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Qatar 'maybe' supported al-Qaeda in Syria, says former PM

Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani said that if there had been a relationship with al-Nusra Front, the support eventually came to an end
Qatari Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani sits at the first 'Friends of Syria' conference in Tunis on 24 February 2012 (AFP)

The former prime minister of Qatar has admitted there were "maybe" links between his government and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

In a wide-ranging interview with Qatari television, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani - known colloquially as "HBJ" - said that his government would have ended support to groups like al-Nusra Front (later rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) after a period of time when it became unacceptable.

"Maybe Nusra there was a relationship? Maybe there was. I swear myself, I don't know about this issue," he told the interviewer. "But even if this were the case, when the decision came that Nusra was not acceptable, the support to Nusra came to an end and the focus was on liberating Syria."

He specifically ruled out Qatari support for the Islamic State (IS) group, however, and said that any resources sent to rebel factions in Syria had US approval.

"Anything that went, went to Turkey and was coordinated with US forces," he explained.

"All distribution was done through the US and the Turks and us and everyone else that was involved, the military people."

He also said that he had been sent by the emir of Qatar to meet with then Saudi king Abdullah and received his backing for the support for Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia has led a blockade of Qatar for its alleged support for terrorism since June.

Al-Thani's comments follow a similar admission made in English to American journalist Charlie Rose in May, in which he admitted that Qatar had ended up supporting groups in the country with an "agenda".

"We discover by the time that there is some groups [that] have other agenda[s] and we always eliminate them one by one, and always when we have information from our friends that this group is supported [the] wrong group sometimes," he said, referring to the US.

"But you stop. It doesn't mean that we did not do something wrong there. But it is intentionally we are...intentionally we do that, that is not true. Because what is the reason? If they finish with Syria, they will come to us. We know that."

Qatar has been a major supporter of the Syria opposition since protests in 2011 descended into armed conflict.

A report by the Financial Times in 2013 said the country had spent as much as $3bn bankrolling opposition groups in the country.

Although Qatar later vehemently denied it was providing funds to rebel groups recognised as "terrorists" by the international community, accusations have continued to fly about the country's backing of militant organisations fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.

In June 2017, a number of Arab countries broke off relations with Qatar and imposed a land blockade, nominally because of the country's support for "terrorism".

HBJ said, however, that Saudi Arabia - one of the blockading countries - had coordinated closely with Qatar on delivering resources to rebel groups in Syria and that he had been sent by the then-Emir of Qatar to speak with then-ruler of Saudi, King Abdullah.

"King Abdullah said we are with you, take lead and we will coordinate," he explained.

"I don't want to go into details, but we have evidence of [them] taking charge."

Last week, Qatar's foreign minister warned that the Gulf crisis has hurt the fight against IS.

The closure of Qatar's only land border and the airspace ban on Qatari planes "undermines the global efforts in countering" IS in Iraq and Syria, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said in an interview with CNBC. 

In June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain announced a string of sanctions against Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting Islamist extremists. Qatar denies the accusations.

The wealthy Gulf emirate is home to the al-Udeid air base, home to some 11,000 US soldiers and crucial in the fight against IS.

As part of the coalition's operations, numerous air strikes against IS targets in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been conducted from al-Udeid, the largest US base in the region.

The foreign minister said al-Udeid had also suffered under the air blockade as well as the Saudi decision to seal off Qatar's only land border - a move that prompted Iran, along with Turkey, to step in and provide much-needed food imports.

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