ISIS* remains mortal threat to Middle East

ISIS* remains mortal threat to Middle East

Islamic State remains a mortal threat to the region despite its recent battlefield defeats, Qatar’s foreign minister warned in an interview Wednesday, cautioning that the terrorist group could rise again if Washington and its Arab allies fail to address the root causes fueling religious extremism.

Washington Times reports in its article ISIS remains mortal threat to Middle East, Qatari envoy warns that Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the top diplomat from the tiny but influential Persian Gulf nation, said the military victories over Islamic State should be celebrated but the terrorist group’s ideology must be crushed “in order to defeat any version” of the group rearing its head. A portion of the Islamic State has likely dissolved into the general population of the Middle East, Sheikh al-Thani said, and nations across the region need to “become more responsive to their people and the needs of their people to fill the vacuum that was there and created [such] organizations.” The sheikh, who serves as both deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, was in Washington this week for an inaugural “strategic dialogue” with the Trump administration. In an interview with The Washington Times, he touched on a wide range of other matters, including the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, the growing economic ties between Qatar and the United States and the bitter diplomatic stalemate that has divided Qatar from other U.S. Arab allies in the region.

His remarks on the need for vigilance against terrorism were noteworthy because Qatar has been accused by Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers of supporting terrorist groups and radical Islam. Nearly eight months ago, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates banded together to impose an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar, a wealthy country that sits atop some of the world’s largest proven natural gas reserves, over what they say is its weak posture on Islamic extremism. The rift among Arab nations within the Gulf Cooperation Council has put Washington on shaky diplomatic ground. The Trump administration has resisted siding completely with Saudi Arabia because of American interests in Qatar.

In addition to major investments by U.S. companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. in Qatar’s oil and gas sectors, the Qataris host what is widely considered Washington’s most strategic military base in the Persian Gulf. Al Udeid Air Base, situated just outside Doha, is home to U.S. Air Force Central Command and is critical to U.S. military operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia.

In a separate interview with The Associated Press, Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah said his country had agreed to expand the base to accommodate more U.S. forces and increase facilities for their families.

The Saudis and the others say Doha provides funding for jihadi groups, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and that it has developed close economic ties to Iran. Qatar shares ownership over a massive offshore natural gas field in the Persian Gulf with Tehran — a field that has fueled Doha’s growth as a major Middle East player in recent years.

Pushing back

Sheikh al-Thani said the charges from Saudi Arabia and others were exaggerated to justify an attempt to contain Doha’s economic rise. “Our country has been subject to an unjust aggression,” he said, adding that claims by Saudi Arabia and the others have created “an unnecessary distraction for the region.” With regard to Iranian relations, the sheikh asserted that the Arab world’s overall trade with Iran is “dominated by the United Arab Emirates, which has accused Qatar of having stronger ties with Iran.” “How are we closer to Iran when we are a front-runner against Iranian policy in Syria and Iraq and Yemen?” he said. He said Qatar stood with Iraq’s Sunni Muslim population while it was marginalized under Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was perceived to have close ties to Iran. Sheikh al-Thani took a cautious tone on the Iranian nuclear deal, which President Trump has harshly criticized but which other parties to the deal, including the European Union, China and Russia, continue to support. “We were not part of the deal,” Sheikh al-Thani said. “But what we know is that we need to make sure that any nuclear program which will be developed [in Iran], we have to assure that it’s a peaceful program.” Iran, he said, “is a neighbor, and we need to deal with it in a way that ensures the security of the entire region is not affected by any confrontation, to ensure that Iran doesn’t have any destabilizing factors for us.”

Despite U.S. mediation efforts, the sheikh said he was not optimistic about a quick end to the diplomatic divide in the Gulf Cooperation Council. “It will not end by bullying, this is for sure,” he said. “It will end if every country understands that its rights and responsibilities are equal to other nations’.” He said Qatar, with U.S.-backing, has repeatedly called for dialogue with the Saudis and the others to no avail. “The other side is not willing,” he said. “President Trump invited everybody to Camp David. We responded positively; they just rejected the invitation.”

Ties to Trump

The Qataris have been engaged in a charm offensive in Washington as the stalemate deepens, seeking to curry favor with the Trump administration while it gets its bearings on Middle East policy.

Part of the push has involved an uptick in Qatari investments in the U.S. economy. In addition to tens of billions of dollars worth of ongoing weapons deals between the two nations, Sheikh al-Thani touted major investments in the U.S. financial services, health care, technology and energy sectors.

Doha in recent months has ramped up its commitment to investing in the “LNG Golden Pass” in Texas, a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and Exxon Mobil touted as a linchpin to facilitating eventual U.S. entree into the global liquid natural gas market.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil with long ties with Doha, pressed Qatar to embrace a more aggressive counterterrorism posture. In July, Doha signed a special memorandum of understanding with Washington to combat terrorism, including a promise to crack down on suspected fundraising for terrorist organizations by individuals with Qatari bank accounts.

The Qataris in August hired the Financial Integrity Network, a U.S.-based company run by former American counterterrorism officials, to help close loopholes that had allowed terrorist financing to flourish in Qatar.

Sheikh al-Thani said the results were evident in this week’s strategic dialogue with the Trump administration. Mr. Tillerson made headlines across the Middle East on Tuesday when he appeared beside the Qatari foreign minister in Washington to declare that Doha has made “significant progress to improve efforts to combat terrorism.”

“The recognition of the United States about the role Qatar has in the fight against terror,” said the sheikh, “[is] a very strong statement from the government of the United States in response to whatever accusation that those blockading countries are trying to throw at us.”

* ISIS is a terrorist organization prohibited in Russia