Apr 28, 2018
The payments were part of a larger deal that would involve the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish governments as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and at least two Syrian opposition groups, including al-Nusra Front, the notorious Sunni rebel faction linked to al-Qaida.
One morning last April, in the 16th month of a grueling hostage negotiation, a top Qatari diplomat sent a text to his boss to complain about a brazen robbery being perpetrated against his country.
Qatar had entered secret talks to free 25 of its citizens from Iraqi kidnappers, yet the bargaining had turned into a kind of group shakedown, the official said, with a half-dozen militias and foreign governments jostling to squeeze cash from the wealthy Persian Gulf state.
“The Syrians, Hezbollah-Lebanon, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iraq — all want money, and this is their chance,” Zayed bin Saeed al-Khayareen, Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq and chief negotiator in the hostage affair, wrote. “All of them are thieves.”
And yet, the Qataris were willing to pay, and pay they did, confidential documents confirm.
In the April text and in scores of other private exchanges spanning 1½ years, Qatari officials fret and grouse, but then appear to consent to payments totaling at least $275 million to free nine members of the royal family and 16 other Qatari nationals kidnapped during a hunting trip in Iraq, according to copies of the intercepted communications obtained by The Washington Post.
The secret records reveal for the first time that the payment plan allocated an additional $150 million in cash for individuals and groups acting as intermediaries, although they have long been regarded by U.S. officials as sponsors of international terrorism. These include Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi paramilitary group linked to numerous lethal attacks on U.S. troops during the Iraq war, the records show.
The payments were part of a larger deal that would involve the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish governments as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and at least two Syrian opposition groups, including al-Nusra Front, the notorious Sunni rebel faction linked to al-Qaida. The total sum demanded for the return of the hostages at times climbed as high as $1 billion, although it is not clear exactly how much money ultimately changed hands.
Qatar, which acknowledged receiving help from multiple countries in securing the hostages’ release last year, has consistently denied reports that it paid terrorist organizations as part of the deal. In a letter last month denouncing a published account of the events in The New York Times, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States asserted, “Qatar did not pay a ransom.”
“The idea that Qatar would undertake activities that support terrorism is false,” wrote the ambassador, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani. The letter does not deny that Qatar paid money to end the crisis but suggests that the recipients were government officials, citing a Qatari initiative with Iraq to “strengthen bilateral relations and ensure the safe release of the abductees.”
The conversations and texts paint a more complex portrait. They show senior Qatari diplomats appearing to sign off on a series of side payments ranging from $5 million to $50 million to Iranian and Iraqi officials and paramilitary leaders, with $25 million earmarked for a Kata’ib Hezbollah boss and $50 million set aside for “Qassem,” an apparent reference to Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a key participant in the hostage deal.
“You will get your money after we take our people,” al-Khayareen writes in an April 2017 text, recounting his conversation with a top official of Kata’ib Hezbollah.
The texts are part of a trove of private communications about the hostage ordeal that were surreptitiously recorded by a foreign government and provided to The Post. The intercepted communications also include cellphone conversations and voicemail messages in Arabic that were played for Post reporters for authentication purposes, on the condition that the name of the foreign government that provided the materials not be revealed.
Qatari officials declined to comment on specific issues raised in the text exchanges. But one senior Middle Eastern official knowledgeable about the communications said the sums mentioned in the texts referred to proposals that were floated by negotiators but ultimately rejected. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also asserted that some of the texts appeared to have been edited or repackaged to give a misleading impression. The official did not dispute reports that hundreds of millions of dollars of Qatar’s money were flown to Baghdad in April 2017, just days before the release of the hostages. Iraqi officials confiscated the cash, which has not been returned.
Other governments, including some in the West, have paid ransoms to known terrorist organizations to win the release of kidnapped citizens. For example, France and Spain paid cash to kidnappers — either directly or through state-owned companies — to free French and Spanish nationals captured by the Islamic State group or al-Qaida affiliates between 2010 and 2014.
But Qatar’s bargaining with militants over the hostage affair would become a flash point in a larger feud involving the country and its Arab neighbors, some of whom have repeatedly criticized Qatari leaders over what they say are the country’s cordial ties with Iran and support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups identified with political Islam. Weeks after the hostages were freed, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined three other Arab states in severing relations with Qatar, triggering a diplomatic crisis that escalated into a virtual blockade on shipping and air travel in and out of Qatar.
The rift has occasionally prompted the Trump administration to take sides. Last June, President Donald Trump voiced support for the blockade and blasted Qatar as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.” But he lavished praise on Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, when he visited Washington this month, calling him a “big advocate” for combating terrorism financing.
This article was first published in the Seattle Times