How a Ransom for Royal Falconers Reshaped the Middle East
Qatar went to extreme lengths to secure the release of its hunters — including a deadly population transfer in Syria.
The V.I.P. terminal of Baghdad International Airport is a clean and quiet place, about a quarter-mile removed from the noise and squalor of the main arrivals-and-departures hall. If you have the right connections and $150 — American dollars only — you can wait for your flight in comfort on one of the soft white leather couches, sipping an espresso and getting a close-up view of some of the colorful people who run today’s Middle East. On a typical afternoon, your fellow passengers may include Iranian-trained guerrillas and death-squad veterans who have grown rich on embezzlement. If you stay long enough, gulf oil barons may glide by with their white-robed entourages, perhaps brushing past Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen in uniform or diplomats from Turkey or Russia, all of them hoping to bully or bribe Iraq’s weak state to their own preferred shape. Everyone is welcome as long as you speak the language of money. On the wall above you are wide-screen TVs and a stylized mural of ancient Iraq, so that you can compare today’s catastrophes with those of yesteryear. Before you leave, a customs official in a dark suit will take your ticket and passport and then return 10 minutes later, smiling obsequiously and extending your stamped documents with both hands.
But even here, special treatment has its limits. On April 15 last year, a Qatari man arrived in the V.I.P. terminal on an evening flight from his country’s capital city, Doha. After identifying himself as a senior government envoy, he announced that he and his 14 colleagues, all dressed in crisp white ankle-length tunics called thobes, did not want their luggage inspected. The Qataris had brought 23 identical black duffels, a small peninsula of black nylon that covered a sizable portion of the lounge’s hardwood floor. Each bag was so heavy — well over 100 pounds — that the porters had trouble rolling them into the room.
The Iraqis insisted, politely, that all bags must be screened, even in the V.I.P. terminal. The leader of the Qatari team was visibly shocked to hear this. He asked for time. The Qataris huddled for a quiet discussion and then made a number of phone calls. Eventually, they relented and allowed the bags to be screened. Each of them contained stacks of bricklike squares, wrapped in black tape that the scanner could not penetrate. When customs officials asked what was under the tape, the Qataris refused to say. The standoff lasted all night, and finally, near dawn, the exasperated Qataris gave in and drove to Baghdad without their luggage. It was only later that the Iraqis opened the 23 duffels and discovered a mix of dollars and euros, amounting to some $360 million. The bills alone weighed more than 2,500 pounds.
A week later, the money still impounded, the Qatari team left Baghdad in the same jet that had brought them. They were now accompanied by two dozen Qataris, including members of the ruling Al Thani family, who had been kidnapped during a hunting trip in southern Iraq 16 months earlier. The story of what happened on that trip has not been reported until now. It entails a ransom deal of staggering size and complexity in which the Qataris paid vast sums to terrorists on both sides of the Middle East’s sectarian divide, fueling the region’s spiraling civil wars.
The cost to Qatar wound up far exceeding $360 million, but ultimately cash was less important than the deal’s political dimension. In order to retrieve its hostages, Qatar was made to negotiate a tightly choreographed population exchange in Syria, using the rebel militias it finances to forcibly uproot every resident of four strategically located towns. The transfers advanced Tehran’s larger goal of transforming Syria — along with Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen — into satellite states that will enshrine a dominant Iranian role across the region. The deal was a blow for the Trump administration’s goal of pushing back against Iranian aggression, and for thousands of starving Syrians, it meant being driven into exile by a shadowy agreement, with little say from Syria’s own government. What began as a brazen kidnapping eventually became a measure of the geopolitical forces tearing the Middle East apart, and of their human cost: corruption, sectarian hatred and terrorism. Everyone involved had something to hide — except, perhaps, the hapless hunters who set it all in motion.
