THE government of Qatar is paying millions of pounds a year to Al-Qaeda in return for an undertaking to spare it from further terrorist attacks, official sources in the wealthy Gulf state claimed last week.
The money, paid to spiritual leaders sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, is believed to be helping to fund its activities in Iraq. In a recent message broadcast via the internet, Osama Bin Laden told followers that operations in Iraq were costing Al-Qaeda more than £500,000 a month.
The sources said a deal between Qatar and Al-Qaeda was first made before the 2003 invasion of Iraq amid fears that the oil state, a close ally of Washington, could become a terrorist target. The US Central Command for the invasion was based in Qatar.
A senior government source said that the agreement was renewed in March after an Egyptian suicide bomber thought to be associated with Al-Qaeda struck a theatre in Doha, Qatars capital, killing a British teacher during a performance of Twelfth Night.
Were not sure that the attack was carried out by Al-Qaeda, but we ratified our agreement just to be on the safe side, said a Qatari official. We are a soft target and prefer to pay to secure our national and economical interests. We are not the only ones doing so.
Qatar is one of the richest Gulf states and many of its 840,000 inhabitants have a high standard of living. It is also an important base for business.
Al-Qaeda would not be the first terrorist organisation to take protection money in the Arab world. During the 1970s and 1980s Arab rulers paid extremist groups such as the Abu Nidal organisation.
The financial pressures on Al-Qaeda would be a great incentive for it to offer protection to anybody willing to pay. But the deal with Qatar is not purely financial. Qatar has offered a haven for a number of extremists. Federal prosecutors in Miami recently indicted Kifah Jayyousi, a former Detroit school administrator, on charges of conspiring to murder, kidnap, and maim people in other countries, and of providing financial support to Islamic jihadists overseas. He was arrested at a Detroit airport after returning from Qatar.
Security in Qatar is noticeably relaxed compared with that in many Gulf states. While patrol cars and armed men are seen throughout much of the Arab world, they are not obvious in Doha. Even around hotels there are few guards. Locals in brand-new German and Japanese cars drive freely along the citys wide boulevards.
But it may not be advisable to be too complacent. Al-Qaeda was widely believed at one time to have an unwritten pact with Saudi Arabia. If so, the deal lasted only until it suited the organisation to renege.