Part 1 of a 4-part series.
The Brookings Institution bills itself as "the most influential, most quoted and most trusted think tank in the world," but should it be?
Brookings' long-term relationship with the Qatari government – a notorious supporter of terror in the Middle East – casts a dark cloud over such a lofty claim to credibility.
A September New York Times exposé revealed Qatar's status as the single largest foreign donor to the Brookings Institution. Qatar gave Brookings $14.8 million in 2013, $100,000 in 2012 and $2.9 million in 2011. In 2002, Qatar started subsidizing the Brookings outreach program to the Muslim World which has continues today. Between 2002 and 2010, Brookings never disclosed the annual amount of funds provided by the Government of Qatar.
Sources of funding should not automatically discredit an organization, but critical facts and claims about Brookings should be examined in light of them, starting with a harsh indictment by a former scholar.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism has reviewed the proceedings of 12 annual conferences co-sponsored by Brookings and the government of Qatar comprising more than 125 speeches, interviews, lectures and symposia; a dozen Brookings-based programs that were linked to the Qatari financed outreach to the Muslim world; and analyzed 27 papers sponsored and issued by the Brookings Institution and scholars based in Washington and at the Brookings Doha Center since 2002. Our review, which will be detailed in a four-part series beginning with this story, finds an organization that routinely hosts Islamists who justify terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and American troops, who advocate blasphemy laws which would criminalize criticism of Islam, and which never scrutinizes or criticizes the government of Qatar, its largest benefactor.
"[T]there was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government," Saleem Ali, who served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar in 2009, told the New York Times.
"If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware — they are not getting the full story. They may not be getting a false story, but they are not getting the full story." Ali noted that he had been told during his job interview that taking positions critical of the Qatari government in papers would not be allowed, a claim Brookings vigorously denies.
"Our scholars, in Doha and elsewhere, have a long record of objective, independent analysis of regional affairs, including critical analysis of the policies of Qatar and other governments in the region," Brookings President Strobe Talbott said in response to the Times story.
Unfortunately for Talbott, Qatar's own Ministry of Foreign Affairs openly acknowledges that the partnership gives Qatar exactly what it wants: a public-relations outlet that projects "the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones," a statement announcing a 2012 memorandum of understanding with Brookings said.
Indeed, their close collaboration stretches back more than a decade.
After Islamist terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. on September 11, 2001, the Brookings Institution looked to Qatar to answer the question, "Why do they hate us?"
Former Qatari emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani answered Brookings' call in 2002, providing the think tank with the necessary seed money and resources to initiate its engagement with the Islamic world.
The alliance culminated with the 2002 Doha Conference on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, co-sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and Qatar. Qatar underwrote the conference's cost.
Ambassador Martin Indyk, who headed the Saban Center at the time, and other Brookings leaders noted their desire to "build strong bridges of friendship" and avoid a "clash of civilizations."
Indyk took a leave of absence from Brookings in 2013 and the first half of 2014 to serve as President Obama's envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Indyk placed excessive blame on Israel for their failure.
At an April 2013 Brookings forum in Washington, Indyk mentioned that he and then Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, a key player in Qatar's engagement with Brookings, had remained friends for "two decades." This relationship dates to when Indyk served as special assistant to President Clinton and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
Indyk noted that he approached the sheik after the 9/11 attacks, informing him that Brookings planned to launch a project focused on American engagement with the Islamic world.
"And he said immediately, 'I will support it, but you have to do the conference in Doha.' And I said, 'Doha, well that sounds like an interesting idea,'" Indyk said at the 2013 forum. "Three years into that, he suddenly then told me we want to have a Brookings in Doha. And I said, 'Well, okay, we'll have a Brookings in Doha, too,' and we ended up with the Brookings Doha Center" (BDC), in 2008."
Brookings' Qatar-based scholars see their host country with rosy spectacles, ignoring the emirate's numerous terror ties.
Sultan Barakat, research director at the Brookings Doha Center (BDC), portrayed Qatar as an emerging peacemaker in the Muslim world and as a force for good in a 2012 report titled, "The Qatari Spring: Qatar's Emerging Role In Peacemaking."
