Syrian “Four Town” Deconfliction Agreement Passes First Implementation Test

[SEE: The Pentagon, The Saudis, Qatar, Kidnappings and Bustards…All To Enable Open Sponsorship of Al-Nusrah Front]

 

Syria conflict: ‘Deal reached’ for four besieged towns

“Residents of Foah and Kefraya, two government-held towns in the north-west, would be bussed out.
In return, people in two rebel-held towns near Damascus, Madaya and Zabadani, will be given safe passage.”

Syria: Buses arrive to evacuate two rebel-besieged Shia towns

Some 6,000 residents from predominantly Shia towns of Foua and Kefraya will be evacuated to government-controlled areas.

The opposition has consistently maintained that such evacuation deals amount to forced demographic change [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]
The opposition has consistently maintained that such evacuation deals amount to forced demographic change [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Dozens of buses on Wednesday entered two government loyalist towns under siege from rebels in the northwest province of Idlib, as part of a deal to evacuate residents to government-controlled areas, according to state news agency, SANA.

Some 6,000 people will leave, emptying out the mostly Shia towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, a commander in the regional alliance that backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Reuters news agency.

“What are we going to do with our land and property? Oh, my hometown,” a 42-year-old who wished to remain anonymous told AFP news agency.

“I pray this will go well.”

Rebels from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham – a group formerly linked to al-Qaeda – and Iran-backed forces agreed to the deal to evacuate people in return for the release of more than 1,500 civilians and rebels in state prisons, sources said on Tuesday.

A deal for the evacuation of residents from the two Shia towns was first reached in April 2017 but had only partially materialised with only a group of people evacuated to government-held areas.

Politics of evacuation

The April evacuation was halted after a blast killed 150 people, including 72 children.

Iran, which backs Assad against the mainly Sunni rebels and has expanded its military role in Syria, has long taken an interest in the fate of the Shia in the two towns.

In the past two years, thousands of people, mostly from rebel-held areas, have been forced to move to territories controlled by the rebels as part of evacuation deals.

The opposition has consistently maintained that such evacuation deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of Sunni populations away from the country’s urban centres.

They accuse Tehran of attempting to change the demographics in areas close to Damascus with the goal of partitioning the country.

Another opposition source said the resumption of talks was aimed at deterring a potential military campaign by pro-government forces on the two towns.

Idlib is part of a de-escalation deal – signed by Iran, Russia and Turkey – that calls for the cessations of hostilities between rebel groups and government forces.

The agreement, which initially included Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside and Deraa province in the south, has already been broken with government forces, backed by Russian air support, in control of much of the territory.

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Sunni Terrorist Outfits In Syria/Iraq Cannabilize Themselves…Everybody Else Benefits

[Who Is Assassinating Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s Leaders?–November 2017]

Islamic State targets rival jihadists and Islamists in northern Syria

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State continues to operate throughout Syria, including in the northwestern province of Idlib. The group has claimed a series of plots targeting its jihadist and Islamist rivals in recent weeks. The attacks are centered in Idlib province, including its capital city, but have spilled over into the countryside and neighboring provinces as well.

The Islamic State’s propagandists have named the operations after Abu al-Baraa al-Saheli. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) executed al-Saheli after detaining and accusing him of orchestrating a coordinated assassination campaign against HTS and other actors.

HTS is the largest jihadist group in Idlib, which was seized in 2015. The ideologues hope to transform Idlib province into an emirate ruled under sharia. But HTS and its closest allies have suffered a string of setbacks and are relying on Turkey to save their proto-state from a possible invasion by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran. In addition, HTS has been fighting against its own longtime allies, including ideologically similar groups that are also opposed to the Assad government and the Islamic State.

The Islamic State’s clandestine apparatus has further complicated life for HTS and others.

On July 12, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s media team produced three images from an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Idlib city. The target was Sheikh Anas Ayrout, a longtime opposition figure and senior sharia official who has been part of the nascent governance efforts in northwestern Syria. A photo from the IED bombing can be seen below.

