Congress members mull moving Udeid Airbase if Qatar doesn’t change

Experts say Qatar needs to tighten enforcement of terrorist financing breaches

US congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls on Qatar to change, or face the loss of a US airbase
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A senior ranking member of US Congress raised fresh questions on Wednesday about the suitability of Qatar to host the Al Udeid airbase because of Doha’s failure to act against terrorist financiers.

Qatar’s role in actively channelling funds or failing to stop others sending money to banned groups should bring into question the continued major US military presence in the country, said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

The Defense Department has consistently said it is not seeking alternatives to the base, which has hosted more than 11,000 US troops since 2002. But Donald Trump raised the prospect in an interview two weeks ago saying that ten countries would bid to host the base if the US ever decided to pull out.

“We cannot allow for our air base to be used as a means to justify this sort of behaviour,” said Ms Lehtinen, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was hosting his Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani a few miles away.

“Doha’s behaviour must change the status quo, and if it does not, it risks losing our cooperation on the air base.”

She defined Qatar as only helping “to facilitate our operations at our airbase”, while “the UAE, for example, has spent 12 years with us fighting alongside in Afghanistan”.

The Republican congresswoman described Doha as “a permissive environment for terror financing” and said that it had “openly housed Hamas leaders, Taliban leaders, and has several individuals who have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department and it has failed to prosecute them.”

She said she hoped the rift would end with the Gulf countries working closely with the US Treasury Department “to root out and disrupt terror financing streams”.

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Other influential Republican members also urged other options be examined. “As we evaluate the situation, we have to ask Qatar a basic question: are you with us or against us” said Darrell Issa.

He argued for a demonstration from Qatar of its alliance with the US and asked for a list of demands to change Doha’s behaviour.

The meeting heard testimony from former US officials during the Bush and the Obama administrations.

Jonathan Schanzer of the thinktank Foundation for Defense of Democracies said Congress should have a six-point plan for dealing with Qatar including assessing whether it should continue to host Al Udeid.

He said it was “insane to have a US airbase conducting operations miles away from Taliban and Hamas members, housed and running around in Doha.”

It “sends a convoluted message to the coalition against ISIL and our other allies in the region” he added.

He called for a series of tougher anti-terrorist financing monitoring measures against Qatar, and said the State Department should be pressed to publish a report detailing which countries had paid ransoms to terrorist over the last year.

It followed a report in the Financial Times last month which suggested that Qatar had paid up to $1bn to release members of its royal family, kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip.

The expert said “Congress must continue to monitor Qatar’s neighbours... the Gulf would remain an area of major concern for terrorism finance” when the dispute was eventually resolved.

Another witness, Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, objected to moving the Udeid airbase, saying that while Qatar was a complex partner, the base was essential to US foreign policy goals.

Mr Goldberg lamented the mixed messaging between the State Department and the President throughout this rift and urged Washington to move toward a consistent approach.  He did not think the dispute, which has passed the 50-day mark, would be resolved soon.

New laws introduced by Qatar which would allow them to create a designated list of people subject to financial sanctions could provide a route out of the crisis, said Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He urged Qatar to “populate that list, in a transparent manner, starting with those individuals already designated by the U.S. Treasury Department.”

When compared to its neighbours, Mr Levitt said that Saudi Arabia “has turned a corner in working with us on designations and terror financing.”