On Tuesday, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, returns to Washington to visit with President Trump and officials at the National Security Council. The emir’s annual trip to the White House comes amid a determined push by the administration to keep afloat its Mideast Peace Plan following its opening event in Bahrain recently.
So far, the greatest beneficiaries of this effort haven’t been the Israelis or the Palestinians—it’s been the Qatari regime in Doha. Because of their cozy and collaborative relationships with so many of the Islamist terror groups both America and Israel count as enemies, the Qataris have deftly played their diplomatic hand, selling themselves as indispensable go-betweens that would allow the United States more freedom in disentangling itself from the Middle East.
President Trump’s laudable desire to end our nearly two-decade military involvement in Afghanistan places Qatar at the center of negotiations with the Taliban, which have been ongoing in Doha since the Obama administration. So, too, it seems, when it comes to diplomacy between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
As the pressure for a diplomatic breakthrough on the Middle East peace proposal intensifies, the Qataris will appear all too eager to further ingratiate themselves to the administration. But despite what the White House wants to believe, Qatar’s credibility when it comes to influencing a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is in serious question, however. That nation has been Hamas’ principal system of financial and diplomatic support.
The Islamist terror group’s long-standing relationship with Qatar runs through the Muslim Brotherhood. In its founding charter, Hamas declares itself as a branch of the Brotherhood in Palestine. For its part, the Brotherhood long has understood Hamas to be the tip of the spear when it comes to armed jihad against Israel. America’s largest terror finance trial, U.S. vs. Holy Land Foundation, described the primary function of the Brotherhood in America as being a fundraising and communications tool for the terror group.
Since the U.S. government closed Texas’ Holy Land Foundation more than a decade ago for funneling millions to Hamas, foreign nations such as Qatar largely have picked up the slack. Money for a terror group like Hamas is fungible. This means investing in social services and territory itself. Part of Qatar’s largesse solidifies Hamas’ grip on the population: bribing Gazans with services, feeding its citizens with jihadist propaganda, and maintaining a security force that stamps down dissent and engages in murders of suspected collaborators.
But Qatar doesn’t just support Hamas directly in Gaza. The Gulf emirate bankrolls the group’s massive communications support network, including the institutions, media outlets and influencers that comprise most of anti-Israel activism globally.
Qatar’s Support for Islamists
For a half-century, Qatar has been a tiny oasis for Hamas’ ideological mothership, the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the world’s most virulent Islamists. In the 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser again banned and cracked down on the Brotherhood in Egypt, forcing thousands of the group’s agitators, clerics and community organizers to retreat elsewhere into the Middle East, Europe and North America.
Since then, the Arabian Gulf emirate of Qatar has been the Brotherhood’s most hospitable base of operations. In time, Brotherhood Islamism soon would emerge as Qatar’s de facto state ideology, as the ruling al-Thani family welcomed the Islamists with lavish funding, the highest state honors and the establishment of new Islamist institutions that would indoctrinate thousands of extremist clerics.
With the turn of Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia against Islamism, today Qatar is the last major state patron for Brotherhood activists and groups, especially in the West. Since Qatar’s most prominent export, state-owned television network Al-Jazeera, was founded in 1996, the Brotherhood has played a crucial role in programming and setting the editorial line, providing the network’s strong ideological Islamist backing.
By backing the Brotherhood in the region, Qatar’s adventurism greatly imperils the security of Israel as well as the United States. The emirate undermines the stability of its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; it promotes Islamists in vulnerable, Western-open societies; and it diplomatically and financially supports violent terrorist groups such as Hamas, al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Of course, nobody who credibly can be called pro-Israel would want to be in the position to defend these policy priorities, even for satchels of cash on offer from Doha, Qatar’s capital.
Nevertheless, after Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, two well-connected Jews became lobbyists and signed a substantial contract to represent the Islamist-supporting emirate of Qatar in the Arabian Gulf. That decision got them working against Israel’s interests and eventually did considerable damage to their careers and reputations.
Qatar’s Media Empire of Influence
Information warfare products consist of weaponized information translated into a variety of media — from books and articles to television interviews, blog posts and tweets. Qatar’s media empire comprises 38 sports television channels in 36 countries, exclusive broadcasting rights to Turner-owned channels in the Middle East and North Africa, a Qatar Airways-sponsored monthly travel series on CNN and more.
“Qatar has quickly and quietly built an unrivaled global influence operation,” said Brooke Goldstein, executive director of The Lawfare Project, which provides legal services for the Jewish community. “It presents a squeaky-clean face to the West that hides the regime’s support for the most extreme Islamist groups … groups that murder Israelis and gravely threaten U.S. interests.”