Initial reports indicate that Ayrout was injured, but survived the attack. Still, it is telling that the Islamic State could target such a high-profile individual. It does not appear that Ayrout was accidentally struck. Instead, Baghdadi’s men identified Ayrout’s car, tracked it and placed an IED along its route. A targeted attack of this kind requires a sophisticated network of cells deep inside the heart of HTS’s primary redoubt.

On July 13, the Islamic State released three more photos documenting the assassination of Abu Ahmed al-Sansawi in al-Dana, Idlib. According to reports on social media, al-Sansawi was a leader in the Sultan Murad Division, a rebel group that took part in Turkey’s operation in Afrin. Once again, the killing appears to have been a targeted assassination — not a haphazard drive-by shooting. One of the pictures released by the Islamic State can be seen below.

Two other images released yesterday show an improvised device explosion underneath a vehicle driven by “apostates” in the town of Sarmada.

Other images and statements produced between July 10 and July 13 include: pictures of a gunman attempting to assassinate two individuals riding on a motorcycle, three photos of another IED attack on rival insurgents, and a grisly photo of two men who were decapitated in Maarrat al-Nu’man. The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency has also published a string of reports claiming that various HTS officials and members have been hunted in recent days.

Some of the images are recorded with cameras positioned close to the action, demonstrating that the self-declared caliphate’s men are operating well behind enemy lines.

HTS has attempted to combat this intrusion on its turf with a security campaign, detaining alleged Islamic State cells and sweeping various areas for IEDs. Like other jihadists opposed to Baghdadi’s caliphate project, HTS refers to the Islamic State’s men as “Kharijites,” a reference to an early Islamic sect that is most often identified with extremism.

Several photos from the HTS security campaign can be seen at the bottom of this article.

While the Islamic State campaign inside Idlib seems to be focused and intense, it is not new. Baghdadi’s representatives have repeatedly targeted HTS, as well as others in northern Syria. And HTS has failed to root out its rivals’ presence despite persistent efforts.

Since mid-2017, HTS has issued multiple reports claiming that various Islamic State cells had been detected and detained. Yet, more than one year later, Baghdadi’s cells continue to pose a problem.

In June 2017, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini survived an assassination attempt after attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Idlib. It wasn’t clear at the time which party was responsible, but some online jihadis claimed an Islamic State member was the culprit. Others within HTS have also opposed Muhaysini, a US-designated terrorist with links to al Qaeda. The Saudi cleric subsequently renounced his position in HTS.

In April, the Islamic State’s Damascus “province” released an 18-minute production titled, “So Will They Not Repent to Allah.” The entire video was an attempt to undermine the ideological legitimacy of HTS and al Qaeda.

In addition to the attacks in Idlib, the so-called caliphate has also fought HTS in Hama, the Yarmouk refugee camp outside of Damascus and elsewhere. Thus far, there is no sign that the Sunni jihadists are reconciling to fight their common enemies.

HTS’s photos from its security campaign targeting “Kharijites” (Islamic State cells) in Idlib province:

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Trump Considers Allowing Putin To Grill Former US Amb. McFaul Over Russian Election Tampering

Trump may turn over former US ambassador to Putin

President Trump is considering turning over former US ambassador Michael McFaul to Moscow for questioning.

Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about McFaul and other Americans during their Helsinki summit and is mulling the decision with his national security team, according to the White House.

“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

“And the president will work with his team, and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”

Putin mentioned Americans he’d like to question during a joint press conference with Putin after their private meeting.

“We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate,” Putin said when asked about the 12 Russian officials who were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

” …and that they would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States, whom we believe are — who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia, and we have to — to request the presence of our law enforcement.”

McFaul responded to the Russian allegations by asking the White House to deny the “ridiculous” request.

“I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin,” McFaul tweeted.

“Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”

MGM Resorts/Mandalay Bay Sue Victims and Victims’ Relatives In Legal Dodge of Responsibility For Massacre Security Fiasco

Social media uproar follows lawsuit against victims with #BoycottMGM

MGM Resorts International’s public image took a bruising on social media Tuesday after the company filed a federal lawsuit against more than 1,000 Las Vegas mass shooting victims in an effort to avoid liability.

