The deal signed at the Pentagon Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Qatari counterpart comes just months after a senior U.S. Treasury official in a speech deplored Qatar’s open support for Hamas, and covert funding for jihadists in Syria, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Despite concerns about this terror-sponsorship, the U.S. regards the small, natural-gas-rich Gulf state as a key regional ally. Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base hosts the forward headquarters for U.S. Central Command.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the agreement to sell Qatar $11 billion worth of Apache helicopters and Patriot and Javelin defense systems “underscores the strong partnership between the United States and Qatar in the area of security and defense.”
“This is a critically important relationship in the region,” Kirby said. “And the secretary is pleased to be able to continue to make it stronger.”
During Qatari Defense Minister Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah’s visit to Washington he also met with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and CIA director John Brennan.
A statement by the Gulf state’s official news agency QNA said the U.S. officials during those meetings had “praised the leading role of the State of Qatar in maintaining the security and stability of the region.”
Qatar’s foreign and security policy decisions do not always align with U.S. interests, however.
In a speech last March, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, said fundraisers in Qatar were collecting donations for extremists in Syria, including ISIS and al-Nusra.
“Press reports indicate that the Qatari government is also supporting extremist groups operating in Syria,” he said. “To say the least, this threatens to aggravate an already volatile situation.”
In recent months, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also has accused Qatar, as well as Saudi Arabia, of funding ISIS-led Sunni jihadists who have seized significant territory north of Baghdad.
Amid the current upsurge of violence in the Gaza Strip, Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas is again in the spotlight.
In that same speech in March, Cohen said that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability.”
Leaked classified U.S. diplomatic cables attributed to the U.S. Embassy in Doha tracked Washington’s concerns about the Qatari financial and political support for Hamas over the years following the Palestinian terrorist group’s violent seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
In late 2012 Qatar’s then emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas wrestled control of the territory from its rival Fatah, the organization led by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Hailed by Hamas as a diplomatic coup, the 2012 visit was a strong demonstration of support for a group that the U.S. has designated a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997. The emir during that visit pledged $400 million for projects in the territory.
Qatar has also provided a safe haven to Hamas’ exiled leader Khaled Meshaal since 2012, when he left his previous base in war-torn Syria. QNA periodically reports on meetings or telephone conversations between current emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Meshaal, who is effectively portrayed as a head of state.
After Hamas reached a reconciliation agreement with Fatah last May leading to a “unity” government, the emir pledged another $60 million to Hamas, this time to pay salaries for its employees in Gaza affected by the unity deal.
Qatar is also a strong supporter and financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, a stance that has led to tensions with some of its Gulf neighbors, who view the Muslim Brotherhood as a security threat to their regimes.
The U.S.-Qatari relationship was recently spotlighted by the administration’s controversial deal to free five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was seized in Afghanistan by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network in 2009.
Qatar brokered the deal, accepted the freed Taliban leaders, and undertook to monitor their activities for one year.
A little smaller than Connecticut, Qatar is located on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It has fewer than 300,000 citizens. The rest of its 2.1 million inhabitants are expatriates and foreign workers.