Al-Jazeera is the most important news network broadcasting in Arabic in the world, with tens of millions of viewers spread across Arabic-speaking communities in nearly every country. Drawing a massive estimated audience of 35 million weekly, Al-Jazeera’s most popular Arabic program was “Sharia and Life,” starring Qatar-based virulently anti-Semitic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent jurist.
Al-Qaradawi’s most infamous statement was an ode to Adolf Hitler: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption,” he proclaimed on Al-Jazeera. “The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them — even though they exaggerated this issue — he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers.”
In explaining why Qatar can never turn its back on the Brotherhood or anti-Western Islamism, scholar David Warren stressed the importance of al-Qaradawi and his legacy in that country. “The Qatari royal family became a key supporter of Qaradawi,” he wrote. Today, al-Qaradawi meets regularly with the emir and his family, and the state media regularly distribute photos of family members embracing the sheik with great affection and reverence.
“The fact that there is anti-Semitic material in Al-Jazeera is significant; that it has a daily diet of anti-American material is significant,” Middle East Broadcasting Networks president Alberto Fernandez said during a recent Washington conference on Qatar’s influence operations. “But the greatest problem with Al-Jazeera is how, for a generation, it has mainstreamed and normalized an Islamist grievance narrative, which has served as sort of the mother’s milk for all sorts of Islamist movements.”
As London-based Muslim liberal Nervana Mahmoud noted, the Qatari outlet “labels Arab states with good relations with Israel [like the United Arab Emirates and, most recently, Saudi Arabia] as ‘Arab Zionists.’ ” Of course, this kind of rhetoric makes Middle East normalization and eventual peace and with Israel more difficult.
Al-Jazeera is the world’s most successful and influential state-directed information operation. Its sophistication is evident in its ability to promote two very different messages to two audiences simultaneously. In Arabic, Al-Jazeera pushes a stream of vile, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and attempts to rile up religious and extremist Muslims against attempts at positive, human rights reforms in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
In English, however, Al-Jazeera presents itself as progressive and left wing, attacking these same nations efforts at reform as fake and inadequate. A rebranding in English as “AJ+” was further meant to obscure the Islamist-run network and to appeal to younger people in the West, with social media material in English, Arabic, French and Spanish.
Al-Jazeera’s mask is held tightly in place but occasionally it slips. Only last week, AJ+ Arabic and Al-Jazeera were rocked by a severe anti-Semitism scandal, beginning with a Holocaust-denial video. The video — professionally produced by the Doha-based network — denied that extermination took place at the Nazi concentration camps and accused the Zionist movement of benefiting from the atrocities. Soon, the network’s critics were finding recent tweet after tweet from a variety of Al-Jazeera contributors.
In an attempt to quell the anger that threatened to destroy all the effort Al-Jazeera had put into cultivating AJ+’s reputation and target audience, the network suspended two staffers. Calling the disciplined employees “scapegoats,” Muslim liberal commentator Asra Nomani tweeted, “The government of Qatar needs to take responsibility & everyone making excuses for Al-Jazeera is complicit in a cover-up.”
The scandal did damage Qatar’s influence operation — but just how much damage is yet to be seen. At the very least, more Americans know that the AJ+ social media content that’s targeted toward their children and young adults is actually Al-Jazeera, a foreign network owned and operated to advance the interests of the Qatari state. This kind of exposure is vital.
Unfortunately, American elites and policymakers long have been soft targets for Qatari information warfare, especially if it’s coated with the sheen of the network’s respectability. Even then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Like it or hate it, [Al-Jazeera] is really effective.”
After the 2016 election, the specter of Russian news and commentary outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik as serious threats to American democracy allowed the massive Qatari elephant in the room, Al-Jazeera, to largely escape similar scrutiny. Last year, though, Congress finally appeared to get serious about foreign states’ roles in information operations directed at American citizens and media consumers. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requires all U.S.-based foreign media outlets — including Russia Today and Al-Jazeera — to identify themselves clearly as foreign outlets and report to the FCC every six months on their relations with their foreign principals. Trump signed it into law in August 2018; to date, neither foreign outlet has filed with the FCC or made their reports available to Congress.
Qatar’s Other Instruments of Influence
Qatar doesn’t control just networks. The larger picture of how its information assets play off one another is impressive. For example, a typical news story or TV news segment might feature a journalist to report the news; reference a recent think-tank study; and provide several experts to contextualize the importance of the news and provide historical perspective. What would happen to the coverage if all these elements shared a common benefactor — especially one that is adamant about message discipline and advancing its interests?
More than any other nation, Qatar shrewdly has invested in the infrastructure of this kind of influence, and it shows. Last month, The New York Times published an expansive story in a Sunday edition arguing that Democratic support for Israel quickly was evaporating in the wake of an ascendant boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Nathan Thrall, who wrote the story, tried to make the case that prominent Democratic donors deviously worked behind the scenes to maintain public support for Israel, even as the party’s base soured on the Jewish state. Thrall painted a bleak picture of Israeli atrocities and echoed age-old themes of untoward Jewish influence in America’s “paper of record.”