The company is not seeking money from the victims but is asking that a federal judge decide whether a 2002 anti-terrorism act absolves it of liability for injuries or deaths that occurred during the Oct. 1 shooting.

MGM is being sued by thousands of people who claim that the resort operator was negligent for not preventing the Oct. 1 massacre, in which gunman Stephen Paddock killed 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest festival. The company owns the festival grounds, which are across from Mandalay Bay.

The company was “dealt a bad hand” in having to file a lawsuit that could expedite the case, said Eric Rose, a partner at California-based crisis management firm Englander Knabe and Allen. However, MGM should have explained its actions before the media picked up on the lawsuit, he said.

“They couldn’t explain the lawsuit in a sound bite, and therefore they are suffering the consequences with bad headlines. It makes it look like they are going after the victims. It is going to hurt their brand.”

Rose told the Review-Journal he expects MGM to see an immediate loss in bookings and canceled stays in the short term.

An MGM spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, but in a Twitter post Tuesday evening the company said, “We have filed what is known as an action for declaratory relief. All we are doing, in effect, is asking for a change in venue from state to federal court. We are not asking for money or attorney’s fees. We only want to resolve these cases quickly, fairly and efficiently.”

Using the hashtag #BoycottMGM, some people took to social media Tuesday to blast the company and call on guests to avoid its properties.

“MGM Grand please remove me from your players list. I won’t be playing at any MGM casino going forward. Your lawsuit against victims of a mass shooting is disgusting!!” said Twitter user Bernadette Conwayon.

Others came to MGM’s defense, highlighting that some were misinterpreting the lawsuit.

Ronn Torossian, the CEO of 5WPR in New York, said the backlash will be short-lived.

“If we represented MGM, we’d advise them not to comment regarding headlines which read ‘MGM sues victims.’ These are legal nuances,” Torossian said.

MGM was trending on Twitter early in the day but slowed down throughout the day. Google Trends, which tracks what people are searching, showed a similar spike and slow decline.

The backlash on social media had no impact Tuesday on MGM shares, which rose 13 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $31.25, near a one-month high.

The company filed the lawsuits Friday in Nevada and California. MGM says the 2002 law limits liability when a company or group uses services certified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and mass attacks occur. The company says it is not liable because its security vendor for the concert, Contemporary Services Corp., was federally certified at the time of the shooting.

MGM claims that the victims, through actual and threatened lawsuits, have implicated the security company’s services because they involve concert security, including training, emergency response and evacuation.

“If defendants were injured by Paddock’s assault, as they allege, they were inevitably injured both because Paddock fired from his window and because they remained in the line of fire at the concert. Such claims inevitably implicate security at the concert — and may result in loss to CSC,” according to the MGM lawsuits.

Contact Todd Prince at 702-383-0386 or tprince@reviewjournal.com. Follow @toddprincetv on Twitter.

‘Remember Obama’s Attempted Intervention In Israeli Elections?’

‘Remember Obama intervened in Israeli elections?’

 

 

Fox News defends Trump, calls Left claims of Russian US election intervention hypocritical; Obama intervened in elections against Netanyahu.

Mordechai SonesFox News defends President Donald Trump who is facing a frontal attack for not confronting Vladimir Putin on Russian intervention in the US elections when the two met on Monday in Helsinki.

Fox Senior Anchor Sean Hannity argued interference in foreign election campaigns is a very common practice and that “everyone does it”. Moreover, he said Hillary Clinton was also assisted by foreign elements to collect “dirt” on Trump and get the FBI to open an investigation against him before the 2016 election.

The same case against Trump – including rumors about Trump’s embarrassing photographs taken in Moscow – contained “Russian propaganda,” Hannity said.

Hannity reminded viewers that President Barack Obama did not hesitate to intervene in the Israeli election campaign against Binyamin Netanyahu. This is despite the fact that Israel is “America’s number one ally in the Middle East.”

In the United States a special investigation has been going on for a year-and-a-half to determine whether there was a conspiracy between Trump and Putin in which Putin intervened to help Trump win.

