By ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press
Qatar, a key US ally in the Persian Gulf, is under scrutiny over its alleged financial ties to terrorism in a lawsuit brought by relatives of a slain US journalist and of a separate federal investigation into a member of the country’s royal family.
Steven Sotloff’s family claimed in a federal lawsuit on Friday that prominent Qatari institutions wired $800,000 to an Islamic State ‘judge’ who ordered the murders of Sotloff and another American journalist, James Foley. . Both men were beheaded in Syria in 2014, their murders filmed and published in gruesome propaganda videos.
“We want to do everything we can to make sure no other family has to go through what we went through,” the Sotloff family said in a statement explaining their lawsuit.
Separately, federal prosecutors have been investigating potential ties between the terror groups and Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani, the half-brother of Qatar’s ruling emir, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press and interviews with two people close to the investigation.
A grand jury investigation, conducted in the Southern District of New York, focused in part on whether Khalid Al Thani provided money and supplies to Al Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, the two people said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Qatar has a strong relationship with the Biden administration. The world’s richest country per capita played a key role in evacuations from Afghanistan and its huge supplies of natural gas could help prop up European energy markets amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Qatar could also play a vital role in President Joe Biden’s bid to revive a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Qatari embassy said it needed more information before it could comment on the reported investigation and did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Biden named Qatar a major non-NATO ally, a move that could be helpful in the country’s bid to win US approval for a sale worth more than $500 million. million worth of MQ-9 Reaper drones. Qatar is home to the largest US Air Force base in the Gulf.
“Qatar is a good friend and a reliable partner,” Biden said in January as he welcomed Qatar’s ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, to the White House.
But Qatar, which was one of the biggest international backers of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, has long been criticized by some US officials for allowing or encouraging the funding of extremist groups in Syria, as well as for its support direct and indirect to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Qatar said it condemned terrorism, but officials also acknowledged that its efforts may have helped the wrong people.
“Listen, in Syria everyone made mistakes, including your country,” Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister and foreign minister, said in a 2017 interview with American journalist Charlie. Pink. He added that Qatar had never intentionally funded extremist groups in Syria and had cut funding to any group it learned had another “agenda”.
Lawyers for the Sotloff family said in the lawsuit that Qatari officials “recklessly knew or ignored” that Islamic State terrorists they allegedly funded would target Americans for kidnapping, torture and murder.
Foreign countries and government officials generally cannot be sued in US courts. But the US counterterrorism law allows victims of terrorism to seek damages from private entities linked to governments. The defendants in the Sotloff trial, Qatar Charity and Qatar National Bank, allegedly knowingly facilitated the financing of terrorist groups.
Specifically, the lawsuit says the charity and bank provided $800,000 to Fadel al Salim, which he allegedly smuggled into Syria from Turkey and then used to form a “squad of fighters from Islamic State” and become a “Sharia judge”.
Sotloff’s complaint said al Salim signed the “legal retribution verdict” ordering the deaths of Foley and Sotloff, as well as leading a convoy that transported the couple from a prison in Raqqa, Syria, to the city where they were killed.
Representatives of Qatar Charity and Qatar National Bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Al Salim’s current whereabouts are unknown. But US prosecutors have made significant progress in separate criminal cases against two of the British Islamic State militants responsible for the murder of Sotloff and three other American captives.
Alexanda Kotey was recently sentenced in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia to life in prison. El Shafee Elsheikh, who was convicted in a jury trial last month, also faces life imprisonment when sentenced in August.
Kotey and Elsheikh were part of a cell of British militants known to their captors as “The Beatles” because of their accents. They were captured in Syria in 2018 and transferred to the United States in 2020 for criminal prosecution after Attorney General William Barr agreed to take the death penalty off the table.
Another activist, Mohammed Emwazi – known as “Jihadi John” – was killed in a US drone strike in 2015 and a fourth was arrested in Turkey.
Sotloff, Foley and Peter Kassig were beheaded as part of propaganda videos released by IS in 2014 while Kayla Mueller was tortured and raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before being killed . The hostage-taking also resulted in the killing of British and Japanese captives, officials said.
“We are forever heartbroken by the loss of our beloved son and defined as people from a horror movie,” mother Shirley Sotloff said during Kotey’s sentencing hearing.
The Sotloff lawsuit, filed in West Palm Beach, Fla., does not disclose how the information in the complaint was obtained. But it includes a high level of detail, such as a specific bank account number, passages from a handwritten statement acknowledging receipt of payments, and Islamic State court records.
The lawsuit also alleges that members of the Qatari royal family and government officials worked with the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish intelligence services to fund extremist groups in Syria in an effort to undermine the Assad regime.
Similar allegations of prominent Qataris funding terror groups have been made in two ongoing lawsuits filed in London on behalf of Syrian refugees.
Ben Emmerson, a London-based lawyer representing the refugees, said there is clear evidence that US officials have chosen to turn a blind eye to Qatar’s terrorist financing in Syria because the US needs support. Qatar’s assistance in other areas.
“This is realpolitik in action,” he said.
One of the London lawsuits alleges that Qatar National Bank board members made hawala payments – an informal money transfer system – directly to Al Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda. in Syria. These include transfers, according to the lawsuit, by the emir’s half-brother, Khalid Al Thani. He previously served on the board of Qatar National Bank.
It’s unclear whether those payments are part of the grand jury investigation involving Khalid Al-Thani, who is at least a year old. Prosecutors for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Eric Tucker contributed from Washington.
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