To Arab falconers, the houbara bustard — a bug-eyed, long-legged creature about the size of a large chicken — is the king of game birds. It is a fast flier with an unusual defense: When cornered, it vomits an oily green substance that can temporarily blind an attacking falcon or hobble its wings. In the days before oil was discovered in the Arabian desert, the houbara’s seasonal return every fall was met with celebratory poetry and long hunts on camelback. The Land Rover made things a lot easier, but chasing the houbara, whose stringy flesh is said to be an aphrodisiac, remains one of the hallowed pursuits — along with thoroughbred stallions, huge yachts and French chateaus — that occupy the minds of Persian Gulf royalty
In late November 2015, a large group of Qatari falcon hunters left Doha in a column of 4-by-4 vehicles and headed south. Crossing the Saudi border, the convoy turned north, traversing a portion of Kuwait and continuing on to their destination, the southern desert of Iraq, 450 miles from Doha. The group was composed of several dozen people, including servants, and was led by nine members of Qatar’s ruling family, the Al Thanis, one of the wealthiest dynasties on earth. The hunting ground the Qataris had chosen — Iraq’s Muthanna Province — has had few visitors since the American invasion of 2003. The desert is littered with cluster bombs and mines left over from three decades of intermittent war. With ISIS reigning across much of the north and undisciplined Shiite militias running rampant elsewhere, Iraq was hardly a desirable tourist destination. But this particular stretch of land, almost devoid of people, had become a seasonal haven for the houbara. The Qataris had heard tantalizing reports about a rebounding population, and despite warnings about the potential for danger, they could not resist the chance. For the next three weeks, the hunters meandered through the desert with their hired Iraqi guards, occasionally doling out extravagant gifts to passing Bedouins to ensure their safety
Houbara hunts follow an established daily rhythm. Starting at dawn, trackers and a pack of lean Saluki greyhounds search the dry grasses until they flush a houbara from its roost. The hunters release a trained falcon from its leather jesses, and it takes off in pursuit. High above the desert, the houbara’s slow, powerful wing beats form an eerily graceful counterpoint to the raptor’s fluttering ascents and sudden dives. Once the falcon strikes, the conjoined birds often spiral earthward, trailing intermittent white clouds of the victim’s feathers. Most chases end with the falcon perched atop its prey, sometimes rewarded with the warm brains.
The hunters had bagged about five houbaras a day, a respectable haul, and by Dec. 15, they were almost ready to return home. That night, as the clear desert air turned bitterly cold, the men warmed themselves around bonfires. Servants bustled around them, grilling a lavish supper and pouring steaming glasses of tea. At about 3 a.m., one member of the hunting party, a 37-year-old Al Thani whom I’ll call Abu Mohammed, was awakened by a servant running into his tent. (He spoke to me on the condition that I not reveal his name.) The servant was terrified. Soldiers were all over the camp, he said. Abu Mohammed got up, dressed quickly and then peeked through the slit between the canvas tent’s flaps. He saw men in uniform and dozens of S.U.V.s and trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. At first, he thought it must be a mix-up, or perhaps a visit by the Iraqi military to warn them about some danger. But within a few minutes, men wearing black balaclavas entered his tent. They were armed with AK-47s. One of them held a clipboard and read out a list of names. He seemed to be looking for the most senior member of the Al Thani family. The gunmen led Abu Mohammed outside into the cold desert air. There, in the glare of headlights, he saw his relatives lying face down on the ground in their long white thobes, their hands cuffed behind them. Men were pointing rifles at their backs. In that instant, he felt certain that their captors were ISIS and soon they would all be killed.
Abu Mohammed heard a voice from the walkie-talkies carried by the kidnappers: Leave everything and get out now. He couldn’t place the accent or determine who these men worked for. They hustled the Qataris into S.U.V.s and blindfolded them. The engines gunned, and they roared off into the desert blackness.
As soon as the convoy reached a paved road, the captives were hustled out of the S.U.V.s and pushed into vans. They found themselves on the floor, still handcuffed and blindfolded, lurching painfully against other bound bodies every time the speeding van hit a bump. At some point, one kidnapper turned back toward the hostages and began saying crude and insulting things about Aisha, the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad. In the Arab world, this sort of insult is a dead giveaway. Sunnis revere Aisha, but Shiites revile her as a traitor who fought against Ali, the foundational figure of Shiite tradition. Abu Mohammed and his fellow hostages instantly understood they were in the hands of Shiite militiamen, not ISIS or any other jihadi group.
