An interview on with Kyle Shideler, the Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy.
Kyle Shideler: I will admit, when we went to press, I was a little worried. Because Qatar and its conflict with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which many of our audience members are familiar with, had dropped out of the news. People were no longer talking about Qatar. They weren’t really interested in the issue, and I was a little bit concerned that we had missed our mark for the book. And then all of a sudden, we have the back-to-back release of the US Intelligence community’s Khashoggi report, and then the announcement that the Qataris were going to launch a new Al Jazeera conservative media operation. And all of a sudden, the Qataris are back in the news. And it’s a great time to be talking about Qatar and Qatar’s information operations in the United States. Congratulations to you on your apparently excellent timing.
Your book, QATAR’S SHADOW WAR, focuses on two pretty major issues that I think we’re dealing in national security right now. And one is, the role of foreign influence or interference in our system of government, and then the other is the use and abuse of information operations, which are sophisticated methods of using the media to manipulate people in what they experience for political purpose.
And it just so happens that, in the case of Qatar, we have these two major issues reduced down to one specific bad actor. And so, I think, it’s going to be useful to keep those two national security issues in the back of our minds as we talk about this. But let’s start with some of the broad outlines, Dave. Qatar is a small country. Ostensibly, they’re even a US ally, they host a CENTCOM airbase. What is the problem with Qatar? Why should we care about Qatar?
Thanks, Kyle, for having me, and I appreciate everything that the Center has done to help with the book, and I appreciate all of you for watching and listening.
With regards to Qatar, there’s easy answer: Qatar is the funder and the state sponsor of the most influential and dangerous Islamist intellectual group, the Muslim Brotherhood. And it uses a massive amount of petro-wealth—it’s per capita, the richest country in the world—to advance the cause of said Islamist group. And so, for Americans or others who understand the threat that Islamist goals present—that they’re antithetical to the American founding—the threat of Qatar seems obvious.
I think though, a growing number of our fellow Americans seem to need a refresher course on what the threat is. So just to provide some background: Really since the Obama administration, we’ve seen a collapse of what used to be something like a consensus understanding in American foreign policy. From the end of World War II until really the second term of Obama, most Americans saw the same countries as allies and as enemies. We had a fundamental way of understanding this. And that is to say that, despite differences between so-called hawks and doves in how to handle foreign policy, whether or not to embrace detente or be conciliatory towards the Soviet Union, or stuff like that.
There was a sense that the Soviet Union was an enemy or an adversary, certainly more than just a competitor. And all that changed around the time of the second term of Obama, which could otherwise be known as the time of the Iran Deal. Stepping back a second, in regard to this consensus, in the Middle East, what that meant was pretty much that the US public and the US elected representatives, which is anyone who has to face an election somewhere in America, we’re pretty much within what used to be called, “the bipartisan consensus on Israel,” and then it’s sort of mirror image flip side, which is the bipartisan consensus against Islamist terror groups. In the old days—I mean, forget about 9/11, but really from the Reagan administration until Obama, you even had partisan Democrats like Chuck Schumer, taking aggressive positions against Islamist groups. I remember Schumer being very aggressive, for example, in Dubai ports and things like that, a million years ago.
They would openly condemn Islamist pressure groups like CAIR at certain points.
DR: Right. People don’t remember that, in the early days of global war on terror, that was not that uncommon to have that reaction from Democrats. And we’ve lost a lot of that consensus. And I think we’ve lost it on purpose—meaning, there was a campaign to lose it; there was a campaign that got us off that track, got us away from that consensus. And that was sort of the next step. And I think it was a deliberate action on the part of left wing donors. This was a big George Soros project. And certainly, he’s not the only one, he’s just the one that is easy to talk about, because it’s a lot easier to talk about one guy than it is to talk about the Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation; these are nameless, faceless groups that operate in the same way. But around 2004, the Ned Lamont campaign was really ahead of the curve, when you had MoveOn and a lot of these hyper progressive groups trying to retake the Democratic party, move it toward the left. One of the points of contention that they had with mainstream Democrats was that they bought into this bipartisan consensus on a lot of these things, on Israel, on one hand, and Islamism on the other. So it took a while, but that consensus began to change and break, and the Democratic party began to radicalize on foreign policy issues.