John McLaughlin, an American who served as Netanyahu’s pollster in the 2015 elections, said after Obama’s election to the US media that Obama had intervened in the Israeli election campaign, accusing him of uniting the Arab parties and contributing to the V15 that worked to replace the government.

Trump/Putin Summit Pits Peace-Seeking Americans Against Democrat War-Mongers and FBI DEEP STATE

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putinsource

Trump sides with Russia against FBI at Helsinki summit

US President Donald Trump has defended Russia over claims of interference in the 2016 presidential election.

After face-to-face talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Trump contradicted US intelligence agencies and said there had been no reason for Russia to meddle in the vote.

Mr Putin reiterated that Russia had never interfered in US affairs.

The two men held nearly two hours of closed-door talks in the Finnish capital Helsinki on Monday.

At a news conference after the summit, President Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of meddling in the elections.

“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he replied.

US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.

What has US reaction been?

In a strongly-worded statement, US House Speaker Paul Ryan said Mr Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally”.

“There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” he said, adding that there was “no question” Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain said it was a “disgraceful performance” by a US president.

“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” Mr McCain said in a statement.

Another senior Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted that it was a “missed opportunity… to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling”.

In a series of tweets, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Mr Trump’s actions had “strengthened our adversaries while weakening our defences and those of our allies”.

The US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, also issued a statement saying that the intelligence community had been clear about Russia’s “ongoing, pervasive attempts” to undermine US democracy.

Mr Trump responded by tweeting that he had “great confidence in my intelligence people”, adding: “I also recognise that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along.”

Vice-President Mike Pence, in a speech at the US Department of Commerce, defended the summit and praised President Trump.

Some US politicians had called for the summit to be cancelled after 12 Russian military intelligence agents were indicted last week, accused of hacking the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Speaking on Monday, President Putin offered to allow US investigators to visit Russia to question the officers.

He made it clear that, in return, Russia would want similar access to people in the US it suspects of criminal activity.

Trump targets opponents back home

Analysis by Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent

Before their encounter started, Mr Putin was already winning on points, by the mere fact that President Trump was meeting him in the first place.

But while Mr Putin came over as the seasoned professional, eager to present his country as an equivalent to the US in terms of being a nuclear superpower; an energy provider; and a key actor in the Middle East, Mr Trump seemed more intent on castigating his opponents back home.

A lot of the questions focused on Russia’s intrusion into the US election campaign (the considered position of the key US intelligence agencies) and specifically the indictment by the Mueller probe of 12 Russian intelligence agents.

Mr Trump would have none of it. He visibly seemed happier with Mr Putin’s assurances than he did with the evidence of his own intelligence agencies. And he even welcomed Mr Putin’s suggestion that Russia could join the investigation and interview the alleged perpetrators itself! Washington’s Nato allies and many seasoned observers on Capitol Hill must have been watching in horror.

Mr Putin described the Helsinki meeting as “candid and useful” while Mr Trump said there had been “deeply productive dialogue”.

Mr Trump said US-Russia relations had “never been worse” than before they met, but that had now changed.

Relations between Russia and the West were severely strained by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which President Putin acknowledged in the news conference.

“President Trump’s position on Crimea is well known. He talks about the illegality of the Crimean reintegration to Russia. We have another point of view… that a referendum was held in accordance with international law. For us, it’s a closed question,” he said.

Both leaders also said they would work together to help resolve the Syrian crisis. The US and Russia back opposing sides in the eight-year-old civil war.

On a lighter note, Mr Trump congratulated President Putin on the successful staging of the World Cup football tournament in Russia and Mr Putin responded by giving the US leader a tournament football.

The US will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico.

The Pentagon, The Saudis, Qatar, Kidnappings and Bustards…All To Enable Open Sponsorship of Al-Nusrah Front

[Al-Nusra, formerly Al-Qaeda In Iraq, becomes Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, so that the Pentagon can openly claim them as “moderates.” ]

A new terrorist group is popping up in Syria and capitalizing on ISIS’ defeat

‘Billion dollar ransom’: Did Qatar pay record sum

A Qatari flag flying over a Qatari fort 2016Image copyright Getty Images

On the morning of 16 December 2015 Qatar’s ruling family got bad news: 28 members of a royal hunting party had been kidnapped in Iraq.

