Qatar, a key US ally in the Persian Gulf, faces increased scrutiny of its alleged financial ties to terrorism in a lawsuit brought by relatives of a slain American journalist and a separate federal investigation into a member of the country’s royal family.
Steven Sotloff’s family alleged in a federal lawsuit on Friday that prominent Qatari institutions transferred $800,000 to an Islamic State “judge” who ordered the killing of Sotloff and another American journalist, James Foley. The two were beheaded in Syria in 2014, and their killings were filmed and published in gruesome propaganda videos.
“We want to do everything we can to ensure that no other family has to suffer what we have suffered,” the Sotloff family justified their lawsuit.
Separately, federal prosecutors have been investigating possible links between terrorist groups and Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani, the half-brother of the ruling Emir of Qatar, according to documents verified by The Associated Press and interviews with two people familiar with the investigation.
A grand jury investigation conducted from the Southern District of New York focused in part on whether Khalid Al Thani provided money and supplies to Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the two people said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Qatar has a close relationship with the Biden government. The world’s richest country per capita played a key role in the evacuation from Afghanistan, and its vast natural gas reserves could help prop up European energy markets amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Qatar could also play a crucial role in President Joe Biden’s attempt to revive a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Qatari embassy said it needed more information before commenting on the reported investigation and did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Biden named Qatar a key non-NATO ally, a move that could help in the country’s attempt to win US approval for a sale of more than US$500 million in MQ-9 Reaper drones to get dollars. Qatar is the largest US Air Force base in the Gulf.
“Qatar is a good friend and a reliable partner,” Biden said in January when he hosted Qatar’s ruling Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani at the White House.
But Qatar, which has been one of the top international supporters of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, has long been criticized by some US officials for allowing or encouraging funding for extremist groups in Syria and for its direct and indirect support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Qatar has said it condemns terrorism, but officials have also acknowledged its efforts may have helped the wrong people.
“Look, everyone made mistakes in Syria, including your country,” Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister and foreign minister, said in a 2017 interview with American journalist Charlie Rose. He added that Qatar had never intentionally funded extremist groups in Syria and cut funding to any groups it learned had a different “agenda”.
Lawyers for the Sotloff family said in the lawsuit that Qatari officials “either knew or ruthlessly ignored” the fact that the Islamic State terrorists they allegedly funded would kidnap, torture and murder Americans.
Foreigners and government officials generally cannot be sued in US courts. But US anti-terrorism law allows victims of terrorism to seek compensation from private entities linked to governments. The defendants in the Sotloff lawsuit, Qatar Charity and the Qatar National Bank, are said to have knowingly facilitated financing of terrorist groups.
Specifically, the lawsuit states that the charity and bank provided Fadel al Salim with $800,000, which he allegedly smuggled into Syria from Turkey and then used to form a “brigade of Islamic State fighters” and a ” to become a Sharia judge.
Sotloff’s complaint said al Salim signed the “Retribution Legal Order” ordering the deaths of Foley and Sotloff and led a convoy that transported the couple from a prison in Raqqa, Syria, to the city where they were killed.
Representatives from Qatar Charity and Qatar National Bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Al Salim’s current whereabouts are unknown. But US prosecutors have made significant progress in separate criminal cases against two of the British Islamic State militants responsible for the killing of Sotloff and three other American prisoners.
Alexanda Kotey was recently sentenced to life in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. El Shafee Elsheikh, who was convicted by a jury last month, also faces life imprisonment at his sentencing in August.
Kotey and Elsheikh were part of a cell of British militants known by their captors as “The Beatles” because of their accent. They were arrested in Syria in 2018 and transferred to the US for prosecution in 2020 after Attorney General William Barr agreed to take the death penalty off the table.
Another militant, Mohammed Emwazi – known as “Jihadi John” – was killed in a US drone strike in 2015 and a fourth arrested in Turkey.
Sotloff, Foley and Peter Kassig were beheaded as part of propaganda videos released by ISIS in 2014, while Kayla Mueller was tortured and raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before her assassination. The hostage situation also resulted in the killing of British and Japanese prisoners, officials said.
“We are forever broken by the loss of our beloved son and are defined as the people from a horror movie,” mother Shirley Sotloff said at the hearing at Kotey’s hearing.
The Sotloff lawsuit, filed in West Palm Beach, Fla., does not disclose how the information in the lawsuit was obtained. But it contains a high level of detail, such as a specific bank account number, excerpts from a handwritten statement confirming payments, and Islamic State court records.
The lawsuit also alleges members of the Qatari royal family and government officials worked with the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish intelligence to fund extremist groups in Syria with the aim of undermining the Assad regime.
Similar allegations about prominent Qataris funding terrorist groups have been leveled in two ongoing lawsuits filed on behalf of Syrian refugees in London.
Ben Emmerson, a London-based lawyer representing the refugees, said there is clear evidence American officials have decided to turn a blind eye to Qatar’s terrorist financing in Syria because the US needs Qatar’s help in other areas.
“This is realpolitik in action,” he said.
One of the London lawsuits alleges that board members of Qatar National Bank made hawala payments – an informal money transfer system – directly to Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. This includes transfers of the emir’s half-brother, Khalid Al Thani, according to the lawsuit. He previously served on the Board of Directors of Qatar National Bank.
It is unclear whether these payments are part of the grand jury’s investigation into Khalid Al-Thani, who was at least a year old. Prosecutors for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Eric Tucker contributed from Washington.