Qatar foreign minister, ambassador at heart of $1bn hostage deal with terrorists

Leaked texts indicate the involvement of the senior officials in the biggest hostage payment in history

Source: The National

The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, is seen here on September 14, 2013. Mehdi Ghasemi / AFP

A Qatari ambassador and the country’s foreign minister coordinated extensively to secure the release of 28 members of a royal hunting party kidnapped in the southern Iraqi deserts in 2015, concocting an agreement that saw hundreds of millions paid to terror groups and the displacement of Syrian towns.

A series of leaked messages between Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq, Zayed Al Khayareen, and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, show extensive conversations over months in which the pair discussed the logistics of the controversial deal dubbed the most expensive ransom ever paid.

On December 16, 2015, 28 members of a royal hunting expedition were kidnapped by Iranian-backed militiamen from Kataib Hezbollah in southern Iraq and were held for 16 months. The negotiation to free the senior royals and their entourage involved the shadowy Iranian spymaster Qassem Soleimani who leads the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and is sanctioned by the EU and US.

Reporting by the BBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times has indicated that Qatar paid upwards of $1 billion to Iranian officials, Kataib Hezbollah – who were behind numerous attacks on US troops in Iraq – and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The deal to secure the release of the royals, that included Mr Al Thani’s own cousin and the husband of his aunt, also revolved around a controversial agreement to transfer the populations of Sunni and Shiite Syrian villages that was dubbed the four towns agreement.

The messages, some of which were published by the BBC on Tuesday, showed Mr Al Thani and Mr Al Khayareen discussing the negotiations of the deal. They indicate that while Kataib Hezbollah was driven by a piratical desire for money, it was Soleimani who insisted on the Qataris securing the four towns deal by using their influence with Syrian armed groups that were funded and supplied by Doha.

“The Syrian, Hezbollah Lebanon, and Kataeb Hezbollah Iraq, all want money and this is their chance. They are using this situation to benefit from it especially that they know that it’s nearly the end,” the ambassador texted Mr Al Thani at one point. He ended the exchange by simply saying “all of them are thieves.”

The texts also indicate that a number of intermediaries that negotiated the eventual release of the royals also put in demands for lavish compensation, a Kataib Hezbollah negotiator demanded $10 million for his services.

“To motivate him, I also told him that I am willing to buy him an apartment in Lebanon,” the ambassador texted. The foreign minister was approached by two unnamed Iraqi mediators who asked for “gifts” to the tune of five expensive Rolex watches and $150,000.

“You need to be ready with $$$$,” Mr Al Khayareen texted in one exchange. The minister replied: “God helps!”

The last mention in the exchanges of a $1bn ransom is in January 2017, along with another figure – $150m.

Qatari officials have accepted that the texts and voicemails are genuine.

The hostage crisis was brought to an end in April 2017.

Qatari officials have admitted that a large sum in cash was sent to Baghdad but claim it was for the Iraqi government, not terrorists. They explain the payments as being for “economic development” and “security co-operation”.

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi later held a news conference in which he said that he had taken control of the cash.

While it’s not clear if the full amount was initially sent, the New York Times reporting suggests the first payment of nearly half a billion dollars in black duffle bags was seized at Baghdad airport. They say a second-half billion dollars was then sent through Beirut via Hezbollah.

Despite the initial money not appearing to have reached the group holding the royals, the release was made.