WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump accused Qatar on Friday of funding terrorism “at a very high level,” and said solving the problem in the tiny Persian Gulf nation could be “the beginning of the end of terrorism.”
“No more funding,” Trump said.
Trump’s condemnation of Qatar deviated sharply from the message delivered by his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who only an hour earlier had called on Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar and had credited the kingdom with progress in curbing terror funding. Tillerson sat a few feet away from Trump in the Rose Garden as the president put the blame squarely on Qatar.
Launching an extraordinary allegation against a key U.S. military partner, Trump derided what he called Qatar’s “extremist ideology in terms of funding” terrorist groups, an accusation Qatar has repeatedly and vehemently denied. His comments were a forceful endorsement of this week’s move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to cut off ties to Qatar.
Increasing the pressure Friday, those nations put 12 organizations and 59 people on a terror sanctions list and described them as being associated with Qatar, which called the allegations “baseless.”
Notwithstanding Qatar’s denials, Western diplomats accuse Qatar’s government of allowing or even encouraging the funding of some Sunni extremists, such as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
Trump said Arab leaders he met with in Saudi Arabia last month had urged him to confront Qatar over its behavior.
“The time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding,” Trump said. “They have to end that funding.”
Addressing a White House news conference, the president said Qatar had “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” Other U.S. officials have said Qatar has already taken some steps to reduce terror funding but that the steps are insufficient.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Trump’s sharp condemnation might affect U.S. cooperation with Qatar, which hosts some 10,000 U.S. troops and a major U.S. air base that serves as a staging ground for operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In stressing the need to take action against Qatar, Trump appeared to undercut Tillerson, who had called on Qatar’s neighbors to immediately ease their blockade. Tillerson has been tapped by Trump to help mediate the worst diplomatic crisis in the Gulf in years.
“The blockade is hindering U.S. military action in the region, and the campaign against ISIS,” Tillerson said, using an acronym for the extremist group. The U.S. military has previously insisted that that it would not affect U.S. military operations in the region.
Tillerson, too, faulted Qatar for allowing funds to flow to extremist groups, but in terms that were much less severe than Trump’s. Tillerson said the U.S. was asking Qatar to “be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors.”
“Qatar has a history of supporting groups that span the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence,” Tillerson said. He credited Qatar’s emir with making progress in curbing financial support and expelling terrorists, but added: “He must do more, and he must do it more quickly.”
Tillerson, speaking at the State Department, said the U.S. would help support efforts to mediate the crisis, along with Kuwait — another Gulf country that has stepped up to try to broker a resolution. Urging all sides to avoid further escalation of the conflict, Tillerson said the elements were available to resolve it.
Yet Tillerson’s plea to Qatar’s neighbors to pull back their efforts to isolate the tiny gas-rich nation marked a shift from previous statements by the Trump administration. Earlier in the week, Trump took to Twitter to take credit for the Saudi-led move to punish Qatar, saying it could be the start of the end of terrorism in the Middle East. He noted that during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Arab leaders he’d met with had joined in warning about Qatari support for terrorism.