on the right. Numerous social media posts and some of these flyers also identified him as the “supervisor” of the campaign.
If that was where the story ended, one could arguably interpret Ka’bi and Kawari’s cases as a success story for Qatar in the fight against terror finance. One might paint these individuals as relatively isolated extremists and characterize the Qatari government’s enforcement efforts as proactive, effective, and vigilant. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.
In December 2013, the Washington Post revealed that a Qatari campaign called “Madid [sic] Ahl al-Sham” had been “cited by [Al Nusrah] in August as one of the preferred conduits for donations intended for the group.” Yet neither Al Qaeda’s reported endorsement that August nor the Post’s December allegation – which it repeated several days later in a story republished by a paper inside the GCC – prompted Qatar to take action.
Six months later, CNN anchor Erin Burnett traveled to Qatar to investigate, contacting Ka’bi by phone through a translator. Ka’bi denied knowledge that his profile on the social media platform WhatsApp called for donations equivalent to $1,500 USD to arm, feed, and treat fighters in Syria. Burnett also asked him why his Twitter posts included an image of planes hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11, which he dismissed as insignificant because those images are widely available online. The campaign stopped operating soon afterward.
Yet these US reports were not the only warning signs that the charitable network might be hijacked for extremist ends.
Taimur Khan reported for the UAE’s The National on August 6 that a senior US administration official said Kawari “was also involved with the online fundraising platform, Madad Ahl Al Sham.” Given ‘Abd al-Latif al-Kawari’s alleged history, Qatari officials should have been concerned when they learned that he was also involved in the campaign.
In addition to Kawari’s alleged work for al Qaeda in the early 2000s described in the Treasury Department’s public announcement, he should have been a known quantity in Qatar for several other reasons as well. He was tried twice and found innocent both times of aiding a coup attempt by former Emir Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani against his son Hamad, who took power in 1995.
An individual also named ‘Abd al-Latif bin ‘Abdullah al-Kawari was mentioned in a 2004 list by a human rights NGO of detainees Qatar was holding without charges or access to counsel. Also listed was Kawari’s alleged co-conspirator Ibrahim ‘Isa al-Bakr, whom the US says was freed “after he promised not to conduct terrorist activity in Qatar,” a pledge it claims Bakr repeatedly violated. Kawari was subsequently identified in 2011 as an irresponsible government employee by an article in Qatar’s official gazette.
Supporters and coordinators of Madad Ahl al-Sham described an ‘Abd al-Latif al-Kawari on social media as a point of contact for the campaign, listing local phone numbers for him and Ka’bi and indicating that Ka’bi was supervising the campaign with Kawari’s help.
A broader network
It is important to recognize that Madad Ahl al-Sham was not simply a one-off effort by one or two radical extremists to fundraise for jihadi fighters in Syria. Rather, the organization was at one point arguably the most visible public fundraising campaign for Syrian relief in Qatar.
Ka’bi’s prominent use of social media to allegedly collect funds in public for al Qaeda is evidence that the terrorist group has modernized much like its rival the Islamic State, harnessing innovative electronic tools to bolster its fundraising apparatus in the Gulf. According to the Treasury Department’s designation of the two men, the Nusrah Front and Al Qaeda “have resorted to increasingly complicated schemes” to maintain funding streams for terrorist activities.
A representative of the campaign told the Qatari paper al-Watan that it involved over 50 young volunteers from Qatari society who were gathering donations for Syria. Another figure presented by the group, including on its now-deleted Twitter account, stated that efforts supervised by Ka’bi had raised more than 5 million Qatari riyals as of two years ago ($1.37 million USD).
Al-Watan reported in its March 2013 article that the campaign “works under the umbrella” of the Qatar Centre for Voluntary Work, an entity identified on Facebook as a “government organization” founded in 2001 by state decree.
Its board is appointed by the Qatari Minister of Youth and Sports, and CNN’s Burnett reported in June 2014 that the Centre was also “supervised by the Qatari government’s Ministry of Culture,” although “the minister declined [a] request for an interview.” An early 2013 article on the Culture Ministry’s website described in-kind humanitarian assistance transported to Syria by the Volunteer Centre. The article cited an official from the Centre who said work of this sort was gathered “through the Qatar Centre for Voluntary Work with participation of the volunteers from Madad Ahl al-Sham who were eager to gather a greater quantity.”