Yet, nowhere in the piece did the Times disclose that some of those paying Thrall’s salary have agendas hostile to Israel. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has received significant foreign funding from the emirate of Qatar, with other funding coming from U.S.-based backers of BDS.
The pro-Hamas ICG isn’t the only think tank that benefits from Qatar’s largesse. The Qatar Foundation owns the Brookings Doha Center, the Qatar-based branch of one of the oldest think tanks in the world, the Brookings Institution. The foundation’s listed “100%” ownership stake means Qatari heads of state control the Brookings Doha Center.
Even as it has been routinely criticized for promoting Islamic extremism, including anti-Semitism, the Qatar Foundation has been, like Al-Jazeera, a way for the emirate to project soft power — usually influence in one way or another — in the service of its national interests. The foundation’s three shareholders are in the highest echelon of Doha’s royal family.
Qatar lavishly spends on universities, not only in the United States, to create a network of American-affiliated schools in the emirate that will be predisposed to support it and its policies. The Qatar Foundation paid six U.S. universities hundreds of millions of dollars to operate campuses at the Education City complex in Doha. These universities are Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown and Northwestern.
Exposés in The New York Times and on Tablet in 2014 show that rather than producing objective, data-driven analysis about the region, Qatar’s millions colored the work the think tank produced. “[T]here was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” Saleem Ali, a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, toldthe Times.
Yet, members of the media and policymakers still use these outlets as authoritative sources of analysis on the Middle East. Qatar-backed media outlets — including those such as CNN, which count on substantial advertising revenue from the oil-rich emirate — often feature talking heads from Brookings, ICG and other institutions with undisclosed financial ties to Doha. This cynically impressive scheme continues to work, thanks to the biases of the media and others who don’t want to look too closely at the sources of funding and influence.
For Qatar, endowments to Brookings and the International Crisis Group are tiny pieces of a much larger strategic influence campaign it successfully has waged in recent years, spanning from these multimillion-dollar investments in Washington, D.C., think tanks, universities and dozens of media outlets it owns to, most recently, a controversial and hard-knuckled, eight-figure lobbying effort in Washington.
Recruiting Muzin and Allaham
When the diplomatic war with Saudi Arabia intensified in the summer of 2017, Qatar likely recognized the need for more air cover in Washington. What better way than getting Jewish lobbyists to persuade influential Jewish community leaders to soften their stances on Qatar?
This effort culminated in a successful influence operation American lobbyists and agents — specifically Stonington Strategies, run by former kosher steakhouse owner Joey Allaham and former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) Nick Muzin — carried out with Qatari money.
Muzin grew up in the Toronto Jewish community. He was a good student and a high achiever, completing medical school in the Bronx before switching gears and turning to law school at Yale. After a marriage to Andrea Michelle Zucker, the daughter of Charleston billionaires Anita and Jerry Zucker, he soon became involved in South Carolina politics. He helped then-Charleston City Councilman Tim Scott get elected in Washington, first to the House of Representatives, then to the Senate. Muzin worked as deputy chief of staff for Cruz during Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, appearing often with the candidate at Jewish community events.
Allaham was born into a family of Syrian Jews in Damascus and arrived in the United States in the early 1990s. He opened several of New York’s premier kosher restaurants, including Prime Grill. One by one, though, Allaham’s seemingly successful restaurants began shutting their doors. Toward the end of 2017 — when Stonington’s contract with the Qataris was in full swing — the Forward reported on the closing of the last of Allaham’s restaurants, Prime at the Bentley, as Allaham was embroiled in lawsuits over a series of kosher Passover excursions he canceled, allegedly never returning his customers’ deposits.
In addition to his contacts in the Republican Party and the conservative movement in Washington, Muzin had married into a wealthy and well-connected family. In Manhattan, Allaham’s restaurants were upscale; his customers included not just the most important and powerful members of New York Jewish society but, significantly, anyone who’d want access to them. Muzin and Allaham were not Qatar’s only lobbyists in the United States. But by using their credibility to target and compromise some very influential voices, they unquestionably did the most damage to the Jewish community and Israel’s supporters in America. Together, the pair received approximately $7 million from Doha, according to an exposé on Tablet. Not only was that an awfully big paycheck for two newly minted lobbyists, but it enabled them to generously spread around a lot of dollars.
Of course, $7 million is a small fraction of the sums Qatar admits to spending on annual lobbying activities. Most of the money goes to buy the usual PR firms and advertising campaigns, media operators and former congressmen, generals and ex-staffers who are paid largely to open key office doors to influential people inside the Beltway. It’s this last group that’s most interesting and in the case of Stonington Strategies, deeply cynical.
