A percolating crisis in the Middle East over a top U.S. military ally’s support for extremist terror groups was ignited by President Donald Trump’s demand that U.S. allies in the Arab world end their support for Islamic extremism, according to senior U.S. officials familiar with the situation.
Trump is seeking a more active role in mediating a growing dispute between leading Arab nations and Qatar, a U.S. counterterrorism ally that has long provided financial support to the very terror groups it has vowed to fight.
Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East—where he publicly and privately urged top Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia to crackdown on Islamic extremism—is said to have sparked a regional dispute with Qatar, thrusting the country’s issues with terrorism financing into the spotlight, sources told the Washington Free Beacon.
U.S. officials, both inside and outside the White House, have long avoided the thorny issue of Qatar’s support for terrorism in an effort to preserve military relations with the country, which hosts a major U.S. air base that is a central front in the war against terror.
Trump’s focus on Qatar is said to be part of a larger regional strategy that focuses on strangling financial support for terror organizations that long benefited from Arab governments turning a blind eye to the issue.
Trump’s push to crackdown on this type of behavior—not just in Qatar—is said to have fueled the diplomatic break with Qatar earlier this month, which saw several leading Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia ceasing all diplomatic ties with the energy-rich nation.
U.S. officials and administration insiders who spoke with the Free Beacon about the situation said that Trump is seeking to play an active role in helping to mediate the crisis and shutdown Qatar’s financing of terror groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.
“Look, last month President Trump visited Riyadh and gave a historic speech challenging America’s Arab friends and partners to do more to combat the violent radicalization that is growing within Islam,” one senior administration official told the Free Beacon.
“And the fact of the matter is that even though Qatar has been an important partner in some areas, they’ve also been a significant source of terrorist financing,” said the official, who would only speak on background when discussing the sensitive diplomatic issue. “What you’re seeing now is a regional response to the president’s challenge, and Qatar is going to have to respond as well.”
Trump’s stance against Islamic extremism and willingness to call out state backers of the movement has forced U.S. officials, particularly those in the Department of Defense, to address an issue that has been downplayed in pursuit of preserving diplomatic relations with Qatar and other Arab nations, sources said.
The hope is this will result in concrete change, which has been elusive in recent years as nations such as Qatar play both sides of the terror issue.
“American policy in the Gulf has been a bipartisan failure for over a decade. For different reasons, both parties found reasons to ignore terror financing coming out of the Gulf,” said one veteran foreign policy official who has been briefed by White House officials on Trump’s Gulf region strategy.
“Even when Obama officials did talk about terror financing, they used it as an excuse to pressure the Saudis and others to cut off legitimate anti-Assad forces,” the source said. “President Trump has been clear to our allies and adversaries that the incoherence has to end. He called on the Arab world to clean house, and what you’re seeing is the beginning of that.”
Trump discussed the issue in Monday remarks at a White House cabinet meeting, where he emphasized that terror-financing issues have became a central focus for the United States.
“One of the big things we did, and your seeing it now with Qatar and all of the things that are actually going on in a very positive fashion, we are stopping the funding of terrorism,” Trump said. “They’re going to stop the funding of terrorism. And it’s not an easy fight, but it’s a fight we’re going to win. You have to starve the beast, and we’re going to starve the beast.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has walked a more diplomatic line of the issue, in a move sources characterized as a “good-cop-bad-cop” ploy.
State Department officials would not comment on Trump’s latest remarks about Qatar, referring a reporter to Tillerson’s public remarks last week.
“Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence,” Tillerson said. “The emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he must do more and he must do it more quickly.”