A list of the hostages was given to Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who was about to become Qatar’s foreign minister. He realised that it included two of his own relatives.

“Jassim is my cousin and Khaled is my aunt’s husband,” he texted Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq, Zayed al-Khayareen. “May God protect you: once you receive any news, update me immediately.”

The two men would spend the next 16 months consumed by the hostage crisis.

In one version of events, they would pay more than a billion dollars to free the men. The money would go to groups and individuals labelled “terrorists” by the US: Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, which killed American troops with roadside bombs; General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and personally subject to US and EU sanctions; and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, once known as al-Nusra Front, when it was an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

16 December 2015: text messages between the minister and ambassador

In another version of events – Qatar’s own – no money was paid to “terrorists”, only to the Iraqi state.

In this version, the money still sits in the Central Bank of Iraq’s vault in Baghdad, though all the hostages are home. The tortuous story of the negotiations emerges, line by line, in texts and voicemails sent between the foreign minister and the ambassador.

These were obtained by a government hostile to Qatar and passed to the BBC.

 

So, did Qatar pay the biggest ransom in history?

Sheikh Mohammed is a former economist and a distant relative of the emir. He was not well known before he was promoted to foreign minister at the relatively young age of 35.

Mohammed bin Abdulrahman in Brussels June 2018Image copyright EPA
Image caption Relatives of Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman were among those kidnapped 

At the time of the kidnapping, the ambassador Zayed al-Khayareen was in his 50s, and was said to have held the rank of colonel in Qatari intelligence. He was Qatar’s first envoy to Iraq in 27 years, but this was not an important post.

The crisis was his chance to improve his position.

The hostages had gone to Iraq to hunt with falcons. They were warned – implored – not to go. But falconry is the sport of kings in the Gulf and there were flocks of the falcons’ prey, the Houbara bustard, in the empty expanse of southern Iraq.

The hunters’ camp was overrun by pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns in the early hours of the morning.

A former hostage told the New York Times they thought it was “Isis”, the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State. But then one of the kidnappers used a Shia insult to Sunnis.

An Asian Houbara bustard flies during a falconry competition in Hameem, west of Abu Dhabi, UAE 9 December 2014Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Asian Houbara bustard, found in Iraq, is highly prized in the Arab Gulf states 

For many agonising weeks, the Qatari government heard nothing. But in March 2016, things started to move. Officials learned that the kidnappers were from Kataib Hezbollah (the Party of God Brigades), an Iraqi Shia militia supported by Iran.

The group wanted money. Ambassador Khayareen texted Sheikh Mohammed: “I told them, ‘Give us back 14 of our people… and we will give you half of the amount.'” The “amount” is not clear in the phone records at this stage.

18 March 2016: text messages between the foreign minister and ambassador

Five days later, the group offered to release three hostages. “They want a gesture of goodwill from us as well,” the ambassador wrote. “This is a good sign… that they are in a hurry and want to end everything soon.”

Two days later the ambassador was in the Green Zone in Baghdad, a walled off and heavily guarded part of the city where the Iraqi government and foreign embassies are located.

Iraq in March is already hot. The atmosphere in the Green Zone would have seemed especially stifling: supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr were at the gates, protesting about corruption. The staff of some embassies had fled, the ambassador reported. This provided a tense backdrop to the negotiations.

20 March 2016: text message from the ambassador to the foreign minister

Mr Khayareen waited. But there was no sign of the promised release. He wrote: “This is the third time that I come to Baghdad for the hostages’ case and I have never felt frustrated like this time. I’ve never felt this stressed. I don’t want to leave without the hostages. :( :(”

The kidnappers turned up, not with hostages but with a USB memory stick containing a video of a solitary captive.

“What guarantee do we have that the rest are with them?” Sheikh Mohammed asked the ambassador. “Delete the video from your phone… Make sure it doesn’t leak, to anyone.”

