The Doha Players theater was destroyed by a suicide bomb on March 19, which killed one U.K. citizen and injured 15 other people. Lone attackers were responsible for previous anti-Western attacks in Qatar–the 2001 shooting of two contractors and the failed ramming of the gate at the U.S. base at al-Udeid in 2002. The March 19 attack breaks this trend, representing the work of a terrorist network, perhaps a small one, within Qatar.
Though the attacker did not select a hard target (such as Qatar Petroleum facilities where the Egyptian suicide bomber had worked for a number of years), there are signs that the attack on Western expatriates was carefully planned, patiently reconnoitred, executed with determination, and that it came close to causing mass casualties.
While the car bomb used was relatively small, the assembly of such a device suggests the presence of a highly capable terrorist cell within Qatar; and locating the bomb-making facility will be the prime target for the emirate’s security forces and Western forensic advisers.
The extension of an advanced cell structure into Qatar mirrors similar developments in Bahrain and Kuwait since last summer. The Doha attack was probably facilitated by the current head of the al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, Saleh al-Oufi, who issued a communique two days before the attack that placed Qatar at the top of the list of Gulf states in which local citizens should act against Western interests.
Significantly, the bomber had lived in Qatar for 15 years and can thus be considered a “homegrown” Qatari terrorist. A range of motivations inherent in Doha’s maverick policies are likely to continue to provide al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula with local Salafist/Wahhabi Sunni Arab proxies. These include:
* Pro-U.S. policy. Qatar continues to be closely associated with the U.S. military effort in Iraq, which it made possible through its provision of basing. The recent attack coincided with the second anniversary of the war.
* Engagement with Israel. Qatari officials from Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani downwards have strongly defended the country’s diplomatic engagement with Israel, whose deputy education minister, Michael Melchior, visited Qatar in February, following up a meeting between Israeli and Qatari foreign ministers in May 2004.
* Democratic reform. The development of a new constitution, and elections in 2005, place Qatar at the forefront of the modest democratization in the Islamic world, which radical Salafists consider to be a form of apostasy.
* Religious and sectarian tolerance. Qatar has hinted that it will allow the building of at least six Christian churches and may allow Jewish representatives at its annual interfaith conference in May. The government is also liberalizing personal and family law to allow Shia Arabs and non-Muslim expatriates to resolve family, marital and inheritance issues in special courts, a move also perceived as apostasy by radical Salafists.
* Censorship. Government actions to restrain the Al Jazeera television network’s domestic and Iraq coverage, and also local Wahhabi preachers, cause resentment.
Though dissatisfaction among the general public rarely surfaces, the country does host a range of radical Salafist or terrorist elements that complicate the process of maintaining public order.
Qatar has a longstanding tradition of hosting exiled Islamic terrorists and radical preachers from Algeria, Chechnya, Egypt, Lebanon and the occupied territories. Their presence ties up internal security assets that might otherwise be used to investigate emerging threats and can draw political violence to the emirate, as it did in February 2004, when Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed in Doha. Charismatic radical preachers such as Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi stir up local antipathy towards the government’s support for U.S. policy and engagement with Israel.
Saudi Salafist exiles related to the Qatari royal family were sheltered in Qatar and integrated into the Interior Ministry and religious establishment following the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The former emir appointed a Wahhabi exile from Najd as Qatar’s senior cleric. Former Interior Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his father before him, were appointed from the Wahhabi clique within the Qatari establishment. Though Sheikh Abdallah was purged from power last summer, this clique remains embedded among mid-level Qatari security officials.
Salafists are being slowly weeded out of the Interior Ministry (controlling the police and public security organs) or are being undercut by new parallel security institutions such as the State Security Agency and the Internal Security Forces (established in 2003 and 2004 respectively). As this process unfolds, these figures may prove as disruptive to effective counterterrorism operations, as disgruntled Salafists have been in Saudi and Pakistani security services.
The root causes of violence by Qatar’s violent fringe are unlikely to recede in the coming years of political and economic liberalization, suggesting that repressive policing mechanisms will be the main means used to suppress such violence. With the Interior Ministry under the de facto control of one of the emir’s loyalists, Sheikh Abdallah bin Nasser bin-Khalifa al-Thani, and the State Security Agency and Internal Security Forces reporting directly to the emir, internal security in Qatar is likely to be well resourced and supported in the coming years.
The country’s intelligence services are quickly readjusting to face the terrorist threat, showing moderate effectiveness in investigating and prosecuting two Russians accused of assassinating Yandarbiyev. Until the new security services complete their reorganization and realignment, Qatar will receive strong security assistance (in the forensic, intelligence-gathering and keypoint security fields) from Western states.
Operating within a very small native Sunni Arab population, strong local intelligence-gathering and protective security operations are likely to unravel the cell responsible for the March 19 attack and disrupt most future attempts to launch follow-up attacks.
Keypoint defense of government and hydrocarbon sector infrastructure remains very strong. Oil and gas facilities are largely modern and thus have been built with safety, security, health and environmental considerations in mind. Qatar is developing improved coastguard capabilities and offshore facility protection.
The weakest element of the hydrocarbon sector is the foreign personnel on which the sector overwhelmingly depends. Even so, protective security at Western compounds and hotels has been increasingly responsive to security threats for some time, perhaps influencing the selection of a nonresidential target for the March 19 attack. Though an expatriate exodus would represent a severe blow to economic development, there are no signs that al Qaeda’s local proxies can launch the sustained series of highly effective attacks needed to shake expatriate confidence in the relative safety of Qatar. However, other less-robust sectors, such as tourism (where Qatar plans to spend $15 billion to hold the Asian Games in 2006 and attract 1 million tourists per year by 2010) and education (involving a raft of joint ventures with foreign universities), may be more seriously affected by sporadic terrorist incidents.
In the light of the clash of ideas and interests in Qatar, the March 19 attack, while unprecedented, was not unexpected. Further violence is likely to be infrequent and focused on soft targets such as expatriates. The al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula is clearly seeking to spread violence throughout previously quiescent Gulf states, raising the prospect of similar profile-raising strikes in the United Arab Emirates or Oman.