Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Britain knew of 'A-Q' terror cell two years ago

By David Charter, Chief Political Correspondent
Times of London

THE British military knew that al-Qaeda was active in Doha two years ago as the US-led coalition went to war in Iraq.

Senior commanders even seemed to know which hotel “A-Q operatives” used as a base.

As a journalist sent to Qatar to cover the war from the coalition’s central command centre, an enormous American camp on the edge of Doha, I was warned of the threat by a senior military figure.

Qatar is one of the most Western-leaning countries in the Middle East. The Emir of Qatar has decided that it will tolerate alcohol being served in its big hotels. He has also invested in al-Jazeera, the pan-Arabic television station based in the state.

Unlike some other Arabic nations, women are allowed to drive and to stand for election to local councils.

Natural gas reserves have made the indigenous population one of the wealthiest per head in the world. But Qataris are far outnumbered in their country by “guest workers” from nations including Pakistan and Yemen employed in the construction and hospitality industries.

Guest workers are rarely granted citizenship and have to return to their own countries when they stop working.

Despite this possible cause of tension, Doha seemed friendly and unthreatening until the warning, given on the eve of war two years ago.

A fellow journalist had asked whether it was safe to go for a morning run around Doha every day. A senior military figure advised him to vary his route and then asked other journalists in which hotels they were staying. The reason soon became clear.

“I wanted to check where you were because A-Q is active here and we think there is a cell based in one of the hotels,” he said. “But none of you is staying there.”

This brought home to us that Westerners could be in real danger in the country where General Tommy Franks directed the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
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