"… [D]uring the Arab Spring, Qatar has emerged as a 'reformer'; that is, as a vocal and progressive leader of modern Arab nations, with the willingness and the capacity to utilize a broad range of both hard- and soft-power initiatives to achieve its foreign policy goals," Barakat wrote.
Highlighting Qatar as a regional peacemaker seems strange in the light of its longstanding support for Hamas and allegations that its leaders aided al-Qaida in the past. Cables released by Wikileaks and other U.S. government documents demonstrate these connections proved disturbing to American policymakers.
"Qatar's overall level of [counter-terrorism] cooperation with the U.S. is considered the worst in the region," a top level U.S. State Department official wrote in a secret Dec. 30, 2009 State Department cable. "Al-Qaida, the Taliban, UN-1267 listed LeT (Pakistan's Lakshar- e-Taiba), and other terrorist groups exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale."
The official also noted that Qatar's security services fail to act against known terrorists because the Gulf state feared terrorist reprisals "out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S." Another 2008 State Department cable noted that Qatar's government "has often been unwilling to cooperate on designations of certain terrorist financiers."
Qatar's royal family has a long history of harboring terrorists. Former Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Abdallah bin Khalid bin Hamad al-Thani, a member of the royal family, personally invited 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to relocate his family from Pakistan to the emirate during the 1990s, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. Mohammed accepted a position as project engineer with the Qatari Ministry of Electricity and Water which he held until 1996, when he fled back to Pakistan to evade capture by the United States.
Mohammed dedicated much of his considerable travel while working for the ministry to terrorist activity.
Qatar Charity, formerly the Qatar Charitable Society and currently headed by Hamad bin Nasser al-Thani, a member of Qatari royal family, demonstrates a lingering link between Qatar and terror financing.
Russia's interior minister accused Qatar Charitable Society of funneling money to Chechen jihadist groups in 1999. Al-Thani responded to the accusation in a 1999 interview with Al-Jazeera, saying his government would not interfere with the funding because the Russian actions in Chechnya were "painful for us as Qatari, Arab, or Muslim citizens."
Qatar Charitable Society played a key role in financing the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, according to the U.S. government.
Recent reports suggest the charity's connection with al-Qaida persists. Maliweb, a U.S.-based independent news source, accused Qatar Charity of significantly financing "the terrorists in northern Mali operations." French military intelligence reports accused Qatar of funding Ansar Dine – a group that works closely with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – and MUJAO in Mali at the time of France's January 2013 intervention.
U.S. court documents note additional ties between Qatar Charity and al-Qaida dating back to the 1990s. Osama bin Laden complained to an al-Qaida member following a failed 1995 assassination attempt against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the then-Qatar Charitable Society funds had been spent in the operation. Consequently, the terror mastermind became concerned that his ability to exploit charities for al-Qaida's ends would be compromised.
Qatar also funded the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade in Syria, which engaged in joint operations with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate.
Qatar played a similar role in Libya where it has openly funded and armed jihadists. IHS Jane's Defence Weekly found that Qatar sent a C-17 cargo plane to provide arms to a militia loyal to Abdelhakim Belhadj, a Libyan warlord who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001 and was in touch with the leader of the 2004 Madrid train bombing.
Brookings scholar Bruce Reidel openly acknowledged in a Dec. 3, 2012 piece published in The Daily Beast that Syria's al-Qaida branch benefitted from arms supplied by Qatar.
In a separate Aug. 28, 2013 column in Foreign Policy magazine titled, "The Qatar problem," Brookings scholar Jeremy Shapiro observed that Qatar had undermined "U.S. efforts to isolate and delegitimize Hamas." Shapiro laid blame for Qatar's misbehavior at the feet of American policymakers. Yet he argued that the U.S. should not "oppose Qatar at every turn" and that it should "thus should seek to get the best deal on every transaction" with the emirate, which he classed as neither a friend nor a foe of the United States.
