Terrorist financing at heart of Qatar crisis, says UAE minister

DUBAI (Reuters) - Financial support for jihadists across the Middle East lies at the heart of Arab powers’ row with neighboring Qatar, an Emirati minister said on Wednesday, identifying three individuals his government wanted Doha to rein in.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash attends an interview with Reuters in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Abdel Hadi Ramahi

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move on Monday, accusing it of backing Islamist militants and Iran. Qatar strongly denies supporting terrorism, and on Tuesday called for talks to settle the dispute.

The dispute was also prompted in part by claims that Qatar was trying to undermine neighboring governments by giving financial support to opposition movements and using its flagship television channel Al Jazeera as a mouthpiece to attack them.

But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Reuters in an interview that addressing financing for terrorist groups was the prime motive.

“This litany of subversive support, infringement, actions is huge but I would say the most serious is the extremists and terrorist angle,” he said. “I think this is the most serious of all the other catalogues of other infringements.”

Gargash also said further moves against Qatar were possible and warned against allowing Shi’ite Muslim power Iran to exploit the unprecedented rift between the mainly Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states, some of which regard Tehran as a regional arch-rival.

Qatar, a major player in the global gas industry and host to the biggest U.S. military base in the Middle East, has crafted an independently-minded foreign policy, attracting criticism for engaging with groups from Hezbollah to Hamas.

Global understanding of the small Gulf nation’s alleged links to those organizations, as well as al Qaeda and Islamic State, is improving, Gargash said.

He cited comments by world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump who took to Twitter on Tuesday to implicate Qatar and praise its isolation.

“We want a black-and-white approach to terrorist financing,” said Gargash. “We know the ABCs of dealing with terrorism. One of these ABCs is: you never feed the crocodiles.”

At a May summit in Riyadh attended by Trump, the United States and Gulf Arab countries signed an agreement to coordinate efforts against the financing of terrorist groups.

Trump urged more than 50 Muslim leaders at the gathering to “drive out” terrorists from their lands, which Gulf officials say helped embolden the move against Qatar this week.

Gargash said the UAE wanted to see action taken against individuals living openly in Qatar despite being classified as supporters of terrorism by the United States and United Nations.

He identified three men who are suspected of providing funds and other support to al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, and who the U.S. Treasury Department says have financed terrorism.

There was no immediate response for a request for comment on that demand from a Qatari official.

Gargash said the scope of Qatar’s sheltering of extremists has widened since 2014, when concern was largely focused on Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a senior Egyptian cleric viewed as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Gulf states view the Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist movement and long Egypt’s main opposition group, as a dangerous political enemy.

“Now the concern is more serious, much more acute than 2014,” he said. “It shows how the Qataris have expanded their support but it has become more visible.”

Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Catherine Evans