After three or four hours of driving, the vans stopped. They could hear jets taking off and landing and the sound of soldiers’ voices in unison. But in addition to military orders and salutes, they heard voices chanting “Ya Hussein!” — a Shiite slogan. The captives couldn’t place their location, but they were most likely on the edge of Tallil air base near Nasiriya, one of the largest military installations in southern Iraq. In the strange tug of war that typifies today’s Iraq, the country’s military — trained and supported by the United States — operates literally side by side with Shiite militias backed by Iran. The captives were held on the base for several days, then blindfolded again and driven to a house, where they were locked in basement cells.
At one point, Abu Mohammed — hoping to work this out Qatari-style — pulled out his wallet. (The kidnappers had already taken all their cellphones and tossed them out the windows during the drive.) He had about 120,000 Qatari riyals inside, roughly equivalent to $33,000. “We can pay,” he said. Other hostages had more with them; the total, he said, was probably equal to several hundred thousand dollars, if not more. The lead kidnapper looked unimpressed. “You think we want your money?” he said.
Word of the kidnapping first reached Qatar at about 6 a.m., spreading a chain of panicked phone calls through the government and the royal family. The news underscored the vulnerabilities that have come with Qatar’s sudden rise to prominence. A tiny, thumb-shaped peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, Qatar has catapulted from poverty to immense wealth in just the past three decades, thanks to natural-gas deposits under its desert and coastline. It is a country with a G.D.P. of $181 billion but only around 300,000 citizens, about the same size as Pittsburgh. It sits between the region’s great Shiite power — Iran, just across the water — and its most influential Sunni state, Saudi Arabia. Starting in the 1990s, Qatar tried to protect itself by aggressively courting and irritating all sides at once. It made overtures to Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s rising “Shiite axis,” angering both the Saudis and the United States. At the same time, it also reached out to other Sunni countries, using its endless money to broker diplomatic deals in Lebanon and Yemen. It birthed Al Jazeera, the gadfly satellite channel that pleased crowds with its anti-American broadcasts, even as Qatar continued to host the largest American military base in the Middle East.
But in recent years, Qatar’s balancing act has backfired badly. As the Arab Spring uprisings broke out in 2011, Qatar bankrolled the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, seeing it as a sympathetic force for Sunni populism in an increasingly democratic era. That infuriated the Saudis and Emiratis, who — though Sunni, like the Brotherhood — consider the group a threat to their own autocratic model. Qatar made another risky bet by financing Sunni rebel factions in Syria (including the local branch of Al Qaeda), hoping they would win the civil war and show gratitude to their sponsors. Instead, the Syrian war dragged on, the rebels grew more extreme and Qatar was tainted by its association with terrorist groups. In the end, Qatar managed to make enemies on both sides of the worsening sectarian divide.
Within days of the hunters’ kidnapping, the Qatari government determined that the royals were almost certainly being held by a Shiite militia with ties to Iran. That effectively put their fate in the hands of a man who is perhaps the most powerful military officer in the Middle East: an Iranian general named Qassim Suleimani. An austere, hollow-eyed commander, Suleimani controls the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, along with a far-flung network of proxy forces and allies across the region. He reports directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is widely considered a more influential figure than the country’s foreign minister or president. He has directed Iran’s successful efforts to disrupt American policy in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003; a 2012 magazine profile in Wired called him “the world’s most dangerous” man.
Suleimani appeared to have little interest in ransom money. His top priority for years had been Syria, where Iran has fought hard to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Syria has been a lifeline for Iran ever since the 1980s, when the new Islamic republic first began shipping weapons through Syrian territory to Hezbollah, which functions as Iran’s external arm in Lebanon. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, that link was suddenly at risk. The region’s great Sunni and Shiite powers leapt into the Syria crisis, transforming the democratic stirrings of the Arab Spring into a sectarian battleground. For the Saudis and their allies, sponsoring Syrian rebels was a golden chance to topple Assad, push Syria onto the Sunni side of the chessboard and isolate Iran. For Suleimani, who directed Iran’s military forces in Syria, the civil war there became an existential struggle to sustain his country’s only reliable ally.
