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Friday, October 22, 2021

How safe is Qatar from an ISIS attack? Experts weigh in

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Qatar skyline
Qatar skyline

Following two high-profile attacks in France and Lebanon over the weekend, and threats from the alleged perpetrators that this was only “the first of the storm,” countries around the world are upping their security measures.

For its part, Qatar appears to have been on high alert even before the violence in Paris and Beirut, following separate bombings of two Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia and another in Kuwait City over the summer.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Nonetheless, in spite of last year’s threats on ISIS forums about bombing the 2022 World Cup, a foreign policy analyst said it’s unlikely that Qatar would be attacked by the group.

This is because the Gulf country has a “low profile” in the ongoing military campaign against ISIS, Andrew Hammond, a policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Doha News:

“ISIS’ list of places they’re interested in targeting is long and there’s no indication that Qatar features on the list, even at the bottom, or much reason to think that it would be.”

“I don’t think there is a risk to Qatar,” he added.

Violence

ISIS claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombing of a Beirut suburb, which killed at least 41 people, and the coordinated attacks a day later across Paris that killed more than 130 people.

There are also suspicions that the group was responsible for the bombing of a Russian airplane flying over Egypt late last month, resulting in the death of all 224 passengers and crew onboard.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Speaking to Vox this week, Will McCants, director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, and the author of The ISIS Apocalypse, said the attacks were the militant group’s way of “putting its major adversaries on notice that if they continue to impede its state building that they will pay a price.”

The recent violence has prompted some residents to question if a similar incident could happen in Qatar.

But Hammond said Qatar’s participation in aerial bombing campaigns against ISIS – ostensibly one of the reasons why militants attacked France on Friday – is unlikely to make the country a target:

“Qatar has kept a low profile in the US campaign against ISIS (and) Al Jazeera does not attack the group. Westerners in Doha could be a target, however, and they form part of a Gulf development model that certainly makes them dens of sin in the jihadist view, so there is definitely reason for a country like Qatar to be on guard all the same.”

Not just ‘luck’

Civilians have not been attacked by militants in Qatar since 2005, when an Egyptian man detonated a car bomb outside the Doha Players Theater and killed British citizen Jon Adams.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

The bombing is believed to be the only such incident in Qatar’s modern history.

According to one regional security expert, that’s not just good luck, but at least in part a reflection of the competence of the country’s security services.

The analyst, who asked to remain anonymous because his comments could make it difficult for him to continue working in the region, told Doha News that the country is paying more attention to who has been entering its borders over the past year:

“Qatar takes a safety first approach. If there are concerns, suspect people don’t get in. It has been more and more difficult to get a visa if you are Syrian or Lebanese” or, to a lesser extent, Jordanian or Egyptian, he said.

The US State Department offers a similar explanation for Qatar’s relative safety earlier this year, saying the historically low level of terrorism here was due in part to the country’s “restrictive” immigration policies and the monitoring capabilities of security forces.

The analyst added that Qatar’s relatively small population of nationals works in the government’s favor, as it would be difficult for a citizen to plan an ideologically-motivated attack without a friend or family member noticing and notifying the authorities.

GCC
GCC

A more worrying concern, he said, is that a GCC citizen – who can travel to other Gulf states more easily than non-Khaleejis – could enter the country to carry out an attack.

“(Qatar) can’t close the Saudi border,” he said, noting it was a Saudi national who carried out this year’s bombing in Kuwait City.

While civilians in Qatar have not been specifically threatened, several schools increased security measures last year following an alert from the US Embassy in Doha about potential attacks against teachers in the Middle East.

Keeping Qatar safe

Additionally, in the run-up to Eid Al Fitr this summer, many hotels and malls, as well as the Church complex in Qatar added new layers of security, such as putting more guards on duty, installing and using metal detectors at entrances and scrutinizing incoming vehicles.

Parking closed at Church complex
Parking closed at Church complex this summer

However, Hammond said there is still room to make the country safer.

“Qatar would be an easy target in terms of implementation,” he said. “I don’t feel (security) is as tightly maintained as elsewhere.”

Little is known about Qatar’s state security apparatus, although officials often tout the country’s use of technology – a key tool given the limited number of nationals available to fill sensitive intelligence and senior law enforcement positions.

“Both external and internal security threats have become increasingly sophisticated. Accordingly, such sophistication must be met and addressed by even more sophisticated technologies and processes that are applicable to specific localities,” the Ministry of Interior’s Brig. Sheikh Nasser bin Fahad Al Thani told Qatar Today last year.

That includes blanketing the country with surveillance cameras.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Last year, the ministry increased its enforcement of a law that requires businesses around the country to install closed-circuit camera surveillance on their premises.

Additionally, the US State Department said Qatar conducts “extensive” background checks on work visa applicants and captures biometric information on everyone who enters the country – likely through the retina scan at immigration counters.

Qatar’s State Security Bureau has also been a customer of a German technology firm that sells software used to secretly monitor emails and other forms of online communication, according to documents published by WikiLeaks.

A decade ago, Qatar is also alleged to have employed a more unconventional tactic to keep the nation safe. A report in The Atlantic from 2010 claims Qatar paid al Qaeda millions of dollars so it wouldn’t bomb the Gulf state.

While there has been no credible suggestion that the Qatar government funds ISIS, the country is known to provide financial support to various rebels groups in the region.

This, the regional security expert said, may indirectly provide the country some extra protection.

“Qatar supports a vast array of these groups,” he said. “And (they believe that) you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

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