The detonation of an explosives-laden car outside a theater in Doha on March 19 added one more country to the list of Gulf States bloodied by militant Islamist violence. Clearly aimed at a westerner-rich target — expatriates attending a performance of a Shakespeare play — the suicide attack has posed a number of questions. The first of these is the identity of the suicide attacker. Omar Ahmad Abdullah Ali, an Egyptian national and employee of state-run Qatar Petroleum, appears to have had no militant profile. Unless the bomber was in some way radicalized by a sojourn in a country that is becoming increasingly anti-American, observers are at a loss to explain his motivation and are mooting the possibility that he may have been an unwilling victim.
Secondly, there is the problem of the identity of the attacking group. In an (unverifiable) posting on the Al-Ma’sada jihadist forum [www.alm2sdah.net], the bombing was almost immediately claimed by a group calling itself the Tanzim Jund al-Sham (Organization of the Army of Greater Syria). There was a delay of a few days before a subsequent, and longer statement warned “America, Britain and Italy and all those who have defiled the lands of Islam to be ready for the grand surprise”, claiming that “the Qatar operation is [just] the beginning.”
Some doubt has been voiced as to the authenticity of this claim, not least for the lack of the expected chapter-and-verse doctrinal justification for the attack. Comments on jihadist websites, though applauding the attack, expressed incredulity at the attribution. The name ‘Jund al-Sham’ has been bandied about as an entity operating in Lebanon and Syria and latterly associated by Kurdish officials with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. It is unclear as to whether it is linked to the extremist Sunni Palestinian organization of the same name, which surfaced during clashes with Fatah members in Lebanon at the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh. Lebanese officials have consistently downplayed the significance of the group as a fabrication either of the Israelis or the Syrian regime. In the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, it also appeared, on March 29, to claim responsibility for three more explosions against Christian targets in Lebanon, adding to the mystery.
However, the al-Zarqawi name does resurface in the context of an audiotape announcement posted on the Al-Ma’sada forum and attributed to Salih al-‘Awfi, head of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, in which he urged “our brothers in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE and all the Gulf states close to Iraq to help their brothers [in Iraq], each in his country by destroying machines, soldiers, bases and planes of the Crusaders” [www.alm2sdah.net]. In which case, the mujahideen leader’s statement serves to illustrate the spill-over effect of Saudi security successes against its own radicals. If militants are decamping for other pastures, the Gulf States look set to become the replacement battle-ground. In addition to serving to confirm al-Qaeda’s continued potency in the region, it would also correspond to al-Qaeda’s latterly more focused policy of selecting targets aimed at making sense to a population it sees as progressively radicalizing.
However, the al-Qaeda connection is not established. On March 28 Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, ruled out al-Qaeda involvement in the bombing, but declined to explain his reasons. This may be related to a denial issued by al-Qaeda on March 20. The online Arabic language Elaph newspaper reported that day on how an unnamed al-Qaeda spokesman explained how the state of Qatar was not on the list of intended targets, and that the action had been undertaken by an individual acting on his own account. The spokesman, according to the report, expressed how al-Qaeda was shocked at the incident, that Bin Laden had not been consulted in advance on this or given a chance to halt the attack against a state “which had exerted its efforts via its satellite channel to free Tayseer Alouni, one of the organization’s leading members in Spain.” Bin Laden is then said to have called a meeting of the leadership to condemn the bombing and deny the celestial reward to the suicide. In one extra detail the report hinted at differences with Taliban leader Mulla Omar, who had apparently attempted to dissuade Bin Laden from condemning the perpetrator. The spokesman, according to the report also re-affirmed al-Qaeda’s observation to what he described as an agreement concluded with the state not to undertake ‘any bombing, mining or maiming of any American infidel on its territory’ despite the presence of the US base. The Qatari foreign minister is also reported by Elaph to have expressed his outrage at the “act of unpardonable treachery by Bin Laden” and to have refused to meet the said spokesman [www.elaph.com].
There is no other confirmation of this report, which itself throws up more questions. For instance, on how an individual could have supplied and organized such an attack, or whether self-styled groups taking al-Qaeda as a model are causing damage to its global strategy and alliances. It also leaves unexplained why Bin Laden, who has vowed to “expel the infidel from the Arabian Peninsula,” should see the need at all to enter into an agreement with Qatar (which hosts the U.S. military’s Central Command base), or what the nature of such an agreement could involve.