For a half-century, Qatar has been a tiny, desert oasis for the Muslim Brotherhood and many of the world’s most virulent Islamists. In the 1960s, as Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser once again banned and cracked-down on the Brotherhood, thousands of the group’s agitators, clerics, and community organizers were forced to retreat elsewhere into the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
Since then, Qatar has been the Brotherhood’s most hospitable base of operations. In time, Brotherhood Islamism would soon emerge as Qatar’s de-facto state ideology, as the ruling al-Thani family welcomed the Islamists with lavish funding, the highest state honors, and the establishment of new Islamist institutions that would seek to indoctrinate thousands.
Since Qatar’s most prominent export—the state-owned television network Al-Jazeera—was founded in 1996, the Brotherhood has played a crucial role in programming and setting the editorial line, providing the network’s strong ideologically Islamist backing.
For years, the network’s most popular Arabic program was “Sharia and Life,” starring virulently anti-Semitic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s most prominent jurist. Even as it claims to be a legitimate, journalistic enterprise, Al-Jazeera is an instrument of power projection for the Qatari regime. Its mission has always been to support Qatar and the Brotherhood while attacking its enemies in the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
“The fact that there is anti-Semitic material in Al Jazeera is significant; that that it has a daily diet of anti-American material is significant,” as Middle East Broadcasting Network’s Alberto Fernandez put it during a Washington conference on Qatar’s influence operations last week, “But the greatest problem with Al Jazeera is how, for a generation, it has mainstreamed and normalized an Islamist grievance narrative, which has served as sort of the mother’s milk for all sorts of Islamist movements.”
After the Brotherhood’s regional re-emergence in the Arab Spring — with Qatar’s explicit backing—the nation’s promotion of the Islamist group became a pressing issue for neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to contend with. For these US-allied Gulf countries, Qatar’s sponsorship of the Brotherhood wasn’t merely incubating violent terrorism in the Americas and Europe; it was instigating revolution inside their countries as well.
When Qatar’s neighbors issued the emirate a list of demands in 2017 in order to resume regular relations, halting broadcasts of Al-Jazeera was at the top of their list of grievances.
American elites and policymakers have long been soft targets for Qatari influence and information operations. Even Hillary Clinton gave the state-run Islamist network the highest praise. “Like it or hate it, [Al Jazeera] is really effective,” the then-Secretary of State told lawmakers on Capitol Hill in 2011. “In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news.” And, as if to underline the cluelessness of the elite ruling class, shockingly, Ms. Clinton told Congress at the same hearing that, “we are in an information war and we are losing that war.”
In fact, Al Jazeera is the world’s most successful, sophisticated and influential state-directed information operation.
It is remarkably aggressive in service of Qatar’s foreign policy interests, which include four key elements: (1) undermining the stability of its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; (2) promoting Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in vulnerable, Western open societies; (3) financially and diplomatically supporting violent terrorist groups like Hamas, al Qaeda and the Taliban; and (4) assisting the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, in evading US sanctions as it seeks to develop nuclear weapons.
Al Jazeera’s sophistication as an information operation is evident in its ability to promote two very different messages to two audiences simultaneously. In Arabic, Al Jazeera pushes a stream of vile, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and attempts to rile up religious and extremist Muslims against attempts at positive, human rights reforms in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
In English, however, Al Jazeera presents itself as progressive and left-wing, attacking these same nations efforts at reform as fake and inadequate. A re-branding in English as “AJ+” was further meant to obscure the Islamist-run network and to appeal to younger people in the West, with social media material in English, Arabic, French and Spanish. Its ratings never took off, though.
Last year, Congress finally appeared to be getting serious about foreign states’ role in information operations directed at American citizens and media consumers. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requires all foreign media outlets based in the United States—including Russia’s network Russia Today and Qatar’s Al Jazeera — to identify themselves clearly as foreign outlets and report to the FCC every six months on their relations with their foreign principals. To date, neither foreign outlet has filed with the FCC or made their report available to Congress.
After the 2016 election, Democrats used the specter of Russian news and commentary outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik as serious threats to American democracy but, for partisan reasons, they largely ignored the massive, Qatari elephant in the room, Al Jazeera. If these politicians are actually concerned about the dangers of hostile, foreign information operations exerting undue influence on the perceptions of the American public, they would come down hard on enemy propagandists at Al Jazeera.
David Reaboi is senior vice president for strategic operations at the Security Studies Group.