How Qatar Became the World’s Go-To Hostage Negotiator

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By usawebstories

Qatari negotiators in Doha thought they had a deal. It was late October, and for weeks they had been mediating between representatives of Hamas and the Israeli government to secure the release of the estimated two hundred and thirty hostages whom Palestinian militants had captured on October 7th. By that point, Hamas had released four hostages—an Israeli-American mother and daughter, and two Israeli women—as a result of agreements brokered by Qatar and Egypt. The Qataris had noted that, although there could be no explicit quid pro quo, Hamas could expect that freeing the hostages would facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and lead to a pause in Israel’s military invasion.

On October 25th, Hamas agreed to a deal to free fifty people, but Israeli officials had one more demand: the names of those who would be released. Hamas balked, claiming that, because the hostages were held by various factions, they did not have a complete record ready to hand over; to assemble one would require a days-long halt in the fighting. The Israelis interpreted this as a stalling tactic. Two days later, the deal collapsed. Within hours, the Israeli military launched its full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, which has been accompanied by a relentless aerial bombardment and intermittent communications blackouts, causing terrible suffering for Palestinian civilians. According to Gaza’s health ministry, more than eleven thousand Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war.

On Wednesday, Hamas and Israeli officials were reported to be once again close to a deal. The agreement, which was being brokered by Qatar, Egypt, and the U.S., would involve the release of fifty hostages in exchange for around the same number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and a ceasefire for several days. Qatar has been a particularly useful intermediary with Hamas because of its long-standing support for Gaza, for which it has provided what some estimates suggest is more a billion U.S. dollars’ worth of aid since 2014. Qatari money has been used to help pay for fuel and government workers in Gaza, including the salaries of doctors and teachers. Qatar has also hosted an overseas political office for Hamas in Doha since 2012—a decision for which it has faced criticism from Israel and from some U.S. lawmakers, but which it defends as having been made at the request of American officials, who hoped to establish a channel of communication. Today, that channel is integral—in addition to Israelis, Hamas’s hostages include American, Thai, French, and British citizens; officials from those countries have all travelled to Doha in recent days, in the hopes of freeing their nationals.

In the decades since 9/11, hostage-taking has become an increasingly prominent component of modern warfare. At the same time, governments, including those of Iran, Russia, China, and Venezuela, have detained foreign citizens on trumped-up criminal charges as a way to gain political leverage. (In the U.S., both kinds of cases are referred to the same authorities, and treated as instances of hostage-taking.) Qatari officials compare their role to that held by Swiss diplomats. For decades, the Swiss have been involved in international hostage negotiations, but in today’s geopolitical landscape, the Qataris are in a more useful position.

In the Middle East, Qatar has presented itself as neutral, hosting a major U.S. military base while also maintaining open lines of communication and, in some cases, direct relationships with the groups that the troops were fighting against. Qatar is also a major supplier of energy to the U.S., yet it maintains close ties with Iran, with whom it shares a major natural-gas field. This has allowed it to successfully intervene in cases where hostages have been held in Iran and Afghanistan. But recently Qatar has also begun to operate outside its usual sphere of influence. In 2021, it played an important role in winning the safe return of the American journalist Danny Fenster from Myanmar. And, in October, Qatari officials helped negotiate the return of several Ukrainian children kidnapped by Russia.

But Qatar’s role has not been without controversy. Qatar’s first mediation efforts pertained to a wave of kidnappings carried out by Islamists in Iraq at the start of the insurgency that arose in response to the U.S.-led invasion. Two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, were travelling from Baghdad to Najaf in August, 2004, when they were kidnapped by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. Four months later, they were released in exchange for a multimillion-dollar ransom, according to a report in the Times of London. Malbrunot says that a senior Qatari official later confirmed to him that the ransom was paid, though not the exact amount. France and Qatar denied paying any ransom.

Although Malbrunot was grateful to Qatar for whatever role it played in securing his freedom, he went on to spend years investigating the country’s role in financing political Islam around the world. In a 2019 book, “Qatar Papers,” Malbrunot and Chesnot allege, based on secret documents, that Qatar was indirectly helping to finance Islamist groups—including those engaged in hostage-taking—while earning the gratitude of European governments for winning the release of their hostages. “It’s part of their diplomacy of being friends with anybody,” Malbrunot told me, during an interview I conducted while researching a book on hostage policy. Though the country’s officials say that they are guided by humanitarian principles and a desire to reduce conflict and promote stability, they have clearly used their leverage to gain influence and visibility, a posture which they believe enhances their security in a volatile region. “That’s the double game, the gray zone,” Malbrunot said.

