The Trump administration is silent on reports that Qatar may be funding the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, an issue that is likely to become a flashpoint as a high-level U.S. delegation travels to Doha to "thank that nation for its commitment to combating global terrorism," according to the State Department.
Following reports last week that Qatar funded weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Trump administration sent State Department coordinator for counterterrorism ambassador Nathan Sales to Qatar on Wednesday to boost ties between the countries and give it public praise for what the United States says are Doha’s efforts to combat terrorist groups like Hezbollah. "Qatar is one of the United States’ closest military allies in the region," the State Department said in a statement announcing the trip. Sales will also travel to Lebanon, where it is likely the issue of Hezbollah will be on the agenda.
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The administration’s silence about Qatar’s role in terrorism financing—a pervasive and longstanding issue with the country—is likely to escalate tension between the administration and Republicans in Congress who see Doha as funding the very terror groups it purports to fight alongside the United States. Qatar’s terror financing has gone largely unaddressed due to Doha’s hosting of the Al Udeid military base, which houses U.S. Central Command’s regional headquarters. Qatar also is accused of being behind a series of cyber espionage operations targeting prominent Americans and members of the U.S. Jewish community.
The Qatar trip comes just days after new allegations arose about the country's efforts to send illicit weapons shipments to Hezbollah, which has increased its assaults on Israel in recent weeks. Qatar tried to hide its role in these arms shipments by offering bribes to those involved in the matter, according to a Fox News report.
A State Department spokesperson, speaking only on background, acknowledged the report but maintained that Qatar remains a primary U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.
"The State Department noted recent press allegations of a Qatari role in funding the Lebanese Hezbollah," the official told the Washington Free Beacon. "We see the allegations as inconsistent with Qatar’s strong commitment to combating global terrorism and dedication to a robust partnership with the United States on counterterrorism and security. Our close ties with Qatar are indispensable for maintaining security in the gulf region, and we will continue to closely work together to stop the financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah."
The State Department official would not say whether Sales would raise the issue of terror financing during his trip this week. Regional media reports claim, however, citing unnamed U.S. officials, that the American delegation will be tasked in part with investigating the Hezbollah funding claims. Al Arabiya, a regional outlet, reported the United States is seriously concerned about possible funding for Hezbollah and is seeking to address it with Qatari officials.
A Treasury Department spokesperson told the Free Beacon it does not comment on investigations, "including to confirm whether or not one exists."
The Trump administration declined to comment on reports that new sanctions on Hezbollah are being prepared following a massive explosion in Beirut last week that killed and injured more than 7,000 people and prompted the resignation of the country’s prime minister and government. The United States has already sent the country several aid packages, generating concerns that the money will make its way to Hezbollah, which is already filling the power vacuum created by the government-wide resignation. Even before the blast and resulting fallout, Hezbollah enjoyed near-total control of Lebanon’s key government and military posts.
Qatar, through its embassy in Washington, D.C., called the Hezbollah funding allegations false, alleging that the authors of the Fox News piece are biased against the country. "Qatar has some of the strictest domestic laws to prosecute those associated with terror financing," the embassy said.
Qatar’s alleged financing of Hezbollah is likely to become entangled in efforts by GOP lawmakers to slash economic aid to Lebanon over concerns it is fueling Hezbollah’s arms buildup. Typical GOP Trump administration allies in both the House and Senate have broken with the White House and State Department over its insistence that U.S. taxpayer funding to the Lebanese Armed Forces serves the U.S. interests—despite evidence Hezbollah is the chief benefactor. If Qatar is found to be backing Hezbollah, lawmakers could view it as a reason to diplomatically isolate both Doha and Beirut.
Qatar has been in congressional crosshairs for some time given its billion-dollar effort to infiltrate the U.S. academic system and push propaganda that many say is anti-Semitic. Qatar also has been the subject of multiple congressional hearings on terror financing, including claims the country provided the funding for terror attacks that killed Americans. Republicans have been vocal about these issues and have pushed multiple administrations to reassess the United States’ close relationship with the country.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department and senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said revelations of Qatar’s ties to Hezbollah should cause the United States concern.
"Historically, Qatar’s involvement in illicit financial activity has been cause for significant concern," he said. "In recent years, there have been fewer allegations raised. This one would be explosive if true. It will be important for the U.S. to determine the veracity of these charges."