Other prominent supporters
Ka’bi and Kawari were by no means the only individuals involved in fundraising or speaking out for Madad Ahl al-Sham’s campaign.
Muhammad ‘Isa al-Bakr is a Qatari national who was detained without charges in 2013 after sending a threatening letter to the French Embassy in Doha. Amnesty International reported that he was subject to a Qatari travel ban upon release. However, he is evidently featured in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2014 with a shipment of aid into Syria. He also seems to have posted a video shot in Turkey promoting Madad Ahl al-Sham, as well as other social media materials related to the campaign, its fliers, and showing its collections or deliveries for Syria.* A post on his Twitter account promoting phone numbers for Ka’bi and Kawari was visible at the time of Treasury’s announcement, but then erased before seventy-two hours had passed.
Mohammed Helwan al-Seqatri was described by the Qatari paper al-Watan as Madad Ahl al-Sham’s media coordinator. Seqatri stated in 2013 that “there are more than 50 Qatari young people with the campaign, gathering donations and sending it to the [Volunteer] Centre to organize and send to both the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” He added that these youths were even giving from their own pockets.
Yet users on Twitter apparently retweeted messages attributed to Seqatri that Madad Ahl al-Sham “supports the mujahideen with weapons and ammunition” and “gathers your donations to cleanse the rafidhis [derogatory term for Shi’a] from Syria.” Though his posts related to the campaign were deleted after it closed down, he later posted Tweets promoting Hamas’s military wing and promoting a welcome home party for former al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh al-Marri, who had been imprisoned in the US. Seqatri’s Twitter account was then fully shuttered within 48 hours of Ka’bi and Kawari’s US designation.
Additionally, Madad Ahl al-Sham boasted a number of prominent endorsers, some of whom are still based in Qatar.
Ka’bi’s and Kawari’s phone numbers were promoted as contacts for the fundraising campaign by Twitter accounts belonging to former Guantanamo detainees. Among them is an account evidently attributed to al-Marri’s brother Jarallah, an alleged terror financier whom the Qatari government allowed to leave the country twice after his repatriation, a violation of Doha’s written pledges to Washington.
The campaign was blessed by al Qaeda-linked clerics Abdullah al-Muhaysini and Hamid Hamad al-‘Ali of Kuwait. The campaign was also praised by the extremist Egyptian preacher Wagdy Ghoneim, whom the US previously suspected of involvement in terrorist fundraising.
Ghoneim visited and endorsed the campaign’s headquarters in February 2013 and praised the campaign in a video uploaded in June 2013, evidently flanked on one side by Ka’bi and on the other by Qatari nationals Abdulaziz al-Attiyah and Saleh bin Ahmed al-Ghanem. (A screenshot from the video can be seen on the right.) Twitter accounts attributed to both of the latter Qataris directed Internet users to phone numbers for Ka’bi and Kawari in support of Madad Ahl al-Sham.
Attiyah is a cousin of Qatar’s foreign minister. He was convicted last year on terror finance charges by a court in Lebanon. He was previously released from Lebanese custody in 2012 after diplomatic pressure allegedly applied by Doha. After returning from Lebanon, Attiyah received a lifetime achievement award from the Qatar Olympic Committee for leading Qatar’s Billiards and Snooker Union; the QOC was chaired at the time by Qatar’s current Emir.
A Twitter account attributed to Ghanem has called for “jihad… to cleanse Palestine” and praised Osama bin Laden as a sheikh and a “martyr mujahid.” Ghanem previously served on the board of Qatar’s al-Rayyan soccer team. The club, chaired by a brother of Qatar’s Emir, honored Ghanem in 2012 for contributions to its legacy.
Within twenty-four hours of the US sanctions on Ka’bi and Kawari, the Twitter account attributed to Ghanem added posts condemning “Western terrorism” and “American terrorism.” Attiyah and Ghanem have not been designated by the Treasury Department.