The Qatari hostages were suddenly valuable pawns in this geopolitical game. Qatar had powerful leverage with the rebel factions it is believed to finance, leverage that could be useful to a strategist like Suleimani. His approach in Syria had shifted as the war ground toward a bloody stalemate. By 2015, Suleimani and his Hezbollah allies were looking for new ways to consolidate control over certain key areas near the Syrian capital: not just killing rebel fighters but expelling the Sunni civilian population that sustained and protected them. Ultimately, they hoped to repopulate those towns with less rebellious Shiite residents. It was a controversial and ambitious scheme, with dark overtones of ethnic cleansing. But if it worked, it could entrench Iranian influence in Syria for the long term.
Just before the Qatari hostages were taken, Iran had begun a bold effort to make this demographic transfer happen. At a secret meeting in Istanbul facilitated by the United Nations in September 2015, an envoy from Suleimani’s Quds Force proposed a symmetrical agreement that came to be known as the “four-towns deal.” Hezbollah would end its siege of two Sunni rebel strongholds in Syria near the Lebanese border, Madaya and Zabadani, whose residents posed a continuing threat to the Assad regime in Damascus. In exchange, the Qatari-funded rebels would end their siege of two Shiite towns in the northwest, Fua and Kefraya. The four-towns deal would accomplish two goals for Iran: clearing out the rebel threat in a strategic area, while rescuing the imperiled Shiites up north, whose plight had been a persistent rallying cry with Hezbollah’s Shiite base.
The details of the deal were vague at first, but at some point the Iranians even suggested that the residents could swap towns, with Sunni and Shiite Syrians literally trading places, perhaps inhabiting one another’s homes. They presented this as a humanitarian gesture: Ending the two sieges would benefit people in all four towns. But the rebel spokesmen in Istanbul angrily rejected the whole idea, calling it an arrogant effort to reshape Syria’s natural patchwork of diverse religions and ethnic groups with a crude sectarian calculus.
With the kidnapped Qatari hunters, Iran acquired some very powerful leverage over those same rebels — or rather, over their chief benefactor in Doha. The plan for evacuating the four towns, left for dead after the talks in Istanbul, was back on the table.
It did not take long for Suleimani’s proxies to spell all this out to the Qatari government. As their messenger, they used Hezbollah, the only group with trusted links to all the parties involved: Tehran, Doha and the Shiite militia that held the hostages in Iraq. Working through Hezbollah also allowed Iran to maintain some control over the ransom negotiations, which might otherwise have ended in a fast cash payment for the Iraqi kidnappers. Instead, Hezbollah sent a high-ranking emissary to Doha and made the conditions very clear: The captives would be freed in exchange for Qatar’s help in making the four-towns deal happen.
The Qataris, less interested in the larger implications of the deal than the well-being of the royals, readily agreed to host a long series of talks involving the various parties to the four-towns deal: Hezbollah, the Iranians and the rebel militias. Tempting as it is to imagine these figures grouped around a table, they appear to have met separately with their Qatari interlocutors. Much of the negotiation hinged on logistics. Moving civilians in a fast-shifting war zone is not an easy business, and there were many differences to be worked out. Some of the rebel militias were fiercely opposed to the idea of a population transfer, and the Syrian regime — which was not party to the deal — was not keen on it either. The plan to exchange the four towns’ Shiite and Sunni residents was abandoned as too ambitious; instead, they were to be moved to safe zones, with each town’s future to be worked out separately. But that alone required some coordination among armed factions on opposing sides of the war. Money played a large role in smoothing out all these kinks. The Qataris’ Sunni rebel allies were not going to advance an Iranian scheme for nothing.
But as the months wore on, there was still no timeline on freeing the hostages. The Qataris grew desperate and wondered if the Iranians would ever deliver. They began exploring other avenues, and a parade of dubious middlemen came to Doha offering rescue schemes in exchange for huge cash payouts. One of the Qatari officials I spoke to seemed sheepishly amused by the raft of shady offers that came in. “I remember one Iranian guy said: ‘I can get them out for $20 million,’ ” the official said. A member of the Qatari ruling family paid $2 million to a firm called the Global Strategies Council, which is run by a Greek shoe salesman. None of it was useful. The Qataris got so frustrated, one former diplomat in Doha told me, that they considered a drastic solution: a military raid to free the captives. Qatar almost certainly lacked the know-how to pull it off. But the very fact that it was discussed suggests that the emir was under tremendous pressure from his small, clan-oriented population to bring the hostages home.
It took almost 16 months for the Qataris to finally find the man with the right clout and connections to close the deal. It happened in early April 2017, during the annual gathering of Arab interior ministers, held that year in Tunis. The Qatari minister was introduced to his Iraqi counterpart, Qassim al-Araji, a man with deep ties in the Shiite-militia world. Al-Araji, a square-faced 54-year-old, spent many years in exile in Iran and was twice imprisoned by American forces in Iraq a decade ago on suspicion of smuggling and distributing weapons to be used in attacking American troops. (He was released for lack of evidence.)
Al-Araji said he knew who had the hostages, though he did not name the group. As it turned out, it was Kata’ib Hezbollah, a Shiite faction formed in Iraq more than a decade ago that has mounted hundreds of attacks on American soldiers and was trained, funded and supervised by Iran’s Quds Force. Al-Araji said he had a plan for freeing the hostages, according to a high-ranking Qatari official who recounted the conversation to me. But the plan came with an unusual condition. Al-Araji wanted authority to mediate the release personally, and he hinted that his Qatari counterpart should say nothing about the matter to anyone else in the Iraqi government, where sectarian and political divides create competing agendas. The Qatari agreed.
Money was part of the agreement, a kind of sweetener to be added to the four-towns deal. The Qatari official who described the meeting to me told me as much, and he went on to say that the money was meant to finance a new port and embassy in Baghdad. He looked so uncomfortable as he said it — his face hovering somewhere between a wink and a blush — that I didn’t have the heart to say the obvious: that this was a painfully transparent cover story for an all-cash ransom payment.
A week later, the Qatari negotiating team arrived in Baghdad with its 23 bags. They soon found that Qassim al-Araji had wildly oversold his power over the Iraqi government (and the Baghdad airport). In Baghdad, I saw photographs taken that night showing the blocked-out bricks of cash on the scanning machine and the angry Qataris standing in the V.I.P. lounge, surrounded by black duffel bags. When Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, found out what the Qataris were up to, he was furious and decided to draw a defiant line in the sand for Iran and its proxies. He sent an armed counterterrorism team to guard the 23 bags of cash and make sure no one could spirit them off to the kidnappers. After the Qatari team finally gave up and made its way to Baghdad, Abadi eventually had the money transferred to a vault in Iraq’s Central Bank.
The Qataris were driven from the airport straight to Baghdad’s secured Green Zone, where they were being put up, by previous arrangement, at the guesthouse of Prime Minister Abadi — the same man who had just impounded their $360 million.
Abadi’s intervention threatened to derail a deal that had been carefully plotted during months of meetings in Doha. The 23 bags of cash were supposed to be delivered at the same time that Qatar’s rebel allies were executing the terms of the four-towns deal. That very day, Sunni militiamen were reluctantly shepherding Shiite civilians onto green buses and traveling with them on the road to Aleppo, where they were to be housed with the help of the Syrian regime. In parallel, 200 miles south, Hezbollah fighters were preparing to escort thousands of people out of Madaya and Zabadani.
The $360 million was not the only money at stake. To secure their support for the population transfers, Qatar had paid the Sunni militias — Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham — at least $50 million, I was told by a senior Iraqi official and by people close to the rebel groups.
The Qatari envoys spent much of their first day in Baghdad working the phones on two fronts. They had to monitor the ongoing civilian transfers in Syria, and they were desperate to recover their 23 bags of cash. They enlisted everyone they knew in Iraq to help, including the Shiite militias. They bolstered their pleas, several Iraqi officials told me, with a shameless campaign of bribery that would last a week, offering huge sums of money and luxury apartments in Doha and Dubai to officers, cabinet members and lawmakers. None of this succeeded in getting the $360 million away from Abadi and his circles of allies.