So we get to Obama, and when we get to Obama, we have to realize that Obama was unique as a president in the sense that every other president has a doctrine that they’re very proud of describing. We have the Bush Doctrine, we have the Trump Doctrine, we have the Reagan Doctrine.
The Obama Doctrine was sort of, “Say one thing and then do something completely different,” because I think they were very aware that if they were to be honest about what they wanted—which was to reposition alliances in the Middle East—the American people would’ve had none of it. So I think that’s what they had in mind when they entered the office, and by the time they got to the second term, I think the stage was set because they had smooth sailing to go until the end. They had no electoral accountability. Although they also understood gradualism, which is, it’s really hard to break decades of messaging and party orthodoxy.
But with the Iran Deal, they set up to change all that. And the important thing to know about the Iran deal is that the details of the Deal were completely unimportant. It was not about the Deal itself, because they were willing to concede to any part of the Deal. And I think a lot of the critics ended up chasing a lot of their critics down these weird rabbit holes, because their critics were taking some of these specifics that were offered by the Deal literally, and the plan architects didn’t mean them literally.
The Obama folks used the Iran Deal to wage a communications campaign to reset the system of alliances in the Middle East, that’s what it was all about. And it enabled them to define domestic opponents of the Deal as traitors or warmongers. They did it to Senator Tom Cotton. And on the foreign side, it purposely raised the polling negatives for foreign countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular, who were then said to be “anti-peace.” So these countries went from being our allies in the war on terror to being the enemies of peace.
And Qatar—which has a very excellent relationship with these Islamist groups that the Obama administration wanted to paint as Democrats and a good relationship with Iran—was central to that campaign, which you’re talking about, flipping enemies to become friends and friends to become enemies.
You’re right. Thank you for bearing with me on that long windup, but that’s exactly where we were going, which is that Qatar is the beneficiary of both of these things, of both the movement towards acceptance of Sunni Islamism and also Shia Islamism. So that answers the question, “Why Qatar? Why does it all matter? How does everything fall together?”
And the other aspect too, is that this campaign against our traditional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular (though there are other countries in this constellation too, like Egypt and UAE, to the extent that they get involved). Negative numbers for these countries rose as planned with Democratic partisans. So we really had the end of the bipartisan consensus, not just on Israel, but on a whole bunch of things. And I’ve written about this, how we’ve now entered a revolutionary period in the United States where even on foreign policy, we can’t take for granted that we see the same countries as adversaries and/or as allies.
And that leaves us at the Trump administration. And the Trump administration decided very early on that it would reverse this Obama trend, meaning it would re-embrace our traditional allies and, on one hand, wipe away the Obama years in the Middle East, but on the other hand, be the beneficiary of the amazing thing that happened during the Obama years. As Obama shifted towards Iran in particular and Turkey in particular, both Israel and Saudi Arabia looked at one another and said, “Wait a minute, if the United States is not going to have our back as allies in the region, we need to have our own backs.” So the best thing that happened during Obama really was something that ended up flowering during the Abraham Accords, which is a direct result of Obama’s mismanagement at the Middle East.
And on the other side of that realignment—on the other side of the Abraham Accords—we find Qatar. And the traditional allies of the United States in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia being the big ones, just so happened to be Qatar’s main adversaries. So it was perfectly positioned during the Trump years to be a country in favor from the point of view of partisan Democrats or a Trump-deranged media.
That gets me to one of the other points: we enter an environment in which we have the Trump administration working together with the Israelis and some of the Gulf States to form the Abraham Accords, bringing countries which we have security relationships with together. Qatar is the opponent of this; their goal is to break it up. And we saw very early on, the Trump administration was pretty aggressive in the media about Qatar, and then all of a sudden that disappeared. And we no longer saw the pushback against Qatar, from the president on down. And you get into this in the book. Can you walk us through briefly how it was that the Qataris responded to this campaign, and were able to successfully neuter it?
DR: The campaign started in the summer of 2017. A few months after Donald Trump came into office, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries got together and they gave the Qataris an ultimatum. And the ultimatum was, “You guys need to stop doing these 13 things, or else we’re going to blockade you.” And the 13 things had to do mainly with things like Qatar’s relationship with Iran, Qatar’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera, which incubated revolutions in the region and within their countries, Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, et cetera.
Now, if you go and you look at these 13 requirements, or 13 demands from primarily the Saudis and Emiratis, these 13 demands were things that you and I had on our wishlist for the last 20 years. And so, when I saw that, I scratched my head and I said, “Wow, this is a completely new and different posture” likely coming from the young anti-Islamist Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MBS, and this is a really good start. We want them to be doing these things.
The US-Saudi relationship is long and full of ups and downs, but there’s no question about it, we want to correct what is wrong, and we want to take advantage and improve what is right. And we have a lot of things to gain from that relationship. I mean, throw everything else away: if you’ve got the most prominent Muslim country in the world, where Mecca and Medina are, being an anti-Islamist regime that’s cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s awesome. That is an undeniably great thing from the anti-Islamist perspective, and I think the American perspective.
So they issued these demands. Qatar said, “Go fly a kite. We’re not going to do it,” which made perfect sense, because if you understand the history of Qatar, especially in the 20th century, you understand that there is no way that they’re going to abandon the Brotherhood. Qatari, the al Thani royal family, is legitimized by Islamists and is legitimized by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood and Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Exactly. And they’re not going anywhere. And as a matter of fact, immediately after this thing happened, the Emir of Qatar made a special point to appear in public with Qaradawi and kissed Qaradawi on the cheek, to prove the point and to show that, “Buzz off, we’re not going anywhere, and the Brotherhood is not going anywhere.” So, of course, the GCC stuck to its guns and they blockaded Qatar, and what followed from there was a media and information warfare offensive in the United States. That summer, President Trump, I think, rightfully came out on the side of the Saudis and the GCC, and he said that Qatar, has in fact, been engaged in bad behavior. So then came the pushback, and the pushback was massive.
And my book talks a lot about why the pushback was massive, and really the pushback had to do with two main vectors: (1) is the information operations, the influence ops and info ops that were waged by Qatar against key decision makers in the United States, as well as the media, et cetera. But (2) it’s the big thing which cannot be forgotten: the Qataris have the biggest possible weapon up their sleeve, which is the US military and the US defense establishment. Qatar has been home since, I think, 2003, 2004, to the largest US air base in the region.
They’re not going anywhere. They’ve got the military in their pocket and as soon as a politician, even the president of the United States, wants to get tough with Qatar for its bad behavior, boom, you’ve got the general showing up and saying, “Sir, Mr. President, we’ve got our troops there, blah, blah, blah, and they’re really not so bad, and let’s work with them…” And everybody knows what the game is. But because the Qataris have been to successfully able to host the US military on their property, it gets them a get out of jail free card with regards to their bad behavior. So those are the two big things in Qatar’s favor that exist simultaneously.
So you talked about how the Qataris set up information operations in order to respond to this pressure, but maybe for our audience that isn’t familiar what we mean when we say “information operation,” can you lay out exactly how one conducts an information operation, what the purpose is and give us a framework for understanding this. When you say the Qataris launched an information operation, what were they doing?
Sure. I’ve got a definition that I think works, and if you don’t mind, I’m just going to read it.
Information operations take place primarily within the confines of public discourse using mass media to disseminate weaponized information. So it’s weaponized—meaning, that the consumer or the target of information is given information that leads them to a conclusion about a topic and a determination to commit to a course of action based on that information.
Influence operations are different because they depend on specific decision-makers being approached by trusted people who will gain their trust. It’s more of like a kind of stereotypical con situation where they may have something over you. There are a variety of ways of persuading someone to make a decision that isn’t necessarily based on the facts at hand. Information operation is-
So we saw, for example, influential people being invited to Qatar, being given opportunities, and then they come back and they get on the media and they say, “Well, actually, Qatar’s not that bad. They’re doing X, Y, and Z,” and so on. So there a linkage there as well, because you need to build in these influencers for you.
