Few hostage crises have ever matched the most recent reports that the government of Qatar paid up to $1 billion to a radical Iraqi Shiite terrorist group for the release of 28 Qatari nationals who were kidnapped as part of a royal hunting party while they were taking part in a traditional falconing expedition in Iraq in December 2015.
In a report by the BBC, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who at the time was about to become Doha’s new foreign minister, received the list of hostages which also included two close relatives. The men on the list were about to spend the next 16 months as prisoners of Kata’ib Hezbollah -the Party of God Brigades – an offshoot of Lebanon’s namesake terrorist group and believed to coordinate closely with General Qasem Soleimani, the powerful leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
“Jasem is my cousin and Khalid is my aunt’s husband,” al-Thani texted to Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq Zayed Al Khayareen, the country’s first diplomatic envoy in Baghdad in 27 years, at the time of the kidnapping. “May God protect you: once you receive any news, update me immediately.”
Qatar has always denied that it ever paid funds to any terrorist organisation as part of the deal to release the hostages, but in a cache of electronic documents that were obtained by the BBC, details emerge about the communications between al-Thani and al Khayareen throughout the crisis, in which Doha appears to have paid more than a billion dollars to free the men.
The Qatari government had entered secret talks to free its citizens shortly after they were taken, hostage, but the negotiations quickly became bogged down after a half a dozen militias and terror groups in Iraq, including the notorious al-Nusra Front, which operates in both Syria and Iraq – as well as foreign governments – who jostled to extort more money from Doha in order to guarantee the safe release of the 28 individuals that were being held by Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Four months after the group was taken hostage the Qatari government learned that Kata’ib Hezbollah wanted substantial sums of money for the release of some of the prisoners.
‘Give us back 14 of our people… and we will give you half of the amount.'” The “amount” is not clear in the phone records at this stage.
Khayareen, however, found that the hostages had been split into groups and that Kata’ib Hezbollah was attempting to buy time to increase the size of the ransom.
As the months went on, it became clear that the hostage-takers were not only interested in money, but also had a list of demands for the Qatari government.
The texts and voicemails reveal that the kidnappers often changed their demands and pressured Qatar to leave the Saudi-led coalition battling Shia rebels in Yemen and secure the release of Iranian soldiers held prisoner by rebels in Syria.
Kata’ib Hezbollah’s leader, Abu Mohammed, eventually brought the negotiations back to money and demanded that he be paid handsomely for the release of the hostages, something the Qatari ambassador refused to agree to unless the hostages were safely released.
In one voicemail, Al Khayareen tells a Kata’ib Hezbollah commander: “You should trust Qatar, you know what Qatar did, what His Highness the Emir’s father did … He did many things, this and that, and paid 50 million, and provided infrastructure for the south, and he was the first one who visited.”
To help guarantee that Abu Mohammed was serious about his offer, Khayareen offered, “To motivate him, I also told him that I am willing to buy him an apartment in Lebanon.”
The IRGC’s Soleimani entered into the fray in April 2016 and scolded Kata’ib Hezbollah for demanding more money and forced the group to take the $1 billion ransom offer after Qatar agreed to help lift the siege of two Shia towns in Syria, who were surrounded by Salafist rebels supported by Doha.
The last mention in the exchanges of a $1-billion ransom is in January 2017, along with another figure — $150 million, presumably in kickbacks for middlemen, including General Soleimani, a man who has been sanctioned by both the EU and US for his actions in Syria and Iraq.
High profile cases of hostage-taking are nothing new to the Middle East. Since the mid-1960s, the region has been plagued by warring political and sectarian factions who often resort to kidnapping and extortion to draw attention to their particular cause or to settle old scores with rivals.
At the height of Lebanon’s brutal civil war in the mid-1980s, the Iranian-backed radical Shiite militia Hezbollah – Kata’ib Hezbollah’s spiritual predecessor – kidnapped and held dozen Western journalists as hostages for years before finally releasing their last captive – American reporter Terry Anderson – in 1991 shortly before the more than decade-long conflict drew to a close.
Since that time, hundreds of kidnappings have been reported in Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria as the region has descended into a further round of chaos since the US deployed a massive invasion force into the Mesopotamian plain more than 15 years ago as they attempted to oust Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein.
For decades, scant proof has ever emerged the governments affected by the kidnappings have ever paid ransom to the hostage takers for the release of those being held in captivity. In 2014, however, the New York Times revealed that Germany, France, Italy, and Spain had all directly paid ransoms to hostage-takers, including an estimated €107 million that eventually ended up in the hands of groups affiliated with both al-Qaeda and ISIS since 2008.
The latest report, however, has sounded several alarm bells in Brussels as the European Union grows increasingly worried that ransoms being paid to shadowy groups in the Middle East and to openly hostile organisations that include Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps could embolden terrorists who could potentially fund or launch new attacks against European citizens.