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Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.
None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar's recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.
The Qatari Contradiction
Qatar is one of two states (the other being Saudi Arabia) who officially espouse the austere doctrines of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al-Wahhab, and last year named its state mosque after him. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar 'Education City' campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.
Externally Qatar's policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hizbullah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali's regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.
A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.
On the Ground Realities
Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone of its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.
The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region, the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al-Qa'ida offshoot.
The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground by making tactical deals to obtain access when it can.
There is no open source evidence available whatsoever that can back up assertions made by Sciences Po's Sub-Saharan African expert Roland Marchal who suggests that Qatari Special Forces may have entered Northern Mali to train recruits of Ansar Dine, which is part the Al-Qa'ida movement there. Indeed, aside from the Canard Enchaine assertion - which has even been partially retracted - there is nothing on which to base other assertions of Qatar financially supporting Al-Qa'ida affiliates in Mali other than supposition.
The majority of the hyperbole about Qatar seems to stem from the adage that there's no smoke without fire. It is unsurprising that the Mayor of Gao accuses the Qataris of supporting terrorism. From his perspective he is making a heartfelt plea for French intervention and he sees the Qatari Red Crescent Society gaining access to territory held by MUJAO. Doubtless his arithmetic involves adding Qatar, the Wahhabi link, the rich Libyan-Islamist supporting Gulf State, with the Qatari Red Crescent gaining privileged access in MUJAO controlled territory; combined one comes to the conclusion that 'Qatar' is supporting the terrorists.
Marchal too follows this logic. Qatar was active in Sudan and then in North Africa supporting various Islamists with financial support and Special Forces therefore - QED - Qatar is active in Mali doing the same thing.
While some of this is plain alarmism from those who know little about Qatar, some of it makes sense. The argument that Qatar saw how effective its support of various Islamist groups in Libya proved to be and thus sought to reuse such tactics in Mali is a logical proposition. One could also note that gaining support in an area rich in hydrocarbons and agriculture is also potentially a sensible and explanatory as a motivating factor.
Equally, however, there are many reasons as to why Qatar is highly unlikely to be meddling with Al-Qa'ida groups in the Western Sahel. Despite Qatar's reputation as a Wahhabi and Brotherhood-supporting country, Qatar's most important allies are America, the UK, and France. Qatar has a limited domestic capacity to defend itself and finds itself in a region that has seen three wars in as many decades and where it is sandwiched between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have somewhat antagonistic histories with Qatar. The Qatari leadership is under no illusion as to where its security reliance lies; resolutely in Western hands.
Countering this notion one could argue that its leadership feels it can do what it likes as its importance is so great to these key countries. But an equally key part of the Qatar project is deeply concerned with its global reputation. Through cultural events; educational investment; a variety of sporting events; world-class conference facilities and associated apparatus; and other soft power building initiatives, Qatar places a significant premium on making itself attractive internationally. To boost investment, economic diversification and Qatar's reputation overall, it wants to be known as 'that place that will host the 2022 World Cup'; it does not want to become 'that place that supported Al-Qa'ida in North Africa.' Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood - the group elected to power in several Arab states - is one thing, supporting Al-Qa'ida affiliates is another.
Lastly it is worth pointing out that the small group of people who make decisions in Qatar relating to foreign affairs - the Emir, the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister/Foreign Minister - have shown no interest in the past decades of supporting hardline Salafi elements such as Al-Qa'ida. It is entirely plausible that some Qatari money is finding its way to supporting nefarious elements in the Sahel through mismanagement and there may be Qatar-based charities engaged to such ends, but the odds of a member of the Qatari elite 'ordering' such a plan stretches credulity.
Overall, there appears to be no evidence for the more outlandish claims that Qatar is training or financing Al-Qa'ida-splinter groups. Not only would this idea contradict key tenets of Qatar's foreign policy for decades now, but it is wholly unclear how useful it would be to befriend a group of extreme Sharia-devout Al-Qa'ida types in northern Mali. Even before they were being routed by the French, they were hardly a cohesive, structured organisation that could offer Qatar meaningful promises or guarantees.
Instead, Qatar's reputation as supporting certain, typically Brotherhood-orientated Islamist groups in North Africa has coalesced withclichés about rich, Wahhabi, conflict-fuelling Gulfies to produce a deeply negative and flawed narrative. The 'Qatari policy' that this theory asserts may chime with base fears and crass assumptions but in reality it bears little resemblance to Qatar's state foreign policy thus far.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI