QATAR IN LIBYA: HOW THE GULF STATE PLAYS THE ROLE OF POLITICAL PUPPETEER

(Previously reported in The Inkerman Group’s blog)

It is perhaps the most hackneyed phrase to come out of post-revolutionary Libya: there exists a law of unintended consequences, and the mission to oust maniacal dictator Muammar Gaddafi has resulted in such. Between talk of the role the 2011 uprising has had on what is left of the Malian state, to the impact of the Colonel’s removal on the thousands of returning Chadian mercenaries south of the border, international observers have watched with a keen eye the domino effect that Libya’s democratic transition has produced in the region.

If these scenarios have proven worrisome, it is the proliferation of weapons that has caused the greatest fear for intelligence officials. Arms, which were once set aside for the destruction of the Gaddafi regime, are now lining the arsenals of militant groups, some of which seek to destroy the very same states that helped their cause. Adding to the mixed bag of anxiety, are reports this week which allege that arms shipments from Qatar, which had been given the blessing of the United States, are now in the hands of rather unsavoury characters, including the notorious Abdul Hakim Belhadj. If these reports are accurate, then questions remain: To what extent has Qatar been cosying up to Islamist figureheads like Belhadj, a man some believe may have been connected to the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi? And what, exactly, are Qatar’s goals for Libya?

Qatar: The Weapons Dealer

Qatar has never officially admitted to supplying weapons for the Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) forces during the 2011 conflict. Nevertheless, most Libyan analysts agree that the tiny Gulf nation has been one of the main military benefactors, if not the biggest supplier, of the revolutionary government. To be sure, a report released by The Wall Street Journal in October 2011 thoroughly details how Western leaders gave the green light for Qatar to fly at least eighteen arms shipments to Libya.  What is becoming increasingly common, however, are suggestions that Qatar did not just give weapons to the NTC to ensure the fall of Gaddafi. Doha also allegedly gave arms directly to Islamist organisations, including Abdul Hakim Belhadj’s defunct Tripoli Military Council. Furthermore, Qatar is believed to have continued to ship weapons to Belhadj’s organisation, as well as a number of other groups, long after the capital fell, leading some analysts to speculate that Doha’s intentions were not just to ‘support democracy’ and rid the Maghreb nation of the tyrant. (Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, had previously considered Gaddafi a friend). Perhaps, then, Qatar was also bent on keeping a permanent foothold in the post-Gaddafi Libya by positioning itself as a political and economic puppeteer.

A Qatari Protégé Emerges

Of all the supposed Qatari-backed groups, Belhadj’s Tripoli Military Council (TMC) packed the most political and military ‘punch’. Praised for his role in helping to capture Tripoli from Gaddafi forces, Belhadj also brought widespread condemnation from Western officials. UK and US leaders, in particular, raised concerns over Belhadj, with the US accusing him of having connections to al Qaeda. Belhadj first aroused Western suspicions in the late 80s and early 90s when he joined alongside the Taliban. In 2004, former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar also accused Belhadj of helping coordinate the Madrid train bombings. That same year, UK intelligence organisation MI6 alerted the CIA of Belhadj’s whereabouts. Finding him in Malaysia, the CIA shipped Belhadj back to Libya, where he was held and tortured in Abu Salim prison for seven years before the Gaddafi regime freed him under its supposed ‘de-radicalisation’ programme. Although Belhadj has denied all claims he is in ‘cahoots’ with al Qaeda, any individual who was tortured for nearly a decade under Gaddafi with Western complicity could understandably have some sympathy to the organisation’s cause.

Qatar: The Political Mastermind

Belhadj’s shadowy past is understood. But where does Qatar fit into the equation? As it turns out, Qatar not only supplied Belhadj with weapons, it also allegedly backed up his political campaign. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, Belhadj was considered a rising political star. His popularity, however, declined after reports surfaced in February 2012, which indicated that Belhadj and his cronies took dozens of rooms in Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Hotel, and ran up an unpaid bill of 3 million LYD (US$2.4 million). But Belhadj was ambitious and Qatar was a willing supporter. In the days leading up to Libya’s parliamentary elections on 07 July 2012, Belhadj left the TMC, and formed his own political organisation, the Alwatan (Nation) Party, a group that had the backing of Salafist leader, and Libyan-turned-Qatari exile, Ali al Sallabi. Seeing an opportunity, Qatar not only tossed weapons his way, the Gulf nation also reportedly supplied him with political assistance. Prior to the polls, scores of residents in the capital witnessed Alwatan Party members posting advertisements for Qatar Telecom (QTel). This proved laughable for some Libyans, and Belhadj’s political rally in his hometown of Suqal Juma on 28 June 2012, was poorly attended. In the end, Belhadj’s political hopes were dashed: Alwatan won zero seats in the elections. Undaunted by Belhadj’s setbacks, Qatar also reportedly threw its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Justice and Development Party (JDP), to the ire of many Libyans. Indeed, Muslim Brotherhood posters were defaced with swastikas and the word “Qatar” ahead of the July elections. JDP fared better in the election, gaining seventeen seats in the 200-seat General National Congress (GNC). Nevertheless, Belhadj’s disappointments, as well as the relative failure of the JDP compared to the majority-winning moderate organisation, the National Forces Alliance (NFA), was seen by some Libyans as having caused Doha-based Al Jazeera to limit its coverage of the July 2012 polls.

Qatar’s Future in Libya

Qatar’s role in revolutionary Libya is unquestionable, the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf state has long been criticised for meddling in Libyan affairs. Between supplying the country with more than 20,000 tonnes of weapons, to delivering US$ 400 million in aid to Libya, Qatar has maintained a large footprint in the Maghreb nation. What remains elusive, however, are the reasons behind Qatar’s involvement. For some analysts, Qatar may be playing a game of, ‘if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em”. In other words, conscious of the fact that a successful Libya, one replete with oil and gas, would pose a mighty economic competitor to the Gulf state, Qatar may be looking to partner in its development. As for the political angle, for many Libyans, Qatar may trying to steal the mantle away from Turkey, a secular majority-Muslim state that many so-called “Arab Spring” revolutionaries admire. Understanding the deep distrust many Libyans have for Saudi Wahhabism, Qatar may be positioning itself as the halfway agent between the aforementioned countries and Turkey’s more moderate world view.

And as for Belhadj? The former head of the TMC tried, and failed, to secure the coveted position as the Minister of the Interior. Rumours continue to circulate as to why Belhadj relinquished his campaign for the role (there are suggestions Libyan leaders promised Belhadj that he would be “given something in return” for bowing out). But some analysts remain concerned that he may be working to solidify power through other means by establishing himself as a political “agitator”. Whichever direction Belhadj, and other allegedly Qatari-supported figureheads choose to take, Libyans will continue to remain wary of the Gulf state’s increasing sway in their Gaddafi-free country.

(Image: http://www.sandraoffthestrip.com/)

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