Mr Khayareen agreed, saying: “We don’t want their families to watch the video and get emotionally affected.”

The hostages had been split up – the royals were put in a windowless basement; their friends, the other non-royals, and the non-Qataris in the party, were taken elsewhere and given better treatment and food.

22 March 2016: text messages between the foreign minister and ambassador

A Qatari official told me that the royals were moved around, sometimes every two to three days, but always kept somewhere underground. They had only a single Koran to read between them.

For almost the entire 16 months they spent in captivity, they had no idea what was happening in the outside world.

If money was the answer to this problem, at least the Qataris had it. But the texts and voicemails show that the kidnappers added to their demands, changing them, going backwards and forwards: Qatar should leave the Saudi-led coalition battling Shia rebels in Yemen. Qatar should secure the release of Iranian soldiers held prisoner by rebels in Syria.

4 April 2017: text message from the ambassador to the foreign minister

Then it was money again. And as well as the main ransom, the militia commanders wanted side payments for themselves.

As one session of talks ended, a Kataib Hezbollah negotiator, Abu Mohammed, apparently took the ambassador aside and asked for $10m (£7.6m) for himself.

“Abu Mohammed asked, ‘What’s in it for me? Frankly I want 10’,” the ambassador said in a voicemail.

“I told him, ‘Ten? I am not giving you 10. Only if you get my guys done 100%…’

“To motivate him, I also told him that I am willing to buy him an apartment in Lebanon.”

The ambassador used two Iraqi mediators, both Sunnis. They visited the Qatari foreign minister, asking in advance for “gifts”: $150,000 in cash and five Rolex watches, “two of the most expensive kind, three of regular quality”. It’s not clear if these gifts were for the mediators themselves or were to grease the kidnappers’ palms as the talks continued.

In April 2016, the phone records were peppered with a new name: Qasem Soleimani, Kataib Hezbollah’s Iranian patron.

General Qasem Soleimani, centre, in Tehran 2016Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, centre, heads the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force 

By now, the ransom demand appears to have reached the astonishing sum of $1bn. Even so, the kidnappers held out for more. The ambassador texted the foreign minister: “Soleimani met with the kidnappers yesterday and pressured them to take the $1b. They didn’t respond because of their financial condition… Soleimani will go back.”

The ambassador texted again that the Iranian general was “very upset” with the kidnappers. “They want to exhaust us and force us to accept their demands immediately. We need to stay calm and not to rush.” But, he told Sheikh Mohammed, “You need to be ready with $$$$.” The minister replied: “God helps!”

Months passed. Then in November 2016, a new element entered the negotiations. Gen Soleimani wanted Qatar to help implement the so-called “four towns agreement” in Syria.

Syria conflict: ‘Deal reached’ for four besieged towns

At the time, two Sunni towns held by the rebels were surrounded by the Syrian government, which is supported by Iran. Meanwhile, two Shia towns loyal to the government were also under siege by Salafist rebels, who were apparently supported by Qatar. (The rebels were said to include members of the former al-Nusra Front.) Under the agreement, the sieges of the four towns would be lifted and their populations evacuated.

According to the ambassador, Gen Soleimani told Kataib Hezbollah that if Shia were saved because of the four towns agreement, it would be “shameful” to demand personal bribes.

“Hezbollah Lebanon, and Kataib Hezbollah Iraq, all want money and this is their chance,” the ambassador texted the foreign minister. “They are using this situation to benefit… especially that they know that it’s nearly the end… All of them are thieves.”

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

The government that gave us this material – which is hostile to Qatar – believes the discussions between Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Khayareen were about $1bn in ransom plus $150m in side payments, or “kickbacks”. But the texts are ambiguous. It could be that the four towns deal was what was required to free the hostages, plus $150m in personal payments to the kidnappers.

Qatari officials accept that the texts and voicemails are genuine, though they believe they have been edited “very selectively” to give a misleading impression.

The transcripts were leaked, to the Washington Post, in April 2018. Our sources waited until officials in Doha issued denials. Then they sought to embarrass Qatar by releasing the original audio recordings.

