One of the photos posted from Iraq by Nayef bin Eid Mohammed Al Thani a few days before he and his Qatari companions were kidnapped
Arabic media reports suggest the nine Qatari royals kidnapped in Iraq last week are being held by Iranian-linked Shia elements whose demands are political and sectarian rather than financial.
According to al-Sharqiyya, an Iraqi TV channel with Sunni and Gulf connections, the kidnappers are calling for a change in Qatar's policy towards Iraq and the release of detainees in Syria.
Regarding Iraq, they want Qatar to "open up to some of the political factions that have armed extensions in Iraq and stop holding rallies and conferences of opposition figures".
Regarding Syria, they want the release of prisoners held by Jabhat al-Nusra (the Sunni Islamist militia) and the withdrawal of Jabhat al-Nusra's supporters from "some areas" and "especially from the Lebanese Arsal area bordering Syria".
Al-Sharqiyya says its political correspondent obtained this information from "more than one source" but does not identify the sources.
Meanwhile, the Emirati website Erem News, citing unnamed "Iraqi parliamentary sources", says the kidnappers are seeking to exchange their Qatari captives for Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the prominent Shia cleric who has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia.
None of these demands have been confirmed independently or by named sources. A possible further indication, however, is that the Qatari ambassador in Baghdad is said to have had a meeting on Saturday with Hadi al Amiri, head of Badr Organisation which controls the most powerful Shia militia in Iraq and also has strong ties with Iran. This could indicate that the Badr Organisation is holding the Qataris or at least is in a position to "assist" with the negotiations for their release.
The political demands that have been reported are clearly the sort that Shia elements might be expected to make if they are indeed holding the Qataris. Equally, though, they fit the sort of narrative that anti-Shia media might be expected to adopt and there are some in Qatar who are very sceptical about it.
The main reason for this scepticism is sheer incredulity that a group of Qatari royals would deliberately expose themselves to such an obvious risk by going to Iraq. For some, this points to a hypothesis that the Qataris knew their "captors" and that what happened in the desert was some kind of pre-arranged rendezvous.
If so, what was it for? One suggestion is that the kidnap might have been staged in the knowledge that a huge ransom would have to be paid. In other words, it might be some sort of money-laundering operation involving the transfer of funds to some militant group disguised as a ransom. Another – even more bizarre – suggestion is that it might be an elaborate ruse enabling the Qataris to join the Islamic State.
Conspiracy theories of that kind are, of course, abundant everywhere in the Middle East. Although there are no indisputably neutral sources for the kidnapping narrative, the idea that it was a fake kidnapping does not appear to be based on any real evidence and there is no reason to suppose the Qatari royals would wish to join IS. It's mentioned here simply to point out that the version of events reported in the media has not gone totally unchallenged.
The nine members of Qatar's ruling Al Thani family crossed into southern Iraq – reportedly in a large group with 45 vehicles – about four weeks ago for what was apparently intended as a month-long hunting trip.
There is a long tradition of hunting in that part of Iraq, as Frank Gardner explained on the BBC website:
"Iraq is one of several countries frequented by Gulf Arab huntsmen and falconers as they search for prey that either does not exist in their own countries or which has been almost hunted to extinction there.
"Their favoured prey is the Asian houbara bustard, akin to a small turkey, and to find it and other similar species Gulf hunters often travel to Morocco, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"They take with them their prized falcons, typically peregrines, sakers and lanners, which are expertly trained to home in on their quarry at high speed."
One of the Qataris, Sheikh Nayef bin Eid Mohammed Al Thani, posted a series of photographs on the internet about a week before the kidnapping (see above and below). They appear to show members of the hunting party in Iraq.
Given the security situation in Iraq the trip was obviously risky but perhaps the Qataris thought the large size of their party would afford some protection.
However, the abduction (assuming that's what it was) appears to have been well planned. The kidnappers, numbering about 100 and armed with light and medium weapons, are said to have arrived with some 50 vehicles in the middle of the night.
The numbers in the hunters' encampment are reported to have been reduced at that time because some had gone off to hunt by night. According to the Kuwaiti news organisation al-Rai, the night-hunters returned around 5am to find "strange movement" in the camp and then raised the alarm with the Iraqi police.
The result of this was that some of the party avoided being kidnapped, while others – apparently members of the hunters' retinue – were later released.
According to al-Rai, those who were either released or not abducted included six non-royal Qataris, a Kuwaiti and two Saudis. All these had the family name al-Marri or al-Kubaisi.
Thirty-four others – presumably drivers, servants, etc – were also reportedly freed or not captured: ten Pakistanis, eight Bangladeshis, five Indians, four Iranians, three Nepalese, three Egyptians and one Iraqi.
A story told by one of those who were freed (but perhaps embellished in the re-telling) might be interpreted as a sign that the kidnappers are not interested in exchanging their hostages for money.
The version given by al-Sharqiyya is that one of the Qataris, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Thani, handed his kidnappers a bag containing $300,000 – which the kidnappers duly burned, saying they wanted him and not his money.
However, other sources quoted by al-Rai say that while the kidnappers did burn the bag, they removed the money first while indicating that they were not interested in such trivial sums.
So far, there is no reason to suppose the abducted Qataris have come to any harm. However, there was a strange and perhaps sinister development on Saturday when someone created a Wikipedia entry in Arabic for one of the hostages, Khalid bin Fahd Jassem Mohammed Al Thani. The entry contains a single sentence saying: "Born in 1988, he was kidnapped and killed in Iraq" (italics added). Whoever posted this did so through an IP address in Baghdad. Whether it's of any significance remains to be seen.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 21 December 2015