(CNSNews.com) – Qatar, which has been accused of supporting terrorists in Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip, used its contacts in Syria to secure the release Sunday of an American journalist kidnapped in 2012 and held by the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al Nusrah.
The small Gulf state’s involvement in the freeing of Peter Theo Curtis, who was handed to U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, comes at a time when it has been fending off allegations of support for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), whose brutal killing of U.S. journalist James Foley sent shockwaves around the world last week.
In a statement welcoming his release Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. during his captivity had “reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo’s release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria.”
Kerry did mention Qatar by name, but the official Qatar News Agency in Doha confirmed its involvement in the release.
“On directives of H.H. the Emir, the competent bodies in the State of Qatar exerted relentless efforts to release the American journalist out of Qatar’s belief in the principles of humanity and its keenness on the lives of individuals and their right to freedom and dignity,” it quoted a foreign ministry statement as saying.
The U.N. confirmed that Curtis, 45, had been handed over to its peacekeepers on Sunday evening local time. “After receiving a medical check-up, Mr. Curtis was handed over to representatives of his government.”
Al-Nusrah and ISIS were formerly allied in the campaign against the Assad regime but split last year over what appeared to be a power grab by ISIS leader Ibrahim al-Badri, also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, prompting al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to disavow ISIS.
Qatar, together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been leading supporters of the anti-Assad rebellion, and allegations have long been made that that sponsorship is not limited to the mainstream Free Syria Army, but also stretches to jihadists among the rebels.
In a speech last March, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen – without mentioning either ISIS or Al-Nusrah by name – said: “Press reports indicate that the Qatari government is also supporting extremist groups operating in Syria. To say the least, this threatens to aggravate an already volatile situation.”
Last Wednesday State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. had no information that Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Turkey were supporting ISIS in any way. She said the U.S. was working with some governments in the region “where we believe there are private citizens funding ISIL to get them to clamp down even further to cut off those sources of funding.”
In recent months allegations of Qatari and Saudi funding have come from, among others, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the former head of Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency, who charged that they were at the least turning a blind eye to “substantial and sustained funding” for ISIS originating in their countries.The most recent allegation came from a German government minister, Gerd Mueller, who suggested in comments broadcast last week that Qatar was financing ISIS. Qatar protested and the German foreign ministry subsequently expressed regret for any “misunderstandings,” said it had no evidence supporting the funding claims, and assured Qatar of the importance of relations between the two countries.
At the weekend, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah issued a statement saying, “Qatar does not support extremist groups, including ISIS, in any way. We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions.”
Attiyah called the beheading of Foley “a criminal act that contradicts the tolerant principles of Islam, the human values, and international laws and norms.”
“The vision of extremist groups for the region is one that we have not, nor will ever, support in any way,” he said.
Attiyah did not mention Hamas, the Gaza-based jihadist group which Qatar has publicly supported for years – along with Hamas’ mother organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.
In his speech last March, the Treasury Department’s Cohen also said that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability.”
Qatar’s support for Hamas stoked controversy during Kerry’s efforts to help broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas this summer.
The State Department defended his intensive engagement with both Qatar and Turkey – another Hamas ally – saying the two governments have leverage with Hamas.
Qatar has also maintained ties with the Taliban, which it permitted to open a political office in Doha in 2013. Last June Qatar brokered a controversial deal for the release of five senior Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was seized by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network in 2009.
The Qatari government accepted the freed Taliban leaders, and undertook to monitor their activities for one year.
Qatar is a natural gas-rich peninsula, smaller than Connecticut, on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, with a population of fewer than 2.2 million.