The U.S. military orchestrates the air war over Iraq and Syria from a hulking command center on the vast al-Udeid Air Base, a Qatari-owned encampment that is home to 8,000 American military personnel and dozens of Air Force jets. Giant video screens inside the windowless, two-story structure allow troops to track every plane and observe live footage from every drone involved in operations against the Islamic State.
Twenty miles to the northeast, in the heart of this opulent and fast-growing capital city, the even more gargantuan Grand Mosque has served as a key outpost for al-Qaeda-linked rebels fighting the Syrian regime. From a pulpit under ringed chandeliers, several clerics have exhorted the faithful to open their wallets in support of Syrian resistance groups. Some of the clerics have boasted of directing money toward Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. government has classified as a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda.
Although Qatari authorities have moved over the past year to crack down on private donations to Syrian rebels allied with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the government here shows no signs of diminishing its support for Islamist groups across the Arab world that others in the region have branded as outlaws and terrorists.
Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists — from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters — while also offering itself as a key U.S. ally in the volatile Middle East is rooted in pragmatism: This gas-rich, finger-shaped peninsula that borders Saudi Arabia and juts into the Persian Gulf wants to protect itself by being friends with everybody.
The Crossroads of Special Operations