A recent libel trial in London casts light on the workings of one of the most complex and interesting power structures in the tangled labyrinth of the Middle East – namely, the burgeoning alliance between Turkey, the Emirate of Qatar and the broader network of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region and beyond it.
The trial itself featured a figure well known to Israelis – Mohammad Dahlan, former commander of Fatah's Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip. Dahlan had sued the London-based Middle East Eye, a news website widely considered to have close ties to the Emirate of Qatar, for libel.
The website had alleged that Dahlan had secretly funded the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Dahlan's actions were presented as part of a larger effort by the United Arab Emirates.
Ankara and Doha control an archipelago of influential NGOs and media in Western countries.
In the course of the trial, it emerged that MEE's sole source for this allegation was a single unverified contact within the Turkish intelligence services.
Middle East Eye, founded by former Guardian foreign correspondent David Hearst, refuses to discuss the sources of its funding. Hearst, in 2014, described the website's backers as "individual private donors" with an interest in "democracy in the Middle East."
There are extensive links, however, between MEE's staff and Qatar's powerful and influential Al Jazeera media network. The network also appears to be linked to a broader Muslim Brotherhood associated nexus.
Thus, the director of MEE Ltd., Kuwait-born Palestinian Jamal Bassasso, is a former director of planning and human resources at Al Jazeera. Bassasso is also a former official for the Hamas-affiliated Al-Quds TV in Lebanon, according to a 2017 report by Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. Jonathan Powell, a senior executive at the Al Jazeera network, spent six months in London as a "launch consultant" for MEE. Adlin Adnan, former official of the Hamas-linked Interpal charity, registered the MEE website.
This apparent burgeoning media nexus in turn constitutes a component of one of the region's most significant alignments. While the Mideast news headlines are currently (justifiably) dominated by the clash between the Iranian-led, largely Shia axis and its West-aligned enemies, the Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood nexus constitutes a third force.
This alliance first came to prominence in the early, optimistic months of the "Arab Spring." In Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, Muslim Brotherhood-associated movements played a vital early role in the popular uprisings in those countries.
Qatar offered encouragement via Al Jazeera, and financial support to Islamist insurgent groups such as the Tawhid Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.
Turkey was the main backer for the Sunni Arab rebels throughout the Syrian rebellion, and offered active support to Mohamed Morsi's short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
Today, both Doha and Ankara are active backers of Fayez al-Sarraj's Government of National Accord in Libya, in which Muslim Brotherhood elements are prominent.
Hopes of a powerful, Brotherhood-oriented regional alliance, with Qatar as the chief financier and cheerleader, and Turkey providing the muscle, have largely foundered. The military coup in Egypt in July 2013 and the defeat and eclipse of the Syrian rebellion put paid to these. In each of those cases, the Turkey-Qatar nexus was defeated by a different enemy.
In Egypt, Saudi and UAE-backed, Western-oriented officers removed the Brotherhood from power. In Syria, it was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their proxies, plus Russian air power, that delivered the coup de grâce.
Since this time, the Turkey-Qatar-Brotherhood nexus has been playing a largely defensive game.
When Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to press home their advantage against Qatar in June 2017, instituting an economic blockade, it was Turkey that rose to its ally's defense. This was despite the large volume of trade between Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. Turkey stationed 3,000 troops in Qatar, and sent cargo ships and aircraft laden with supplies to help Doha resist the blockade of its neighbors. The dispute remains unresolved. But the Turkish contribution enabled Qatar to avoid disaster in the first months.
Since 2017, the relationship has significantly expanded. Turkey is currently set to open a military base in Qatar. Turkish firms have been awarded lucrative contracts in the construction sector in Qatar. Qatari investment in the troubled Turkish economy has sharply increased.
Many of the region's top Muslim Brotherhood leaders live in exile in Turkey or Qatar.
With the Muslim Brotherhood's fortunes today at a low ebb, many of its most prominent regional leaders and activists are today resident in exile in Turkey or Qatar.
But an influential archipelago of nongovernmental organizations, charities, media outlets and Islamic educational bodies continues to function, and to receive the support and sponsorship of Ankara and Doha. This structure extends deeply into Western countries, and into Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
While Muslim Brotherhood-associated organizations usually avoid open paramilitary activity, there are strong indications that the Palestinian arena represents an exception in this regard. A recent defector from the movement, Suheib Yousef, declared that "Hamas operates security and military operations on Turkish soil under the cover of civil society," describing an extensive intelligence-gathering operation maintained by the movement on Turkish soil.
In a manner not dissimilar to that of Iran, the Qatar-Turkey nexus blurs the borders between governmental and civil society activity. In so doing, it maximizes the efficacy of each sector. The NGOs can present themselves as entirely independent of any state affiliation. This grants them a credibility not available to openly state-aligned bodies. The greater resources available to states, meanwhile, can offer added benefit to the NGOs.
All this matters because in spite of the reduced circumstances of this alliance when compared to the high days of 2011-12, a large, aggrieved and unrepresented Sunni Arab population exists in the region. Elements of this population have not necessarily resigned themselves permanently to domination by Shia Islamists, or Sunni kings and generals. Many among them remain sympathetic to Sunni political Islam. The Turkey-Qatar-Brotherhood nexus, with its network of media groups, charities, NGOs and paramilitary clients, hopes to ride their grievances to greater regional power and influence, once the lean years are over.
The evidence that emerged from the courtroom in London appears to encapsulate this system's modus operandi. It shines a momentary spotlight on a nexus whose natural element is darkness. An ostensibly independent media group that refuses to reveal its financial backers, operating with the clear involvement of individuals linked to Qatar and to Hamas, writing stories based on information received from anonymous Turkish intelligence officials. The whole system in miniature. Those who this system intends to target should be paying attention.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.