(CNSNews.com) – President Obama on Tuesday praised the emir of Qatar for the Gulf State’s partnership against terrorism, less than a year after a senior U.S. Treasury Department official raised concerns about Qatar’s open support for Hamas and financing of jihadists in Syria.
“Qatar is a strong partner in our coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS] and I express my appreciation to his highness for the work that they have done in coordinating with other members of this coalition,” Obama said alongside Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in the Oval Office.
Obama said the U.S. and Qatar were both committed to seeing ISIS defeated, and would “continue to support the moderate opposition” in Syria.
In his brief remarks, al-Thani concurred that his small, natural-gas-rich Gulf state was concerned “about the terrorist groups in our region.”
“I think we all share the same view, the reason why those terrorist groups are growing in our region,” he said. “And we have to make sure that to solve this problem we are all fighting terrorism…”
Al-Thani then turned his attention to “Palestine,” which he called “an important subject in the Middle East,” and said he was pleased to hear Obama was committed to finding a solution there.
Asked about Obama’s meeting with the emir, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. does not necessarily agree with Qatar on every issue, but “more often we find that our interests overlap.”
Earnest said the Qataris have been “an effective partner” so far in efforts to shut down terror financing.
“But we do believe that there’s more that they can do, and more that we can do together.”
Qatar is the number one state sponsor of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group whose declared goal is to destroy Israel. The U.S. has designated it as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997.
Qatar has poured has poured tens of millions of dollars into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and has provided a base for Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the group’s “political bureau” since they moved from civil war-torn Syria in early 2012.
In a March 2014 speech, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen said that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability.”
“Press reports indicate that the Qatari government is also supporting extremist groups operating in Syria,” he added. “To say the least, this threatens to aggravate an already volatile situation in a particularly dangerous and unwelcome manner.”
Cohen also described Qatar – along with Kuwait – as “more permissive jurisdictions” for fundraisers collecting donations for extremists in Syria, including ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra.
‘A significant terrorist financing risk’
In its most recent annual report on terrorism, dealing with 2013, the State Department called Qatar’s actions in monitoring terror financing “inconsistent.”
“Qatari-based terrorist fundraisers, whether acting as individuals or as representatives of other groups, were a significant terrorist financing risk and may have supported terrorist groups in countries such as Syria,” it said.
Citing that report and Cohen’s remarks, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last July, questioning the administration’s “active partnership” with Qatar.
In a written response four months later, a senior State Department official said the U.S. had “a productive relationship with Qatar on key regional issues ranging from Syria to Iran.”
Qatar had made “some improvements” in recent years in counter-terror financing efforts, wrote assistant secretary for legislative affairs Julia Frifield. But she also conceded that the government’s “disruption of terrorist financing by Qatari individuals and charitable associations remains inconsistent.”
Roskam was not the only U.S. lawmaker troubled by Qatar’s record. Last December, 24 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a bipartisan letter calling on the Treasury Department to act against those “who clearly violate U.S. laws by assisting Hamas and its proxies,” citing both Qatar and Turkey.
Rather than scold Qatar publicly for its affinity for Hamas and other extremist groups, the Obama administration has sought at times to take advantage of those links. It used Qatar to broker a May 2014 deal to release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by a Taliban affiliate for five years.
Last summer, Kerry sought the help of Qatar and another Hamas ally, Turkey, to help broker a ceasefire to a seven-week conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The State Department was compelled to fend off accusations that Kerry was being used by Qatar and Turkey to promote Hamas’ interests.
Despite concerns about the terror financing, the U.S. views Qatar as a key regional ally. Its Al Udeid Air Base hosts the forward headquarters for U.S. Central Command and has been used by U.S. aircraft carrying out airstrikes against ISIS positions.
Last July the Pentagon concluded a deal to provide Qatar with weaponry worth $11 billion.
At his meeting with al-Thani at the White House, Obama noted that Qatar has become “a major investor, here in the United States.”