Qatar is under economic blockade by some of its neighbours – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. This regional dispute has produced an intensive, and expensive, campaign of hacking, leaking and briefings in Washington and London.

The hostage crisis was brought to an end in April 2017. A Qatar Airways plane flew to Baghdad to deliver money and bring the hostages back. This was confirmed by Qatari officials, though Qatar Airways itself declined to comment.

A Qatar Airways plane in flightImage copyright EPA

Image caption Qatar Airways has declined to comment

 

Qatar is in a legal dispute with its neighbours about overflight rights. The question of whether the emirate’s national carrier was used to make payments to “terrorists” will have a bearing on the case – one reason, presumably, why we were leaked this material.

Who would get the cash flown into Baghdad – and how much was there? Our original source – the government opposed to Qatar – maintains that it was more than $1bn, plus $150m in kickbacks, much of it destined for Kataib Hezbollah.

Qatari officials confirm that a large sum in cash was sent – but they say it was for the Iraqi government, not terrorists. The payments were for “economic development” and “security co-operation”. “We wanted to make the Iraqi government fully responsible for the hostages’ safety,” the officials say.

The Qataris thought they had made a deal with the Iraqi interior minister. He was waiting at the airport when the plane landed with its cargo of cash in black duffel bags. Then armed men swept in, wearing military uniforms without insignia.

“We still don’t know who they were,” a Qatari official told me. “The interior minister was pushed out.” This could only be a move by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, they reasoned. The Qatari prime minister frantically called Mr Abadi. He did not pick up.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi June 2018Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

Mr Abadi later held a news conference, saying that he had taken control of the cash.

Although the money had been seized, the hostage release went ahead anyway, tied to implementation of the “four towns agreement”.

In the texts, a Qatari intelligence officer, Jassim Bin Fahad Al Thani – presumably a member of the royal family – was present on the ground.

First, “46 buses” took people from the two Sunni towns in Syria. “We took out 5,000 people over two days,” Jassim Bin Fahad texted. “Now we are taking 3,000… We don’t want any bombings.”

A few days later, the Shia towns were evacuated. Sheikh Mohammed sent a text that “3,000 [Shia] are being held in exchange location… when we have seen our people, I will let the buses move.”

The ambassador replied that the other side was worried. “They are panicking. They said that if the sun rises [without the Shia leaving] they will take our people back.”

On 21 April 2017, the Qatari hostages were released. All were “fine”, the ambassador reported, but “they lost almost half of their weight”. The ambassador arranged for the plane taking them home to have “biryani and kabsa, white rice and sauté… Not for me. The guys are missing this food.”

Sixteen months after they were taken, television pictures showed the hostages, gaunt but smiling, on the tarmac at Doha airport.

The sources for the texts and voicemails – officials from a government hostile to Qatar – say the material shows that “Qatar sent money to terrorists”.

Shortly after the money was flown to Baghdad, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt began their economic blockade of Qatar. They still accuse Qatar of having a “long history” of financing “terrorism”.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at a summit in Riyadh on 11 November 2015Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US has urged Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to act against terrorism 

The anti-Qatar sources point to one voicemail from Ambassador Khayareen. In it, he describes telling a Kataib Hezbollah leader: “You should trust Qatar, you know what Qatar did, what His Highness the Emir’s father did… He did many things, this and that, and paid 50 million, and provided infrastructure for the south, and he was the first one who visited.”

Our sources maintain that this shows an historic payment, under the old emir, of $50m to Kataib Hezbollah.

Qatari officials say it shows support for Shia in general.

Whether the blockade of Qatar continues will depend on who wins the argument over “terrorist financing”.

Partly, this is a fight over whom to believe about how a kidnapping in the Iraqi desert was ended. Qatari officials say the money they flew to Baghdad remains in a vault in the Iraqi central bank “on deposit”.

Their opponents say that the Iraqi government inserted itself into the hostage deal and distributed the money.

For the time being, the mystery over whether Qatar did make the biggest ransom payment in history remains unsolved.