However, such observations have not translated into public criticism of Qatar or recommendations that the emirate alter its stances by Indyk, Talbott or other top people who been involved in managing Brookings' partnership with Qatar. They also have not brought about any public talk of reassessing Brookings relationship with the emirate.
The think tank denies that Qatari money and the involvement of a senior member of the emirate's royal family in its BDC translates into subservience to Qatar's foreign policy objectives.
"Brookings is an independent research institution, none of whose funders are able to determine its research projects," Indyk said after the New York Times story. "I hope nobody really believes that I cashed a check for $14.8 million dollars, which is what's going around in right-wing Jewish circles. We should all take a deep breath about some of these lurid, scandalous stories."
The figure Indyk cites stems from Brookings Foreign Government Disclosure. The nearby United Arab Emirates ranked a distant second among foreign government donors with a $3 million donation in 2010 and another $3 million in 2012.
Qatari involvement in Brookings goes beyond conventional donor relations, evidenced by Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Thani's appointment as chairman of the BDC's board of advisers.
Even if Qatar exerts no overt control over Brookings' activities and policy positions, partnering with Qatar to discuss bridge-building with the Islamic world following 9/11 appears peculiar considering the oil-rich emirate's established ties with Islamic extremist groups and individuals at the time of the attacks.
Heritage Foundation scholar James Phillips slammed Brookings' cooperation with Qatar in comments to the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
"Qatar finances foreign entities for a reason: to advance its own foreign policy goals, which entail working closely with Islamist ideologues to empower Sunni Arab movements, including Hamas," Phillips said. "By accepting Qatar's money, Brookings risks appearing to be a tool of Qatar and unfortunately could help to legitimize such Islamist groups in the West.
"The implicit quid pro quo inherent in accepting money from foreign governments is one reason that the Heritage Foundation does not accept funding from foreign governments, which often attach strings to their donations, or even from the U.S. government."
Despite denials from both Talbott and Indyk, numerous examples illustrate how Brookings' pro-Qatar bias manifests itself, not always in what its Qatar-based scholars say, but in what they omit. A review of Brookings studies mentioning Qatar finds a consistent description of the emirate as a force for peace; complimenting its commitment to democracy and human rights; and education.
Even worse, Brookings reports gloss over the harsh realities of jihad terror and Islamism, instead recommending that the U.S. reach out to and cooperate with Islamist and jihadist groups.
Brookings calls for U.S. rapprochement with al-Qaida-linked group
In a January Foreign Policy magazine piece, Brookings scholars Will McCants, Michael Doran and Clint Watts urged the Obama administration against classifying Ahrar al-Sham, an organization backed by Turkey and Qatar and linked to al-Qaida, as a terror organization. Ahrar al-Sham founder Mohamed Bahiaiah, aka Abu Khalid al-Suri, was a senior al-Qaida operative, and the group routinely fights alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), both of which were affiliated with al-Qaida at the time.
Al-Qaida leaders mourned the Islamic State's killing of Ahrar al-Sham's top leadership in September on their Twitter accounts.
"The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own – and profoundly local – agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, 'defined and specific enough that it doesn't lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into,'" the Brookings scholars wrote.
They argued that U.S. policymakers required "flexibility" in dealing with Ahrar al-Sham because it stood as a lesser of two evils when compared to the greater threat posed by ISIS.
"The Islamic Front, including Ahrar al-Sham, represents the best hope in Syria for defeating ISIS," the article said. "[D]esignating Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group would destroy what little chance the United States has of building relationships with the other militias in the Islamic Front."
Thus far, the Obama administration has not designated Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group despite its intimate ties to al-Qaida.
An October 2013 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Ahrar al-Sham of war crimes.
Brookings' support for the Muslim Brotherhood
Peter W. Singer, co-coordinator of the 2002 conference, wrote in the conference's proceedings that "moderate," e.g. non-violent, Islamist parties needed inclusion in the political systems of majority Muslim countries.
"In dealing with burgeoning democracies, a general finding is that outside parties should support integration of Islamist parties into [the] political system rather than exclusion," Singer wrote. "The key is that inclusion helps moderates moderate, rather than forcing them outside the power structures, into possible violence."
