Update: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused al-Jazeera of fomenting violence and will attempt to shut its office in Israel.
The diplomatic and economic impasse between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has squeezed the United States. All five Arab countries play important roles in the U.S.-led fight against Islamist terrorism. But the four pressuring Qatar also oppose Iranian expansionism, as does Washington. Qatar, to the contrary, has moved closer to Iran’s Islamic Republic.
Al-Udeid Air Base—a key component in coalition campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan—and U.S. Central Command Forward Headquarters are both in Qatar. But Saudi Arabia is Washington’s leading Arab partner countering Iran. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation and, like the other three countries aligned against Qatar, maintains close military ties to America.
Early in June, Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Manama imposed a blockade on Doha. They issued 13 demands, among which were ending financial support for Islamic extremists and closing Al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s most popular satellite television network.
In late July, noting Qataris’ “generous” support for the U.S. counter-terror campaign and contemporaneous backing of anti-Western movements, Gen. James Conway (USMC, Ret.) former Marine Corps Commandant, put it this way:
“For too long, Qatar has tried to get away with having its flag planted in two camps. … Qatar simultaneously supports radicals within Islam who have vowed a hundred-year fight against the infidels. For years, the United States and others largely turned a blind eye to the billions of dollars sent from wealthy Qataris—in league with their supportive government—to support Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and militants in Syria. Known terrorist leaders and financiers find safe harbor on Qatari soil, which also hosts some of the most radical media outlets in the Arab world [emphasis added].” Conway’s reference to radical Arab communications media did not specify Al-Jazeera. To some Westerners, the network has not appeared radical at all but rather something they assumed they recognized, “an Arabic C.N.N.” But that picture always has been a little out of focus.
Conway hoped the five Arab partners of the United States resolve their conflict, with American mediation that would be flexible in technique but firm on the result—no Qatari money for terrorists. But what about Al-Jazeera?
Qatar, population 2.3 million, is a Persian Gulf peninsula about twice as large as Delaware. It’s ruled by the al-Thani family dynasty and is rich in natural gas and petroleum. Al-Jazeera means “the peninsula” and the satellite cable operations reaches well beyond the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—total population 130 million, altogether roughly one-third the size of the United States—view Qatar as a financial backer and diplomatic shield not only of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot Hamas but also Lebanon’s Iranian-founded and backed Hezbollah and even the Islamic State. Al-Jazeera, some Arab and Western analysts have argued, has helped Qatar “punch above its weight” in promoting the royal family’s foreign policy and countering heavyweight Saudi Arabia next door.
In 1996, Saudi Arabia “kicked the B.B.C.’s irritatingly truthful Arabic-language channel off a Saudi satellite, causing it to shut down. Suddenly dozens of journalists were looking for work. Al-Jazeera hired them,” The Economist has explained. Al-Jazeera broke through to American audiences immediately after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of New York City’s World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which killed nearly 3,000 people. It was al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s outlet of choice for releasing video communiques. As Western networks rebroadcast the Al-Jazeera exclusives, more than a few people, including in the U.S. military, came to view the satellite broadcaster as a terrorist propaganda arm.
But others—among them some American journalists—noted its news channel format and frequent use of Western sources. They saw it as an alternative to state-run or government-dominated media elsewhere in Arab countries.
Walid Phares, then a professor at Florida Atlantic University, later a counter-terrorism and national security advisor to the 2012 Mitt Romney and 2016 Donald Trump Republican presidential campaigns, offered a different perspective. Al-Jazeera Arabic, Phares said in a 2003 talk in Washington, D.C., served as a sort of decentralized nervous system for jihadists. It did not carry explicit plans or orders for terrorist attacks. Instead, it set a general tone, conditioning the environment.
Panelists might argue about when and where it was permissible in holy war to attack Westerners, for example. But none would object to all such strikes. Phares, now a national security analyst for FOX News, said then that such televised conversations could be understood by jihadists as implicit authorization.
Among Al-Jazeera Arabic’s most popular programs have been those hosted by Egyptian-born, Qatari-based Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Tens of millions of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere have watched al-Qaradawi’s shows, in which he reportedly has advanced a “moderate” or modernist interpretation of Islam in a conversational, folksy manner. Be that as it may, the sheik—banned from entry into the United States, United Kingdom and France—also has justified terrorist attacks against Israelis, urged a second, Muslim-led genocide of the Jews and called for conquest by Islam of Europe not through war but conversion.
Few U.S. cable companies carried Al-Jazeera English, partly due to the image of the mother channel—Al-Jazeera Arabic—as bin Laden’s megaphone. So in 2013, the Qatari government paid $500 million to former Vice President Al Gore Jr. and other owners of a struggling, politically left-leaning cable channel called Current TV.
This was seven times what Gore and the others, including several major Democratic Party fund-raisers, spent to acquire the channel nine years earlier. It was also shortly after Gore and other Current TV owners and Democratic Party supporters had refused a proposal to sell to right-wing radio and television talk show host Glenn Beck.
The purchase gave Qatar much greater U.S. cable TV market penetration for its new channel, Al-Jazeera America. Separate from Al-Jazeera English—though Al-Jazeera America would carry some of the former’s content—the new channel would feature, according to generally upbeat previews in American newspapers, objective, in-depth broadcast journalism typically in short supply on U.S. television screens. The al-Thani dynasty’s deep pockets meant, it was said, that Al-Jazeera American would feel fewer commercial constraints than other networks and enjoy more lavish funding than the Public Broadcasting Service.
But why would the al-Thani dynasty, which kept a close grip on public speech, let alone debate, at home, subsidize Americans’ free press options? Referring to Al-Jazeera Arabic, Aktham Suliman, a correspondent who quit in 2012, said, according to The Economist, “the station takes positions ‘not based on journalistic priorities, but rather on the interests of the foreign ministry of Qatar.’’
In 2014, covering the war between Israel and Hamas, Al-Jazeera America reported, with video, about Hamas firing a rocket at Israel from a residential area in the Gaza Strip. The report was evidence of two war crimes, indiscriminate firing and basing offensive weapons among civilians. Nine days later the picture was deleted from the Al-Jazeera America Web site.
When Al-Jazeera English launched in 2006—aimed at English-speakers outside the Anglo-American sphere—its best-known American personality was anchorman Dave Marash, formerly of ABC-TV News. Marash quit two years later, “saying … his exit was due in part to an anti-American bias at a network that is little seen in this country. Marash said he felt that attitude more from British administrators than Arabs at the Qatar-based network,” CBS News reported.
Qatar, and by extension Al-Jazeera, has its Western defenders. Daniel J. Hannan, a journalist, British Conservative Party member and representative to the European Parliament, said Western intelligence agencies encouraged Qatar to permit radical groups to open offices in Doha, the better to keep an eye on them. As for Al-Jazeera, Hannan said the Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis and Bahrainis want the channel closed because they “resent” its independence—not of Qatar but of their own interests.
Whatever the resolution of the conflict, Western viewers of Al-Jazeera should not mistake it for an independent news outlet. Not until it covers Qatar like it tries to cover Saudi Arabia and Egypt.