Qatar’s practices have also rankled governments in the Middle East. In 2017, a group of Qatari falcon hunters who had been captured by members of an Iran-backed Shiite militia in southern Iraq were released, after tortuous negotiations that resulted in Qatar transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to Iraq. Soon after the deal, a coalition of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a regional blockade against Qatar over a long list of grievances, among them the allegation that the country was funding Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. (Qatar has framed its payment to Iraq as being designated for the Iraqi government.)

The question of how much Qatar continued to play the “double game” became more pressing as the United States’ approach to hostage negotiations has evolved. In the two-thousands, the U.S. adhered to a staunch policy against making concessions to designated terrorist groups. Many of its officials interpreted this as a prohibition on negotiations. European countries, including Spain and Italy, were known to pay ransoms, and Washington was concerned by this practice, which it claimed incentivized kidnapping while channelling huge sums of money to insurgent and militant groups. But the Americans’ position was tested when, between 2012 and 2014, Islamic State militants captured a large group of Westerners in Syria. After the European governments paid ransoms, their hostages were freed; the Americans and the British, whose governments refused to pay, were murdered.

In 2014, the Obama Administration commenced a review of its hostage guidelines. Its policies regarding concessions or ransoms remained unchanged, but the review, which was completed the next year, clarified that negotiations were not forbidden, and Qatar subsequently became an essential player in such discussions. Since then, those involved in hostage-response efforts, both inside and outside the government, have come to describe the country’s role as indispensable.

Christopher O’Leary, who served as the director of hostage recovery for the U.S. government from March, 2021, until September, 2023, said, “The Qataris are exceptional mediators, very motivated and very willing to assist with conflict resolution.” O’Leary, who now works at the Soufan Group, a security consultancy involved in many hostage-recovery efforts, spent much of his career as an F.B.I. agent focussed on counterterrorism. He recalls a period after 9/11 and into the Iraq War when government officials were concerned about potential Qatari support for Al Qaeda in Iraq stemming from influential figures in Qatar. The U.S.’s investigations were inconclusive, and Qatar was never sanctioned.

In recent years, as kidnappings of Americans have changed from an enterprise largely carried out by insurgent groups to one regularly employed by states (like Iran) and entities controlling territory (like Hamas), U.S. officials seeking to recover Americans taken hostage have benefitted from Qatar’s long-standing relationships. “I don’t know when it shifted, but it’s come a hundred and eighty degrees,” O’Leary told me. During the two and half years that O’Leary spent leading hostage recovery for the government, he worked closely with Qatari officials in negotiating the return of Americans from Iran, Afghanistan—starting in 2013, the Taliban had been permitted to maintain an office in Doha—and Mali. O’Leary credits Qatari diplomats with winning the release, in 2022, of the American contractor Mark Frerichs, who was held by the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant group linked to Pakistani intelligence, for more than two years, and who was released in exchange for a convicted drug trafficker, Haji Bashir Noorzai. Qatar has become so essential to managing such crises, O’Leary told me, that it was included in a global hostage-crisis simulation led by the U.S. earlier this year, alongside representatives of America’s key European allies and the Five Eyes intelligence group.

According to the White House, there are about ten Americans among the hostages; it clearly hopes that Qatar will be able to assist in brokering an agreement that brings them home. But, in recent days, Israel’s military action in Gaza has become a sticking point in the negotiations: Israel claims that the severity of its attacks are putting pressure on Hamas to release the hostages, while the Qataris say they need a pause in the fighting to make a deal. “It’s really frustrating and disappointing to see ourselves retracting from the progress that we have achieved,” a senior Qatari official told me in early November. “So that’s why we’ve been in close contact also with the Israelis to get to deëscalation, to pauses that will help us and will give us some space for the hostages’ release.”

Hostage-taking is a cruel crime; it is also a violation of international humanitarian law. But hostage crises are not resolved through slogans or posturing, and rarely through rescue or military operations. In the vast majority of cases, they are resolved through negotiations—and, in order to negotiate, opposing parties need an effective interlocutor. “In addition to the contacts and reputation for securing these deals, you need the process, the skill set, and the division of labor,” Dani Gilbert, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and a leading expert of hostage policy, told me. Being a successful hostage negotiator is “an influential position to be in. To be needed and valued by more powerful countries gives them the position of a real power player on a geopolitical issue that is getting a lot of attention.” Qatar may have reaped rewards from performing such work in recent years, but it has also proved that it can be a reliable and responsible conduit. One can only hope that, in Gaza, it can prove itself again. ♦

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