Questions Raised About Ties Between Brookings Institution, Qatar’s Government

Think tank scholar argued against designating Qatari-funded, al Qaeda-linked group as a terrorist organization

Al Qaeda linked Ahrar al-Sham brigade in Syria / AP
September 24, 2014

Recent revelations of significant financial ties between the Brookings Institution and Qatar’s government are raising new questions about the policy positions of the influential Washington think tank—including one top scholar’s writings about an al Qaeda-linked group, known as Ahrar al-Sham, that is funded by a terrorist financier linked to the Qatari royal family.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Qatar has pledged a $14.8 million, four-year donation to Brookings, making it the "single biggest foreign donor" to the think tank. That money will help finance Brookings’ Doha Center in Qatar and its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

The director of the project, William McCants, also served from 2009 to 2011 as a senior adviser to the State Department on countering violent extremism. In January of this year—a month after the State Department said it was open to meeting with the Islamic Front rebel alliance in Syria, which reportedly never took place—McCants co-authored a Foreign Affairs piece in which he argued that President Barack Obama might want to hold off on designating one of the Front’s most important militias, Ahrar al-Sham, as a terrorist group.

McCants admitted that a leading figure and co-founder of the group, Abu Khalid al-Suri, recently "published a statement praising bin Laden and al Qaeda’s current chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri." Suri proved that "as has long been rumored, al Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham are joined at the hip," McCants wrote.

Still, McCants expressed concerns that labeling Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization would hinder the transport of U.S. humanitarian aid throughout rebel-controlled regions of Syria. The Islamic Front, including Ahrar al-Sham, was also the "best hope in Syria for defeating" the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), he argued. The sub-headline of the article described Ahrar al-Sham as "an al Qaeda-linked group worth befriending."

Additionally, he claimed that Hassan Abboud, another leader and co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham, "has never endorsed bin Laden’s vision of a global jihad."

What McCants did not mention in the piece is that in December, the Treasury Department sanctioned a Qatar-based terrorist facilitator who gave nearly $600,000 to Suri—the co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham. Suri was al Qaeda’s representative in Syria, the department said. The Qatari terrorist financier who was sanctioned, Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Umayr al-Nu’aymi, advised the Qatari royal family and government-backed foundations in Qatar on charitable giving, the Washington Post reported.

McCants’ stance on not identifying the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization raises potential conflict of interest concerns for Brookings.

David Nassar, vice president of communications for Brookings, said in an emailed statement that "no donor influenced the conclusions made by Dr. McCants and his two co-authors in the [Foreign Affairs] article."

"Brookings has strict guidelines in place to ensure the independence of our scholars’ research and prevent donors from influencing our scholarly work," he said. "William McCants and his coauthors (one of which is a former FBI agent who has nothing to do with Qatar or Brookings) did not flatly counsel the president against designating Ahrar al-Sham a terrorist organization or argue that the group did not pose a threat. The authors plainly saw Ahrar al-Sham as a long-term threat because of its association with al Qaeda."

"As they say in the concluding paragraph: ‘None of this is to suggest that the United States should sit idly by and allow Ahrar al-Sham to grow unchecked. Its obvious sympathies to al Qaeda certainly augur ill for the future,’" Nassar added. "They urged the President to consider the need to deal with ISIS when deciding how to deal with Ahrar al-Sham."

When asked by the Washington Free Beacon after a Bipartisan Policy Center event on Tuesday whether Qatar’s donations influenced his writings, McCants referred a reporter to Nassar’s statement but added, "Absolutely not."

McCants acknowledged in a January interview with McClatchy that if the United States designated Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization, it could "put the U.S. at odds with Qatar, Ahrar’s main state sponsor."

Reports also raise doubts about McCants’ contention that Abboud, a top leader of Ahrar al-Sham who was killed earlier this month, did not subscribe to the global jihad ideology of al Qaeda. Abboud was a close confidant of Suri, the Ahrar al-Sham co-founder who had extensive relations with Osama bin Laden and was killed in February.

Other Brookings scholars have written favorably about Abboud.

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this month that he had held "over two years of periodic discussions" with Abboud before his death. Abboud was a "conflicted academically minded individual" who veered between support for jihad and more moderate goals, Lister said.

"He was almost certainly a crucial barrier preventing young Syrian Ahrar al-Sham fighters from joining al Qaeda [Jabhat al-Nusra] or even ISIS," Lister wrote about Abboud.

Abboud also gave an exclusive interview in December to Al Jazeera, the TV network owned by Qatar’s government.

The U.S. military announced this morning that Qatar had played a supporting role in last night’s strikes targeting ISIL in Syria, but unlike Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, it did not directly take part in the attacks.

U.S. officials have raised concerns for years about Qatar’s inability to crack down on terrorist financing from within its borders. A leaked State Department cable from 2007 noted that Qatar’s government gave its "tacit blessing" to a conference for Somali activists hosted by Nu’aymi, the terrorist sponsor who was "closely watched because of his hard-line tendencies."

"The Qataris have a recent history of seeking mediation roles in regional conflicts [Palestine, Lebanon], usually on the side of the groups the U.S. opposes [Hamas, Hezbollah]," the cable said.

Martin Indyk, director of Brookings' Foreign Policy Program, was criticized in his role as U.S. special envoy for the recent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after he asked the Jewish state to make unilateral concessions. Indyk worked with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who openly drew the scorn of Israeli officials over the summer by meeting with Hamas' allies Turkey and Qatar to resolve the Gaza conflict.

A 2009 leaked cable said Qatar had "adopted a largely passive approach to cooperating with the U.S. against terrorist financing" and added that its "overall level of [counterterrorism] cooperation with the U.S. is considered the worst in the region."

More recent reports have been just as critical of Qatar. The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013 said Qatari terrorist financiers remained a "significant terrorist financing risk and may have supported terrorist groups in countries such as Syria."

David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, also blasted the "permissive terrorist financing environment" of Qatar in a March speech.

"The recipients of these funds are often terrorist groups, including al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], the group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]," he said.