An interview with Jonathan Schanzer, vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on terrorist financing.
Qatar and Turkey both gave sanctuary to the Muslim Brotherhood after it was ousted from Egypt, and both currently support the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Hamas’s overseas command center is based in Turkey, and the US has been unable to persuade Turkey to stop Islamic State (IS) from selling oil on the Turkish black market.
Paradoxically, Qatar and Turkey are considered by the American administration as strong allies in the war against Islamic extremism.
Until the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Iran was the largest supporter of Hamas. When the Muslim Brotherhood fell to General Abdel Fattah Sisi in a coup, Hamas turned to Qatar and Turkey as its major benefactors.
America ignored their support of a State Department-designated terrorist organization, and also ignored Iranian support of Hamas.
This was because the US outreach to Iran over its nuclear weapons program justified turning a blind eye to the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.
Last week Jonathan Schanzer, vice-president of research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on “Hamas’s Benefactors: A Network of Terror,” focusing on Qatari and Turkish support of Hamas.
Here is the interview I conducted with Jonathan after his testimony:
During your testimony, you said that Qatar and Turkey directly support American-designated terrorist groups like Hamas, yet both are considered strong American allies. Why does the administration believe these countries are required to protect American national security interests in the Middle East?
Qatar is home to America’s largest airbase in the Middle East. The Al-Udaid facility has been used in some of the more crucial operations launched by the United States in the Middle East in recent years. Similarly, Turkey is home to the Incirlik airbase, which is a NATO asset. But I should note here that housing American or NATO assets does not qualify these countries as valuable allies. It means they have valuable real estate. Perhaps it’s time for a move.
Does Qatar’s and Turkey’s support of Hamas and other terrorist elements in the Middle East threaten Americans at home and abroad?
The support to Hamas threatens Americans who live in Israel. There are many horrible stories of American- Israelis who have been killed or wounded by Hamas. Turkey’s direct or indirect support to IS and other jihadi groups also has ramifications. I am thinking about the American journalists who were recently beheaded.
Can you tell us what individuals or organizations in the US or Europe are active financial and logistical supporters of Hamas?
This is a difficult question to answer.
There are many suspected fronts, both here in the US and abroad. But we must rely on the intelligence community to reveal them. The US Treasury, where I used to work, does a valuable service when it designates terrorist fronts. It releases declassified information about them. My hope is that we will see some new designations as a follow-up to the most recent Gaza War.
Why does Qatar, unlike other Gulf state monarchies, embrace radical Sunni Islamist terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Taliban?
I think that we make a mistake when we describe Qatar as pragmatic. Just because the country has enormous wealth and it invests that wealth in the West does not mean that the country is Western-leaning. Qatar is a Wahhabi country. Its brand of Wahhabism is not the same as [that of] the Saudis, but it is just a alarming, in my view. Ideology, coupled with a drive to be relevant, has driven the country’s leaders to support al-Qaida figures such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Taliban figures through the establishment of an embassy, and Hamas through safe haven and financial contributions.
If Qatar and Turkey remain state sponsors of terrorist organizations, should the US reevaluate or downgrade its relationship with them?
I believe that both countries, if held to the same standards as Iran or Sudan, would qualify as state sponsors of terrorism [according] to the letter of US law. My belief is that the United States should start to pressure these countries through diplomatic channels. If that is not successful, the Treasury should designate a handful of terrorist entities based on their soil. If that doesn’t work, Treasury could up the ante by designating Turkey and Qatari front companies, charities and individuals that provide support to the terror groups in question. If that doesn’t curb these countries’ behavior, then designation as State Sponsors could be the next step. In other words, there is a step-by-step process here.
My concern is that we haven’t yet taken the first step.
Sanctions have been eased on the Iranian regime during the negotiations with the P5+1, while Iranian financing of Hamas has increased. What should America do?
The White House has focused on the nuclear issue at the expense of the terrorism finance problem. America must not dismantle the financial sanctions architecture it has created in response to Iran’s support for terrorism, even if Teheran agrees to certain terms on the nuclear file. There appears to be a great temptation to drop all sanctions.
This cannot happen.
What is the relationship between Iran and Hamas today?
This is a complex relationship. Iran was Hamas’ top sponsor for nearly a decade. Starting around 2003 and 2004, Teheran became Hamas’ top financial supporter. And this came after years of military support and training. But Teheran and Hamas had a falling out in 2011 over the Syrian civil war. Hamas could not stand by while Bashar Assad mowed down Sunnis and Palestinians in the streets. As a result, Hamas left its headquarters in Damascus. When it did, Iran cut financial contributions considerably.
However, the military assistance continued to the [Izzadin] Kassam Brigades.
Today, after the Gaza War, Iran appears poised to renew some of the financial assistance. Although it is unclear whether these ties are going to be fully restored.
Is Egypt under President Sisi today a force for stability in the region, and is he an asset to American and Israeli security interests?
Sisi is no democrat, and he is not a reformer, either. But he has proven to be a force for stability in the region. He is also doing more to combat jihadis in the Sinai and Hamas than one might have expected. The Sinai jihadi problem is not over by a long shot, but the Egyptian military has done quite a bit to neutralize the threat. Meanwhile, Egypt has destroyed more than 1,700 smuggling tunnels to Gaza. This has done more to cripple Hamas financially than any other measure taken by the Israelis that I can recall. And Egypt is not doing this because of the Camp David Accords. They simply see this as being in their national interest. That should say something about this regime.
America finally is acknowledging and addressing the challenges of the rise of Islamic extremism.
Radical Islamism now extends from the Levant through the Maghreb, and into Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Because of this growing threat, it is too dangerous for American national security interests to claim allies where none exist.
The writer, an MD, is founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.