Recent experience in Egypt discredits the theory. Egypt's MB pursued an authoritarian course during its year in power and supported its Palestinian sibling, Hamas, despite its access to Egypt's political process. Even some liberals conceded Egypt's Brotherhood proved itself incapable of adapting to democratic norms during its tenure.
Yet Brookings scholars continued to advocate including the MB in Egypt's political process in the wake of its defeat, even while conceding its authoritarian tendencies.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of Brookings' Center for Middle East Policy, suggests that Islamists, including those in the MB, Jordan's Islamic Action Front and Morocco's Party of Justice and Development, differ from groups such as Hamas or al-Qaida. She argues that they "want to transform society and government into something that is more 'Islamic,'" but aim to do so below the radar rather than through revolutionary change.
Wittes conceded that MB President Mohamed Morsi governed in an "exclusionary manner that derailed Egypt's nascent democratic transition," in a July 4, 2013 piece published the day after Morsi's ouster.
Nonetheless, any effort to ban the MB and "forcibly secularize the public sphere" would alienate the majority of Egyptians who believe politics should reflect Islamic values, Wittes warned. She predicted that any attempt by the military to purge the Brotherhood from public life would lead to "destabilizing social conflict." Her piece additionally labeled Morsi's departure a "coup" even as she admitted that millions of Egyptians took to the streets demanding it.
A month later, Wittes petitioned the Obama administration to cut off military aid to Egypt's military leaders.
"The United States must establish distance from an Egyptian military that's stoking vicious anti-Americanism, violating human rights, and revitalizing the repressive apparatus of the old dictatorship," Wittes wrote. "That means doing what should have been done on July 3 and complying with the Foreign Assistance Act.
"This law requires that aid be halted in the face of a military coup until a democratic government is restored."
Wittes also warned on multiple occasions that the crackdown would lead MB members to resort to terror. Writing with Daniel Byman, director of research and a senior fellow at Brookings' Center for Middle East Policy, they warned that Morsi's dismissal lent credibility to al-Qaida's view that participation in electoral politics was "treacherous" and that the "Islamist project could be only advanced through violence."
"Morsi's tenure forced the Brotherhood to accede to measures to contain Hamas in Gaza, but the coup gives the Brotherhood incentives to strengthen ties with its terrorist cousins," Byman and Wittes wrote in a Jan. 10, 2014 column titled "Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is declared a terrorist group, it might just become one," published in the Washington Post. "If even if a fraction of the millions of Brotherhood supporters embrace violence, that means tens of thousands of Egyptians are potential recruits for jihadis."
Two weeks later, Byman and Wittes followed up these sentiments by imploring American policymakers to pressure the Egyptian government "to allow paths for Brotherhood supporters to participate in legitimate political and social activity."
"To sustain a peaceful alternative for Brotherhood supporters, you should press the Egyptian government to release from prison Islamist politicians who commit to non-violence, and to allow a range of Islamist parties to organize, compete in elections, and participate in governance," Byman and Wittes wrote.
Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid, former research director at the BDC, disputed his colleagues' alarmism at the April launch of his book about the Egyptian MB's missteps. Hamid noted that no credible evidence existed that MB members had joined Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as a consequence of the crackdown.
Brookings' support for Turkey's Islamization
In addition to lamenting the fate of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Brookings scholars use a light touch when discussing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan's Turkey embodies a sort of American-style secularism in which religion and government remain separate, yet a visible role for theology remains in public life, visiting BDC Fellow Ahmet T. Kuru wrote in a February 2013 paper. The AKP is a "model for governance" for Islamists throughout the Middle East, demonstrating the possibility of "pursuing Muslim politics without establishing an 'Islamic state.'"
"Islamic parties can also promote diverse understanding of shariah [Islamic law] through free and democratic processes," Kuru wrote. "Internationally, the AKP has succeeded in convincing the United States and European countries that a party with roots in Islamism can be a reliable ally.
Turkey's refusal to fight the Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, amid its onslaught against the Kurds underscores the NATO member's failure as an ally. Turkish troops sit idle on their side of the border with Syria even as the terrorist army squeezes the Kurds. Erdogan equates the Kurdish groups that have fought the Turkish government for decades with IS, and has been reluctant to cooperate unless the West turns its guns on the Assad regime.
Evidence suggests double-dealing between Turkey and IS using the Turkish charity Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH) as an intermediary. Turkey's intelligence service MIT is known to have maintained close ties with IHH and has been alleged to have unofficially funded the charity since 2003.
The charity allegedly smuggled weapons into Syria for use by various jihadist factions including IS. Some members of Turkey's parliament became so alarmed by these allegations that they wrote to Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu asking for an explanation of the Turkish government's relations with IS this summer.
"One could argue that the AKP experience in the 2000s is one of the reasons why Western countries are today tolerant toward Islamists in states affected by the Arab Spring," Kuru wrote.
Turkish opponents, however, insist that AKP's pragmatism serves as a means to an end. Under AKP rule, the strict secularism introduced by Turkey's founder, Kemal Mustafa Attaturk, has eroded. Government policies encourage religious sects economically and assist them in expanding their causes, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News newspaper reports in a 2008 article.
Secularists assert that such policies expose them to discrimination.
"Some social pressures, such as the government-origin discrimination and compulsion against the secularists, the activities of the religious sects in education, the isolation of secularists from economic life, alcohol bans, intolerance toward people who do not fast during Ramadan, and compulsory attendance at Friday prayers, show the presence of a new atmosphere which did not exist," the article said.
Talk of turning Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, formerly Byzantine Christianity's holiest church, into a mosque this summer over Orthodox Christian objections highlights the trend. Tens of thousands of Islamists protested outside the religious site in June demanding that Erdogan reopen it to Muslim worship.
AKP's Turkish critics maintain that it has a "flawed understanding of democracy" and accuse it of speaking the language of pluralism in a "selective way." Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian tendencies highlight this failing.
A 2014 HRW report explores the erosion of basic democratic freedoms under the AKP, including press autonomy, freedom of assembly, women's rights and the rule of law.
The report does not begin to cover Erdogan's role in supporting Islamist terror groups such as Hamas and his rumored double-dealing with the Islamic State.
Israeli intelligence provides evidence of Turkey's emergence as Hamas' top financial backer since 2012. Erdogan's government transferred $250 million to Hamas between 2012 and January 2014. It happened with the "full support of Erdogan and his aides."
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal spoke with Erdogan in October 2013 about moving its headquarters from Qatar to Turkey, and many key Hamas operatives operate there.
Whitewashing conditions inside Qatar
The Brookings Doha Center "also works to contribute to the local society, supporting the National Vision's goals of human and social development in Qatar," Director Salman Shaikh wrote in an April opinion piece. "At the same time, the Center's publications and public events foster Qatar's 'knowledge economy' by promoting a culture of informed citizenship."
Such studies read like propaganda designed to encourage foreign investment in the emirate rather than provide complete and unvarnished truth.
Reality in Qatar is quite different from the picture Brookings paints. Human Rights Watch notes that only 10 percent of Qatar's population of 2 million are citizens. Most are foreign migrants who live under conditions that HRW describes as those of "exploitation" and "forced labor." Shaikh makes no mention of this.
The January HRW report also finds that "[d]omestic migrant workers, almost all women, are especially vulnerable to abuse," and that Qatar's standards fall well short of international labor norms.
"Qatar's record on freedom of expression causes concern. In February, an appeals court affirmed the conviction of a Qatari poet for incitement to overthrow the government over poems critical of Qatar's then-emir," HRW wrote.
None of these independent observations appear in any Brookings reports published by its Doha-based scholars.
Building one-way bridges
Brookings engaged with Qatar 12 years ago, seeking to build bridges with the Muslim world, but that bridge seems to steer traffic in one direction. As subsequent stories in this series will show, Muslim participants in its Doha conferences remain unflinching in their support for Hamas and other Palestinian terror factions. Brookings scholars, similar to their Islamist partners, now unequivocally classify al-Qaida and similar groups as terrorists while attaching caveats to describing Hamas in the same vein.
Such a shift marks a clear victory for Qatar.