Just miles from where former Guantánamo Bay terror suspects have resettled, American warplanes take off from a Qatar air base in the global war on extremism.
The contrast in images illustrates why tiny but rich Qatar is an intriguing player in what President Barack Obama says will be a long battle to stop and eventually destroy the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Qatar plays an outsize role as a U.S. military partner. It gained public praise from Obama for brokering the controversial deal that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity in May in exchange for the release of five senior Taliban officials who had been imprisoned for years at the U.S.-run Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. Qatar promised Obama it would keep the five under watch for one year, although they would then be free to leave. The Obama administration also praised Qatar for its role in securing the release of extremist hostage Peter Theo Curtis.
But Qatar also has a reputation as a supporter of Islamist groups in disfavor in Washington. Some in Congress suspect Qatar of funneling money to Islamic State militants, though the State Department says the U.S. has no evidence of it.
Qatari officials in Doha had no immediate comment for this story, but the government has unequivocally denied that it backs the Islamic State group. Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah said last month that his country “does not support extremist groups, including ISIS, in any way.”
Western analysts say Qatar is attempting a sometimes awkward balancing act between its desire for good relations with the United States and its efforts to maintain influence closer to home.
“Qatar is always looking for the angle, and that’s really the best way to explain it,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator who now directs Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. “By having connections that are so broad, so wide ranging, it can put itself at the center of just about every issue.”
Qatar gives a home to Khaled Mashaal, exiled leader of Hamas, a Palestinian militant organization considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist group. But Qatar also has maintained ties to Hamas’ enemy, Israel. And to Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood for which other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia have little tolerance.
“This is a small and wealthy country that is trying to maintain influence 360 degrees,” said Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and now chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security.
“They are hedging their bets and trying to make sure they have influence no matter who comes out on top” in the multifaceted struggle for power in the Middle East, she added. Asked whether she believes Qatar has actually provided money to the Islamic State group, she said there is at least a widespread perception that it has.
On the other hand, Qatar was among 10 Arab nations that last week publicly endorsed Obama’s commitment to diminish and eventually destroy the Islamic State group. The 10 promised to stop the flow of foreign fighters and funding for the militants, repudiate their extremist ideology and provide humanitarian aid. Some have offered to join in airstrikes.
Qatar is a thumb-like desert appendage jutting into the central Persian Gulf from the Arabian peninsula. It began developing closer military relations with the United States during the 1991 Gulf War. Just weeks after American forces toppled Baghdad in April 2003, U.S. Central Command moved its regional air operations center from Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia to al-Udeid, about 20 miles from Doha, the capital.
Qatar also is a major buyer of U.S. advanced weaponry. In July, for example, Qatar closed an $11 billion package deal for the purchase of U.S.-made Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense weapons.
Although it hosts U.S. military bases, it has pressured Washington not to publicly acknowledge that it flies combat missions from al-Udeid air base. Like other Persian Gulf allies, Qatar’s leaders don’t want the Pentagon to publicize that fact, because they are leery of being seen as too cozy with Washington. The U.S. has complied, declining to confirm publicly that B-1 bombers and other U.S. warplanes are operating from Qatar’s al-Udeid. Nonetheless, it’s an open secret that U.S. planes there fly surveillance, refueling and other missions over Iraq.
The Air Force has publicly acknowledged that C-17 and C-130 cargo planes at al-Udeid dropped food and water to displaced Yazidis around Sinjar in northern Iraq in August as the centerpiece of a humanitarian mission.
Even so, Flournoy said Qatar shouldn’t think the U.S. would tolerate any level of Qatari effort to support Islamic extremist groups.
“They shouldn’t overestimate their leverage (in terms of) hosting the U.S. military,” she said. Referring to the air operations center at al-Udeid, she said, “It is a very useful facility to have, but it is not the only place we can put it; it is not impossible to move. So this is a good moment for Qatar to step back and review their strategy.”
A congressional aide said some lawmakers have begun to asking about the feasibility of moving the base. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue, said it’s not something that the administration is actively considering. But some members of Congress are questioning whether the U.S. should have the base there as well as a new arms deal with a country suspected of supporting Hamas and Islamic extremists.
Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.