Kawari is physically in Qatar, according to biographical information released by Treasury on August 5 – in the same district of Doha as the US Embassy, no less. Thus, it is particularly noteworthy that a senior US official revealed “Qatar has not arrested the two men.” This comes a year after the group’s public operations stopped and two years since its endorsement by al Qaeda described by the Washington Post.
Nor is the debacle of Madad Ahl al-Sham an isolated episode.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Doha detained and swiftly released two financiers for the terrorist group Hamas in December 2014. This February, the Wall Street Journal confirmed Doha still had not filed charges against two Qataris the US has said enjoy “legal impunity” there despite US and UN sanctions alleging that they sent millions of dollars to the Iraqi al Qaeda branch now known as the Islamic State and even funded the mastermind of 9/11.
Muthanna Harith al-Dhari, another individual sanctioned by the US and UN on charges of funding the group now known as the Islamic State, was hugged and kissed by the Father Emir of Qatar in March and evidently let into the country this summer in violation of a UN travel ban. The State Department reported in June that local authorities deported a “terrorist financier resident in Doha who had been employed by a Qatari charity” rather than jailing him and filing charges.
Despite the fact that Qatar has the world’s third richest natural gas reserves to spend on regulating a territory smaller than Connecticut, American officials confirmed this month that “there continues to be concerns about terrorist financing going on in Qatar” and that “more needs to be done.” According to Al Arabiya, the officials also “refused to answer a question on whether the Qatari government itself may have contributed to the financing of ransoms for any kidnapped persons” in light of the Treasury Department’s assertion that Ka’bi worked to facilitate ransom payments for Al Nusrah.
Even if Ka’bi or Kawari were to be detained by Qatar, the country has a record of releasing individuals designated by the US or UN as terror financiers after a relatively short period behind bars without ever filing pertinent charges. It is therefore not uncommon for such individuals to become repeat offenders. The lack of effective and visible punishment through the judicial system means that other potential terror financiers are undeterred from committing crimes in the future.
Based on a review of publicly-available information, there is not a single case in which Qatar has detained, pressed charges against, and convicted a Qatari national on charges of terror finance after being designated by the US as a specially designated global terrorist. This is despite the fact that Qatar has laws criminalizing terror finance and banning the abuse of charities. The laws were passed in response to outside pressure.
Consequently, there is no persuasive reason to believe that Qatar has somehow turned over a new leaf since being labeled a “permissive terrorist financing environment” by Treasury’s then-Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen last year. Rather, Qatar seems to have violated its pledge from the latest anniversary of 9/11, when it committed to “countering financing of [the Islamic State] and other violent extremists” and “ending impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice” as the price for joining the anti-Islamic State coalition.
Doha seems to have taken all the wrong lessons from its bad press last year on terror finance, some of which was precipitated by an Emirati-funded US lobbying campaign that has been borne out by the facts in numerous cases. Instead of systematically tackling terror finance, Doha announced plans to invest $35 billion in the US over five years and hired four of its own US lobbying firms as new foreign agents. Al-Monitor revealed this month that one of these firms was “keeping close tabs” on the selection process for Cohen’s successor at Treasury.
President Obama’s nominee to replace Cohen as America’s top official for fighting terror finance, Adam Szubin, was quoted in the Treasury Department’s statement on August 5, calling Ka’bi and Kawari “major facilitators” in Al Qaeda’s regional network.
The US government is right to treat their case as a big deal. It should treat Qatar’s continued negligence as a big deal, too.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of a three-part monograph on Qatar-based terror finance. Volume one was released in December, and this article was adapted from part of the forthcoming second volume.
*Editor’s note: The previous two sentences were updated on Dec. 24. The original version of this article stated that Muhammad ‘Isa al-Bakr “is evidently featured in an early 2014 video promoting Madad Ahl al-Sham from Turkey.” That text was revised to indicate that he “is evidently featured in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2014 with a shipment of aid into Syria. He also seems to have posted a video shot in Turkey promoting Madad Ahl al-Sham…”