Before the end of the day, something happened that cast a sickening new light onto the cold calculations surrounding the four-towns deal. At about 3:30 p.m., a line of buses carrying civilians away from the two Shiite towns, Fua and Kefraya, stopped at a checkpoint in an area called Rashideen, just west of Aleppo. A dark blue Hyundai Porter truck pulled up and parked next to one of the buses. Moments later, it exploded.
The blast was unusually powerful. Images from the scene show a green-and-white bus, its windows blown out and its innards blackened by fire. All told, 126 people were killed in the blast, mostly civilian evacuees, including 68 children. Hundreds were injured. No one knows for certain who carried it out, but everyone I spoke to believed the bombing was intended to stop the four-towns deal, which was seen by many rebels and jihadi groups as a gift to Iran.
The images of the fire-blackened bus were a savage reminder that the four-towns deal was not just about back-room negotiations and bags of cash. The families on those convoys had been forced to leave their homes. The Qatari officials I spoke to believed they were taking part in a humanitarian rescue for victims of a siege, and some members of Ahrar al-Sham, the rebel group, told me the same thing. But many Syrians saw the transfers for what they were — forcible exile, to suit a scheme cooked up by foreigners — and were furious. This was especially true of those in the Sunni towns, Madaya and Zabadani. Most of the residents were reluctant to leave even after years of a siege that left hundreds dead from starvation and Hezbollah snipers.
I spoke by video chat with a civilian named Ali Saeed who reluctantly fled from Madaya. He is 52, a small but squarely built man with a fleshy nose, close-cut hair and a look of stubborn defiance stamped on his face. He told me that Hezbollah’s siege of Madaya had turned the town into a virtual concentration camp. “First people ate through their reserves of dry food,” he told me. “Then they began eating leaves and grass.” Ali Saeed held his cellphone up to the camera to show me photos of his children, one of whom fell on his head while running from a sniper and died soon afterward.
But it was the arrogance of the transfer scheme that consumed him during our call. After he learned about the four-towns deal, he confronted a Hezbollah commander at a checkpoint just outside Madaya. “I was upset,” Ali Saeed told me. “I said, ‘You are coming here to displace us, to dominate our land.’ The Hezbollah officer told me, ‘If you don’t agree to leave, you can starve.’ ”
The population transfers resumed despite the bombing, and within a few days the four-towns deal was largely complete. One night, around the same time, the Qatari negotiating team in Baghdad slipped out of the Green Zone in an S.U.V. They changed cars repeatedly in a vain effort to avoid drawing the attention of Iraqi officials and ended up at a rendezvous with a Shiite militia in the Karada neighborhood. At their meeting, the Qataris were shown a proof of life — a recent video of the hostages. Then, abruptly, the Qatari team began packing their bags and asked their hosts for permission to leave the country. The 23 bags were still sitting in an Iraqi bank vault, but it seemed that the Qataris had somehow found another way to satisfy the kidnappers’ demands.
Almost immediately, at the basement prison south of Baghdad, Abu Mohammed and the other members of the Qatari ruling family got a thrilling surprise from their guards: They would be receiving showers and haircuts. It was time to go. They were led upstairs and into the sunlight, their eyes smarting from the glare. They had spent 16 months in a windowless basement in southern Iraq, a few hours’ drive from where they were kidnapped. Their meager prison diet had left them weak. They had spent the first half of their ordeal entirely cut off from the world, with only a single Quran to read. Later, the guard had given them a TV, and watching the news, they had seen reports about a political deal that was said to be brewing in Syria, involving hostages and population exchanges. “We suspected this was connected to us,” Abu Mohammed told me.
The men were led outside and driven for two hours to a house on what looked like an opulent private ranch. Inside, waiting in a large reception room, were the nonroyal hostages, who had been held in a separate location. The men embraced and wept, and began trading stories. To their surprise, they discovered that the other group — apparently seen as blameless in their country’s policies — had been treated much better than the Al Thanis during their captivity, with adequate food, showers and respectful guards.
For the next two days, the Al Thanis were once again addressed like royalty. Servants came and went, addressing them with elaborate courtesy. Meals were laid out. Instead of thin broth and rice, they ate the finest mazgouf, a traditional Iraqi dish of fish rubbed with spices and grilled on an outdoor fire pit. One night they were served an entire spit-roasted sheep. Their attendants repeatedly addressed them as “our guests” and apologized for their earlier mistreatment. On the morning of April 21, the Qatari hostages were driven to Baghdad and given a farewell reception at the Intelligence Ministry before their trip to the airport.
Abu Mohammed told me that he and the other hostages feared some kind of snag right to the very end. “We felt complete relief only when the plane took off,” he said. “It was like a dream. A feeling of joy.” The two-hour flight to Doha was full of giddy laughter. The men’s relatives were waiting in the airport when the flight arrived that evening. Their joy was tempered by shock at the men’s condition: They were gaunt and hollow-eyed. Abu Mohammed had lost 40 pounds. But the emir of Qatar was there, too, and he kissed them all, with tears in his eyes, as they stepped off the plane.
There remains an obvious mystery in the case of the kidnapped Qataris. How, with the $360 million impounded, were the hostages released? One senior Iraqi official gave me the following answer: The Qataris agreed to provide another delivery of cash, via Beirut, of roughly the same amount. (It was Qassim Suleimani himself, I was told by another official, who made the final call to release the hostages.) As far as the location for a money drop goes, this makes sense: Hezbollah maintains a firm control over the Beirut airport, and it would have no trouble ensuring that the cash would pass through. If this is true, it would bring the total amount Qatar paid for its hostages to at least $770 million, and probably substantially more. I heard reports of several other multimillion-dollar payouts to various middlemen that I was unable to confirm. There is also the $2 million that an Al Thani family member paid to the Greek shoe salesman, and the bribes the Qatari envoys supposedly paid during their week in Baghdad. It is easy to imagine a total approaching $1 billion.
Qatari officials deny making any payments apart from the cash in the 23 bags. They continue to insist that the money was intended solely for the Iraqi government, for various investments in Iraq and for “help in facilitating the release of the Qatari hostages.” When I asked why the kidnappers went ahead with the release even after their $360 million payment was impounded, a Qatari official suggested (not very persuasively) that the cash was never that important.
Almost a year later, the effects of the Qatari ransom deal can still be felt, from Doha to Washington. The four towns in Syria are mostly empty — a few hundred stubborn people cling to their homes in the Shiite towns up north, and some remain in Madaya and Zabadani. The jihadi rebels in Syria also continue their battle, yielding a steady trickle of battlefield death and dismemberment. The deal appears to have deepened the divide between the rebels and the people they claim to represent. Ali Saeed, the exile from Madaya I spoke with, told me that the rebel militias’ participation in a scheme to force people from their homes was a cowardly betrayal of the revolution against Assad. “May God destroy them,” he said.
But the ransom deal’s heaviest legacy may be back home in the gulf. The Saudis and Emiratis, who had long resented Qatar’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, were infuriated by the reports of heavy payments to Shiite militias. On June 5, they initiated a full-scale economic blockade. They issued a draconian list of demands, including the closing of Al Jazeera and a Turkish military facility, and financial reparations for years of supposed wrongs. Although the blockade had been talked about for months, the ransom deal provided a useful pretext.
The ransom also began to figure, often in highly distorted form, in a Saudi-financed P.R. blitz that portrayed Qatar as a fountainhead of terrorism. The anti-Qatar campaign was a patchwork of true and false or questionable claims that only muddied the waters around the ransom and Qatar’s broader culpability in bankrolling Islamist groups. But it seems to have been effective with one very important audience: Donald Trump. Even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struggled to mend the rift between America’s partners in the gulf, Trump undermined him in very public fashion, making clear that he sided entirely with his new Saudi friends. (Trump had been treated to a fawning reception during a visit to Riyadh in May, sword-dancing with the king and appearing in a photo-op with a bizarre glowing orb that generated an endless series of conspiracy theories.) Tillerson grew so frustrated with the interference of Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that he reportedly threatened to resign later in the summer, and had to be coaxed to stay by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff. Tillerson tried again to end the blockade during another visit to the gulf in October, but he got no further.
How much of the blame does Qatar deserve for all this wreckage? It has been involved in multimillion-dollar ransoms to free Al Qaeda captives before, including a Swiss woman held in Yemen in 2013. My friend Theo Padnos, who wrote about his two-year kidnapping ordeal in Syria for this magazine, was freed through Qatari mediation and possibly Qatari money. If the Qataris did pay nearly $400 million to Kata’ib Hezbollah (a group that is listed by the United States as a terrorist organization), it would put a lot more blood on their hands. Furthermore, if the money was paid via Beirut, it is fair to assume that Hezbollah (also listed as a terrorist group) received a cut. The $50 million paid to Jabhat al-Nusra (yet another group on the terror list) and Ahrar al-Sham is also troubling, despite the fact that those groups now pose a threat mostly to the Assad regime and its allies and not to the West.
But in the end, it seems as if the Qataris were less villains than dupes, drunk on natural-gas money and blind to its fatal consequences. They threw cash around in clumsy efforts to manipulate the politics of a volatile region, only to find the tables turned. One Qatari official who worked on the kidnapping told me, with a plaintive look in his eyes: “People accuse us of working with Hezbollah — but look what they did to us!”
The ransom story’s final mystery, at least for me, was its origin: Why did the hunters go to southern Iraq in the first place? They knew how dangerous it was. A big group like theirs, handing out gifts of cash to local Bedouins and camping in ostentatious luxury, was ludicrously easy pickings for a Shiite militia. The hunters had been warned about this from the beginning, even by their own government. The last warning came only a day or so before the kidnapping, when Qatari security officials discovered that a mysterious Iraqi blogger had posted the hunters’ GPS coordinates online.
When I spoke to Abu Mohammed, he confirmed that they had been profusely warned. “Before the trip, everyone said ‘You’re crazy, don’t go’ — my mother, my friends, my brothers,” he said.
Why take the risk? I asked Abu Mohammed this in a majlis, the reception hall of a home that belongs to his uncle in Doha. A row of thronelike yellow chairs sat empty in the long, silent room, where a single server came periodically to refill our tea glasses. It is very rare for Western journalists to meet with members of the Al Thani family outside the context of a government interview. Qataris have a reputation for privacy and reserve, and in more than a decade of visiting Doha I have never once been inside a Qatari home. Their reverence for decorum is visible in their quiet manners and in the way they walk — a floating motion that foreigners often remark on. Abu Mohammed’s bearing was poised and erect, and he scarcely moved during our entire talk, which lasted almost three hours.
Abu Mohammed paused before answering my question, and then began explaining what falconry means to people of his generation. “You are away from phones, from business,” he said. “You are with nature. You feel free.” And, he added, there was a deep cultural pull to consider. He looked toward the windows, where we could see the edges of Doha’s hypermodern sprawl, studded with oblong skyscrapers and cavernous malls. When Abu Mohammed was born, in 1978, none of that existed. Photos from the time show a blank desert coastline with a cluster of shabby-looking buildings on its edge, the remnants of Qatar’s days as a remote pearl-diving outpost. By the time he reached adulthood, money from natural gas had transformed Qatar inside and out. Its citizens are vastly outnumbered in their own country by foreign workers, and their culture — once rooted in thrift and self-reliance — is unrecognizable. Starvation has given way to obesity. Families routinely complain that their young men are adrift in a world of limitless consumption and pleasure. Many are able to buy Lamborghinis but unable to hold down a steady job.
Falconry, Abu Mohammed seemed to be saying, is a remedy for the gulf’s oil curse. Training a raptor can be a solitary, obsessive enterprise, enforcing a measure of self-discipline that is often lacking in such men’s lives. There are many hours of patient habituation and repetitious work with glove and lure that form a bond between bird and human: The bird is training you, master falconers like to say. All this elicits passionate, even fanatical devotion. Risks are easily brushed aside. Money — even vast sums of money — seems meaningless. Abu Mohammed told me he was already planning trips to the desert to hunt the houbara again, despite the danger.
“Falconry is addictive like a drug,” he said, adding, with a subtle smile: “It’s the sport of kings.”
Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine. His book on the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath, “A Rage for Order,” won the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize.