UK military deepens ties with regime accused of funding terror groups

Britain’s Royal Air Force is about to establish a second fighter squadron with Qatar, an authoritarian Gulf state accused of supporting extremist groups across the Middle East which the UK itself opposes and says promote terrorism.

Skyscapers tower above dhows docked in Doha, Qatar's capital (Photo: UN / Flickr)

  •   UK/Qatar squadron will be established in September in Yorkshire, northern England
  •   Joint unit is part of a £6-billion deal for the UK to sell Qatar 24 Typhoon warplanes
  •   Qatar is known to have financed militant Islamist groups in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Gaza which the UK regards as terrorists. 

Ties between the UK and a state accused of funding militant groups are set to deepen within weeks as more fighter pilots from Qatar’s unelected regime become based on British soil.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) already has one joint unit with the Qatari air force which was set up last year. It is the UK’s first joint squadron with another nation since the Second World War, when Polish pilots helped fight the Battle of Britain. 

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) says another squadron with Qatar will be established in September, based at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire. 

The scheme, which was agreed earlier this year, will train British and Qatari pilots on Hawk fighter aircraft and enhance “interoperability and coordination between both air forces”.

The Yorkshire base will permanently host nine Hawk aircraft the UK is selling to the Qataris. These jets are currently being built by arms corporation BAE Systems at its factory in Warton, Lancashire.

But the deepening military relationship between London and Doha is highly controversial given Qatar’s reported role in financing and supporting an array of militant or UK-designated terrorist groups — in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza. 

The first joint UK/Qatar air force squadron, which operates out of RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, was agreed in December 2017. It was part of a £6-billion arms deal in which the UK will sell Qatar 24 Typhoon warplanes alongside the nine Hawk aircraft, and also provide a “bespoke support and training package”.

The squadron started flying in June last year and deployed to Qatar in December, when 130 RAF personnel, including Typhoon pilots, undertook exercises in the country. The squadron’s activities have included “heavy weapons training” and exercises with Britain’s Royal Navy.

The joint squadron is slated to play a key role in providing security for the football World Cup due to be held in Qatar next year.

However, the Qatari state’s relationship with militant groups over the past decade has, predictably, been brushed over by the MOD, which uses the country’s Al Udeid airbase as an operations centre to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

The UK also has a security pact with Qatar to share classified intelligence, involving GCHQ, the UK’s largest spy agency. 

A tiny oil and gas-rich peninsula adjacent to Saudi Arabia, with a population of just over two million, Qatar provides over 40% of the UK’s gas imports. British ministers have allowed Qatar to invest over £40-billion in the UK, in assets including Harrods and the London Stock Exchange, mainly through the state-run Qatar Investment Authority.

The Gulf state has been ruled by the al-Thani clan since the mid-nineteenth century. Its current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, took over from his father in 2013 when the first-ever elections for a powerless advisory council were due to be held, but the long-awaited poll has been delayed until later this year.

Billions in funding

When a ceremony was held in London to mark the first joint squadron in July 2018, the MOD stated that Qatar and the UK “share mutual interests in countering violent extremism” and “ensuring stability” in the Middle East.

However, Qatar’s government “has paid ransom demands, shipped supplies, and funnelled billions of dollars of funding” to militant groups across the Middle East, according to the Counter-Extremism Project (CEP), a think tank close to the US establishment.

The BBC noted in 2017 that Qatar has close relationships with the Taliban, the main force that has fought the British military in Afghanistan, and “certain al-Qaeda affiliates”, such as in Syria.

The CEP notes that Qatar harbours at least 13 individuals accused of having links to terrorism and seven al-Qaeda financiers. In August 2019, eight Syrian refugees filed a lawsuit in the UK alleging that accounts at the Doha Bank in Qatar had been used to channel funds to the Nusra Front in Syria.

The Nusra Front was the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, before it merged into a broader Islamist militant force known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.  

“These are not wild accusations, it is a well-known fact that Qatar funds Al Nusra,” Ben Emmerson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the court.

The Doha Bank, whose largest shareholder is the Qatar Investment Authority and whose directors include members of the ruling al-Thani family, has denied the allegations. 

Last November 2020, four of the Syrian plaintiffs withdrew their complaints, alleging intimidation from members of the Qatari government.  

Then earlier this month, a separate legal claim was issued at the High Court in London against the Qatari state, accusing it of playing a central role in secret money-laundering operations to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Nusra Front.

As reported by The Times, the claim alleges that the conspiracy was driven “by high-ranking members of the Qatari ruling elite”, all of whom deny the allegations. The case is being brought by nine Syrians who say they were persecuted by the Nusra Front.

The jihadist group was designated a terrorist organisation by the UK government in 2013. Qatar has long been accused of supporting the group with weapons and money during Syria’s war and has also allowed Nusra Front commanders to fundraise inside Qatar.

In 2016, the US State Department noted that “entities and individuals within Qatar continue to serve as a source of financial support for terrorist and violent extremist groups, particularly regional al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Nusrah [sic] Front”.

The Qatari government is also reported to have funnelled guns and money to Ahrar al-Sham, a Nusra Front ally in Syria that has operated alongside the group as part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is accused of running torture chambers.

But it is not only in Syria that Qatar has funded Islamist forces. In the Libya conflict in 2011, Britain worked alongside Qatar as it supported Islamist militant groups seeking to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. 

The authorities in Doha are believed to have supplied at least 20,000 tons of weapons to Libyan rebel forces in 2011, including machine guns, ammunition and anti-tank guns, as well as providing training to them. 

The operation had the blessing of David Cameron’s government.

One militia that received Qatari support was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an armed force created in 1995 to establish an Islamic state in Libya. The perpetrator of the Manchester terrorist bombing in 2017 is reported to have joined and fought with the LIFG in the 2011 war.

He was among at least four Islamist militants who fought in the conflict who went on to conduct terrorist attacks against Britons, Declassified recently showed.

‘Acts of terrorism’

Qatar is also a leading financier of Hamas, the Islamist political party which won elections in Gaza in 2006 and has since run the government in the Israeli-occupied territory. 

Hamas is widely seen as a legitimate resistance movement against the illegal occupation of Gaza — but this is not the view from Whitehall. 

The UK is a strong supporter of the Israeli military with whom it has deepened relations in recent years. In the recent conflict in Gaza, the British government persistently called on Hamas to end rocket attacks on Israel and stated Israel had the “right to self-defence” against them. 

A senior UK official called Hamas’s attacks on Israel “acts of terrorism”.

While Iran is Hamas’s main funder, Qatar’s financial support of the group dates back to at least 2008 and has involved hundreds of millions of dollars for the organisation’s political and humanitarian wings. 

In January this year, Hamas’s media noted that Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim had renewed the Gulf state’s funding for the organisation.

But Qatar has also funded Hamas “military personnel”, one of the organisation’s leaders said in 2016. The UK designates Hamas’s military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, which is mainly funded by Iran, as a terrorist organisation.

Since January 2020, Qatar has hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and before that it offered a base to Khaled Meshaal, who served as the group’s leader from 2004 until 2017. 

Qatar is also accused of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a militant group armed mainly by Iran which seeks to create an Islamic Palestinian state in Gaza.

This January, PIJ leader Ziyad Nakhalah held meetings with Hamas in Doha while Qatari diplomats were previously reported to have met with the PIJ to “improve relations”. 

A US lawsuit filed in June 2020 alleged Qatar provided funding to PIJ through three Qatari financial institutions — the Qatar Charity, Masraf Al Rayan and Qatar National Bank — all of which have links to members of the Gulf regime’s royal family.

The plaintiffs are friends and family members of 10 US citizens who died or were injured in attacks in Israel and the West Bank carried out by PIJ between 2014 and 2016. 

The lawsuit accuses the Qatari government of coopting “several institutions that it dominates and controls” to funnel funds “under the false guise of charitable donations.”

Qatari officials have denied charges of ties to terrorism and have billed the country’s financial support to forces working in Gaza as charity.

The UK government has proscribed PIJ as a terrorist organisation because: “It opposes the existence of the state of Israel, the Middle East Peace Process and the Palestinian Authority, and has carried out suicide bombings against Israeli targets.”

Doha also hosts the Taliban’s “political office”, which the group opened in June 2013 as it fought against UK and US troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban is said to have killed around 400 British soldiers since UK forces deployed to Afghanistan from 2003. 

A further declared British enemy which was financed by Qatar is the terrorist group AQAP, al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. In 2012 and 2013, Qatar reportedly sent millions of dollars of ransom payments to AQAP, which were believed to have enabled the group to rebuild its network and seize territory in southern Yemen.

An MOD spokesperson said: “The long-standing friendship between the UK and Qatar is more important than ever. With shared defence and security interests, it is vital we work together for both regional and global stability.”

Declassified asked the MOD why the UK is establishing a new squadron with a state known to have financed militant groups, but the department did not respond to this question.

The Qatari embassy in London was approached but did not provide a comment.

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