Right. The two go together precisely.
For example, let’s say I conduct an influence operation on you. I give you some sum of money, or I take you out to nice dinners, or if you’re a reporter, I give you free scoops all the time, I’m a really good source, and then let’s say I take you to Doha, to Qatar, and I put you up at a five star hotel, and I give you whatever you want, and you have a good time, you take your wife, you make a nice vacation out of it, blah, blah, blah, and maybe there’s a Swiss bank account somewhere that nobody knows about, all that stuff.
And then you are convinced to help me out and help out my cause. So you happen to be, maybe a journalist or an expert or you’re at a think tank and you go on TV and you start talking about a lot of stuff, and you say, “You know what? I’m going to go and I’m going to talk favorably of Dave and his particular cause—”
“–and his new book.”
Right. And now that becomes an information operation because you are now disseminating to the public, you are disseminating facts or opinions, or, let’s say, little weaponized chunks of information that will lead your viewer, or your listener, or your policy maker to take a particular conclusion.
So in this case, it’ll be, “Man, all of these details about Jamal Khasshogi, it’s horrible; MBS is such a bad guy; Saudi Arabia is terrible; the only reasonable course of action would be to distance ourselves from Saudi Arabia, walk away from that alliance, or sanction the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia via the Magnitsky Act.” So that’s the concrete policy course of action that this information is trying to convey to the target or the recipient.
Right. So you have a policy objective at the other end of this information operation, and you’re laying the groundwork in the media and in the public discourse so that when the time comes. The Magnitsky Act like you described—which 20 years ago, the idea of sanctioning Saudi officials would have been… I mean, you would have been laughed out of the State Department if you had proposed it. And now it’s being treated as a reasonable and moderate option.
It takes a lot of work to get to that stage. One of the things you mentioned in the book, which I think is important to emphasize, and we touched a little bit on it, talking about the Iran deal in the intro, but part of the reason why the Qataris information operation was as successful as it was, was that the groundwork had been laid in the media during the Iran deal. And we saw, it’s really a collapse of the media environment. This is a very famous quote from Ben Rhodes about how journalists are 20-year-olds “who know nothing,” right? But talk to us a little bit about the media environment into which the Qataris inserted themselves and how they took advantage of that landscape.
Sure. This is a story about the media. I mean, it seems like everything that happens in America now is really a story about the media. They want to make everything about themselves, but in this case it’s actually true. There’s the collapse of any semblance of responsibility or professionalism on the part of the media. And it used to be that there was a division of labor in the information ecosystem. And it would be that you had journalists may contain their biases, but basically, they understood their role is to put out, let’s say, a set of facts or a fact pattern.
And then that fact pattern would be picked up by expressly partisan outfits, like Democratic National Committee, or ThinkProgress, or Media Matters, or things like that. And then they would make the partisan point based on that information. So they would weaponize that information and the public would react to it—either the public bought it or didn’t buy it, either it became a big thing or it just fell flat like a dud, and didn’t affect the policy conversation. And then we’d just move on, one media event after another. And that’s really how things were in the 20th century until the recent collapse of the media.
There are two reasons for this. Number one is the internet, as Lee Smith points out all the time, the economics of media, of the big news outlets with the internet made it such that they just couldn’t afford their foreign bureaus and they’re very experienced old time reporters and mixed with the fact that gradually these guys ended up retiring, and they were replaced by young woke millennials who had a very different sense of what journalism means. They had a very aggressive, ideological, social justice missions focused version of what that job means.
And this new generation came in and they said, “Wait a minute. In the division of labor, these partisan outlets are having way too much fun characterizing and weaponizing the fact patterns that we gave them, we’re just going to do it.” So now you frequently have, what used to be, let’s say, relatively sane, relatively mainstream and journalistically ethical media outlets just jumping right to the point and saying things that the DNC used to say. Very partisan, very out there.
And then, of course, this colors and influences what they cover, because they realize that there are fact patterns that are in conflict with the agenda that they’re trying to promote. The only things that they put out, the only things that they release, are facts that benefit their particular side or facts that can be used to retool to benefit their side. So what that ends up doing is, making journalists into ideological press agents for the Democrats, and total hacks.