Over the course of a year or longer, armed with funds from Doha, Muzin and Allaham launched an influence operation targeting prominent leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish conservative communities. They used that money to wine and dine Israel supporters, bring them to Doha, donate to their nonprofits and, finally, convince them that Qatar — the patron of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran’s ally — is friendly toward Israel. And for a time, it seemed they were succeeding.
Lifting the Veil
An influence operation is the strategic use of interpersonal relationships and institutions. A long-term relationship or affiliation with an institution or person builds and solidifies the kind of goodwill that can be immensely valuable for a lobbyist to exploit. It takes surprisingly little contact and effort for a target of an influence operation to become an ally. For example, a longtime friendship with a Qatari lobbyist may make one predisposed to trust and feel sympathy for the Qatari point of view.
The relationships Muzin and Allaham could leverage for Qatar’s benefit were tremendously valuable. These connections enabled them to enlist others with unimpeachable pro-Israel credentials who could, in turn, serve as surrogates for Qatar’s interests. When Qatar pays off people with pro-Israel bona fides, it has a downstream effect; others who might know less about the issues or the region itself will follow the thought leader.
Modern information warfare is slick and unnoticeable; influence operations, though, are as insidious as they look. We understand that when politicians or influencers go on all-expense-paid junkets, it’s a clear example of bribery. The quid pro quo (for example, a trip to the Doha Forum) doesn’t have to be immediate, and it doesn’t have to be readily apparent. However, there is a promise of some kind of profit: money, fame, career advancement or even virtuousness. Wealthy nations such as Qatar can extend these kinds of benefits to a great many people — and they do.
Thankfully, Muzin and Allaham’s aggressive, well-paid jaunt as lobbyists for Qatar soon darkened their reputations in both the tightknit pro-Israel and conservative communities in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. Their willingness to target longtime opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former Republican National Committee finance chairman and pro-Israel philanthropist Elliott Broidy, also grated on many in the pro-Israel world.
Qatar is alleged to have been behind the hacking of more than 1,500 prominent individuals, from former Department of Defense and CIA officials to Europeanintelligence officials, Washington think-tank experts, journalists and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. With most people conducting business online or via text or email, targeted cyber-espionage campaigns can do tremendous damage to private citizens or countries.
According to a recent filing in District of Columbia Courts, Stonington’s Muzin and Allaham allegedly were behind the distribution of hacked and doctored emails belonging to Broidy. The lawsuit alleges that Stonington “was among the vehicles used by the State of Qatar to funnel funds to others involved in the attack.”
After it was revealed he had been targeted, Boteach described it as “a dangerous and direct attack by a foreign government against American citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Broidy was a prime target of the Qatari’s efforts in the United States; silencing him was very important, both to the lobbyists and their funders in Doha. They attempted to do so through a media campaign of intimidation, as the lawsuit alleges Greg Howard of Mercury Public Affairs worked with journalists eager to expose a Republican ally of Trump. Mercury Public Affairs is a lobbying and public affairs firm registered as a foreign agent of Qatar in the United States and is a subsidiary of Fortune 500 company Omnicom Group. The media offensive against Broidy took advantage of media outlets willing to run with incorrect information as long as it fit into their narratives.
Aside from the legal liability and stacks of lawsuits the lobbyists’ actions caused, the Qatar episode left their reputations largely in tatters. Amid the accusations in the Broidy cyber-espionage case, Muzin and Allaham publicly distanced themselves from Doha in June 2018. “Stonington Strategies is no longer representing the State of Qatar,” Muzin tweeted.
Ultimately, their plan to have the American Jewish community embrace Qatar didn’t really work — at least not as well as their Qatari patrons had hoped. However much one spends, one can have a hard time convincing most people that one of their most potent enemies is their ally.
The extent of Qatar’s influence and information operations remains one of the least-covered and least-scrutinized stories of the past few years — including its campaign to curry favor within the Jewish community. That slowly is changing. Because of Qatar’s promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and its alliance with Iran, more Americans are coming to understand Qatar is a malign force, not just in the Middle East but in this country.
Israel’s political and security establishments understand this, as evidenced by multiple Israeli officials who assailed Qatar in their recent conversations with me on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference in March.
What was most shocking for these Israeli officials is not Qatar’s influence campaign itself, but the Jewish leaders who lent their de facto kosher certification to the emirate.
“The Jewish leaders who became pawns of the Islamist-supporting regime in Qatar and accepted these state-funded trips to Doha did nothing short of betray Israel and the Jewish people,” an Israeli diplomat told me. “There has been concern about this campaign at the highest levels in Jerusalem. Those who participated in this disgrace should be held accountable.”
Adapted from “Qatar Shows Two Faces to the World” in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.