At the end of April, The Washington Post was writing in detail about the mechanism by which the 25 Qatari hostages, including 9 members of the royal family, kidnapped by gunmen in a desert area in Iraq near the Saudi border in December 2015 during a hunting trip, were released after 17 months, in April 2017, unharmed.
In December 2015, the Iraqi territory was dangerous. A third of the country was occupied by the Islamic State, and gangs of Kurdish and Shiite militiamen controlled towns and villages elsewhere. The Qataris entered southern Iraq’s Muthanna province to hunt a desert bird called the houbara bustard by using trained falcons. On 15 December 2015, armed fighters came into their camp in trucks and the 28 members of the hunting party — 25 Qataris, 2 Saudis and a Pakistani — were taken hostage.
The story of the negotiations appears to be very interesting and intricate.
No clear statements had been made by Qatar, about how and why the hostages have been eventually released unharmed.
Like in any abduction case in these areas, it was initially unclear who was behind the kidnapping. The Washington Post explains that the “Qatari officials quickly came to suspect that Iraqis had leaked information about the hunting party to the kidnappers. The Qatari hunters had given the precise coordinates of their camp to Iraq’s Interior Ministry as part of their permit application, and Iraqi government employees had made a surprise visit to the camp just hours before the men were captured”. Soon, Qatar learned that the hostages were being held by Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, an obscure Iraqi Shiite militant group affiliated with Kata’ib Hezbollah. Both organizations receive funding and weapons from Iran, and the latter is officially designated by the United States a foreign terrorist group.
Qatar set up a crisis team that included Zayed bin Saeed al-Khayareen al-Hajri, the Qatari ambassador to Iraq, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the Qatari Foreign Minister, as well as Hamad bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, a personal adviser to the emir, and began working through an array of influential intermediaries to gain the hostages’ freedom.
After initial silence, Kata’ib Hezbollah officials spoke directly to Khayareen, the Qatari ambassador to Iraq, to negotiate the releasing of 2 abductees in exchange of money. Later, through an Iraqi intermediary, the kidnappers had demands that appeared beneficial to Iran: Qatar’s complete withdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, and a promise to release Iranian soldiers held by Qatari-backed Sunni rebels in Syria. Then, it became all about money.
It is at the end of April 2018 that The Washington Post reported in detail, based on text and voice-mail messages ”surreptitiously recorded by a foreign government” that were revealed to the newspaper by that particular foreign government “on the condition that the source not be revealed”, that the Qatari officials agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars to mediators consisting of high Iranian officials and representatives of the paramilitary group the United States regards as a terrorist organization and, in order “to authenticate the exchanges, The Washington Post viewed original screen grabs of the text messages in Arabic, and listened to recordings of the voice memos”. The Washington Post gives details about the contents of the text messages and voice-mail messages that reveal names of people and amounts of money requested. The Qatari ambassador to Iraq, Zayed bin Saeed al-Khayareen al-Hajri, and the Qatari Foreign Minister, Mohammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani negotiated with the representatives and the intermediaries of the kidnappers.
Officially, Qatar has declared that the government made no ransom payments to kidnappers or to terrorist groups while acknowledging, however, that it received help from multiple countries in securing the hostages’ release in 2017.
From an article published by New York Times in March 2018, we find out, in detail, how 15 Qataris arrived on Bagdad Airport on 15 April 2017 with what was discovered to be, during the inspection of the Iraqi airport officials, “23 duffels containing a mix of dollars and euros, amounting to some $360 million. The bills alone weighed more than 2,500 pounds (that is 1,134 kg)”. The money was reportedly seized by the Iraqis. One week later, the same Qataris left Bagdad airport accompanied by “two dozen Qataris, including members of the ruling Al Thani family, who had been kidnapped during a hunting trip in southern Iraq 16 months earlier”.
After New York Times published the account of the events, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, wrote a letter saying that “Qatar did not pay a ransom” and suggesting that the recipients were government officials, citing vaguely a Qatari initiative with Iraq to “strengthen bilateral relations and ensure the safe release of the abductees.”
According to the proofs The Washington Post had access to, Qatar had a hard time after entering secret talks to set free its citizens. The negotiations became “a kind of group shakedown, 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 in a message. “All of them are thieves”.
After one year and a half of text messages and exchanges of communication, Qatar ended up by agreeing to pay allegedly $275 million to set free 9 members of the royal family and 16 other Qatari nationals. According to the intercepted communications obtained by The Washington Post, “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”. The conversations and the text messages obtained reveal 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”, apparently Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. $1 billion appears as final amount in the intercepted communication. However, it is not clear how much money was ultimately given altogether.
Among the beneficiaries, reference is made to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi paramilitary group linked to numerous lethal attacks on American troops during the Iraq War, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and at least 2 Syrian opposition groups, including al-Nusra Front, the Sunni rebel faction linked to al-Qaeda, as well as the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish governments.
Paying money to set free hostages has been a practice of other governments as well. Any expert in security and terrorism will tell you that, as a rule, in order to take back their abductees, governments must give something in exchange. “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 or al-Qaeda affiliates in separate incidents between 2010 and 2014”, explains The Washington Post.
Qatar’s bargaining to release the hostages became a suspicious affair and its Arab neighbors, “some of which 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”, could not refrain from making a connection with that. A few weeks after the hostages were freed, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed their relations with Qatar, and a harsh and unprecedented diplomatic crisis right at the heart of this elite club of the Gulf countries began.
President Trump had an interesting standpoint which should make us analyze even more carefully the developments in the Middle East and especially in this elite club of the Gulf countries. In June 2017, Trump expressed support for the embargo imposed by the other Arab neighbors towards Qatar and called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level” but in April 2018, he praised Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, during his visit to Washington, and called him a “big advocate” for combating terrorism financing.
The story is obviously intricate. A little bit more complicated than any abduction story lived by Western governments. Assessments of it should be made cautiously by taking into account the specifics. Many analysts claim that the intricate escalation of the incident has to do with the long-lasting intrinsic Shia-Sunni rivalry in the Middle East, but it also has to do with other specific aspects. The UAE, for instance, has a resentful attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, who are radical Sunni, and a still unsettled conflict with Iran over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also in a conflict over regional dominance, especially as Iran is gaining influence, according to analysts. Yemen and Syria are two battlefields where that reflect the balance of power in the Middle East.