And whereas in the old days, they would have to go out and find somebody to quote, to present that side of the argument, and they would have to do it upfront. Now, they will simply state in the opening lead, back in the Trump administration, “The president is lying about X,” which an old school reporter would have never done. And so, Qatar was able to take advantage of this environment, and it requires, to a certain extent, politicizing within a domestic context, foreign issues, right?
And you talk about this. You had a really excellent piece where you talked about some countries are Republican and some countries are Democrats because it’s the way that some of these information operators like the Qataris boil things down for the woke, as you said, and social justice reporter, so that when he’s going to cover an issue, all he has to understand is what category to put the offending country in.
Right. No. Exactly. No country better plays this game then than the Qataris. So, for example, al Jazeera is their flagship product—a huge network that is totally state controlled by the Qatari royal family. It operates throughout the Middle East in Arabic, and then operates in the Western world in English. Though interestingly enough, the coverage is completely different. So in Arabic, for example, they’re very anti-Semitic, very ant-Israel, very anti-Saudi. And in fact, the criticism they have of Saudi Arabia is that Saudi Arabia is anti-Islamic because it’s too lenient and because it’s too liberal.
In English, the coverage is that Saudi Arabia is too horribly retrograde and totalitarian, authoritarian, etc. And when it comes to broader issues, the Al Jazeera coverage in English is right where The Guardian is; it’s right up the alley of social justice. Writers and editors are from, not just the left, but from the far left and they push a very social justice, progressive oriented line.
The fact that these two things exist simultaneously is not an accident, it’s not an oversight, it’s something very deliberate, which is they’re saying, “Hey, as an information operation, when we speak to the external world, the audience we want… This is the audience we want. We want the progressive audience concerned about social justice issues and all of our politics, or all of our regional messaging is going to come out through the social justice progressive frame.”
Why do they do that? They do that because they are not dumb. They understand that global media operates, especially in the United States and in English, within that frame. So they’re telling the rest of the world, through their coverage, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys just through using a particular vocabulary, a particular ideological frame.
Lately, just in the last couple of weeks, Al Jazeera has decided to launch a YouTube channel called Rightly, which targets US conservatives with a different set of messaging. And I mean, so far they haven’t done much, they’ve got 11 or 12 videos. They’re spending a lot of money on YouTube and on Facebook in order to promote these things, high production value, 40 minutes shows, and stuff like that.
But the question is, why are they doing it? Why would the Qatari government, sitting in Doha, think, “Hey, you know what? I know what we should spend money on. We should spend money on a conservative outlet in the United States in English, because you know what? We really love quality journalism. We’ve got Al Jazeera, and it’s talking about social justice all day long, and that’s great and everything, but you know what? We want to move in a different direction. We want to appeal to conservatives, because we’ve had a real change of heart.”
Well, no, of course not. That’s absurd. It realizes, smartly, that they’ve got a social justice progressive property in Al Jazeera and AJ+ in the US and in English, so why don’t they make a conservative one to offer the same message from a different frame? And then they can influence conservatives in the United States as well.
I mean, do you have a sense of where their end goal is with that, or what their end objective is, to reach both audiences?
So far, I’ve been just waiting to see and watching their content to see where they’re going. So right now, I don’t think their content is all that compelling. They’re saying that they’re trying to create something for “conservatives who feel left out of conservative media,” which is a little weird to me because it seems like there’s quite a bit on the conservative media spectrum for people today. There are a lot of podcasts. There are a lot of websites. There are a lot of Twitter accounts. Now we’ve Gab, Parler’s back, we have Telegram. There’s certainly no shortage of places where conservatives can find quality content. I’m not sure exactly who they’re talking to, but the fact that they brought on… I think the guy that they have running it is the former head of Heat Street, which is a Rupert Murdoch-owned supposedly down the middle hip, young conservative website that they gave to Louise Mensch to run in 2016. If they keep going in this direction, they’ll probably not last the year—but look, they’ve got enough money to put millions of dollars behind this project and think nothing of it. So, of course, that’s the concern.