The Islamist Ali Sallabi and Qatar are behind Turkish presence in Libya – Al Marsad

In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in a number of Middle Eastern countries, Qatar’s relationship with a senior Libyan Islamist, Ali Sallabi, facilitated not only the extensive backing provided by Doha to radical and extremist groups in Libya, but also played a very important role in the considerable Turkish military support provided to militant islamist movements in the country. According to the Turkish media source, Ahval, this significant and direct military assistance to Islamists in Libya might not be connected with any particular ideology, but that it was mainly driven by Ali Sallabi who happened to know the right people in Doha. The article provides important insight into the role that Ali Sallabi plays as the most important lynchpin in Libyan Islamism’s relationship with Qatar and Turkey.

[Libya, 16 November 2019] – The article mentioned that Turkish media platforms loyal to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, criticized vehemently the Doha-based Al-Jazeera English Satellite TV Channel, for its negative coverage of the Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria.

Professor David Roberts, lecturer at the School of Security Studies of the King’s College in London, and a specialist in regional security and development issues, and author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State, sidelined the latest anti-Al-Jazeera English Turkish press criticism because, according to Ahval, the Doha-based English language channel “tends to make its own editorial decisions and Turkey-Qatar relations are so strong. Their ties go back to the Ottoman times, though the current alliance is much more recent.”

In an interview with Ahval, Professor David Roberts said, “The unusually close relations between Turkey and Qatar kind of kicked off with the Arab spring. Both are quite comfortable engaging in various degrees with actors on the Islamist spectrum. Turkey far more so, perhaps, but Qatar is fine with those actors.”

When four Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia imposed a boycott on Qatar largely due to its support for Islamist groups and interference in its internal affairs, Turkey intervened to provide assistance to the Gulf gas-giant.

Professor Roberts  pointed out that “the Turkish military training contingent in Qatar at the time quickly expanded into a Turkish military base,” after Turkish troops arrived in Doha, a few days after the imposition of the boycott measures. He said that “it was defence diplomacy at its finest.”

In August 2018, Qatar returned the favour, bailing out the troubled Turkish economy with some $15 billion in investments, as well as a $500 million luxury private jet from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani to his “brother” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey-Qatar trade surged 80 percent and relations gained in strength, and Qatar turned to Turkey for help.

“Qatar does not have enough people to go around and it needs to leverage relationships wherever it can,” Roberts explained. He continued: “Turkey became a pivotally important foreign policy actor with and on behalf of Qatar” as they already do Libya, Syria, and Somalia. According to the interview with Ahval, Roberts said: “It was the Turks that had the foreign service apparatus, the knowledge and the know-how, and so the two worked kind of hand in glove in these various foreign fields.”

He added that “Qatar is not slavishly devoted to the Islamist cause, as many observers suggest, but is rather a supporter of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood out of pragmatism. He believes Qatar’s support for Islamists in Libya, and by extension Turkey’s, was mainly a result of happenstance.”

Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim al-Thani with Turkey’s Erdogan

According to the academic Ali al-Sallabi “was exiled to Qatar and made connections there to Muslim Brotherhood figures and the Qatari leadership, which led to Doha spending some $2 billion to support his efforts in Libya. When the 2011 revolution erupted, al-Sallabi returned to Libya to act as a local conduit for Qatari arms, intelligence and military training.”. Furthermore, said Roberts, “He now holds Qatari citizenship and has a close relationship to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s 91-year-old Qatar-based spiritual leader.”

Sheikh Tamim al-Thani with Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in Doha

With the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Sallabi was seen by many Western observers as one of the most critical figures in the development of a new Libya. “Sallabi had long cited Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model for governance of a moderate Islamic state. Thus, as Qatar began to reduce its involvement in Libya around 2014, it was no surprise that Turkey stepped in and continued working with Sallabi”, said the Ahval report.

Professor Roberts said, “After years of delivering weapons and supplies to Libyan Islamists in secret in order to avoid charges of violating a UN arms embargo, Ankara has since May been more open about its efforts in Libya, including the overt delivery of heavily armoured vehicles.”

According to Ahval, Turkey has since September this year been “overseeing much of the war, helping local Islamists operate Turkish-made drones and guiding the military operations of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord as it battles the forces of General Khalifa Haftar.”

Sallabi is a frequent visitor to Istanbul and early this year, Yasin Aktay, a leading adviser to Erdogan and advocate of a Turkish-led Caliphate, posted photos on social media of his meeting with Ali Sallabi next to a pile of religious texts in his Istanbul office. Aktay has “described the Brotherhood as a Turkish proxy force.”

Ali Sallabi meeting with Yasin Aktay, a leading adviser to Erdogan

Roberts argues that it a matter of convenience for Qatar to support Sallabi and his Islamist causes in Libya given that he was already based in Doha. He said: “This fact that (the Qataris) kind of knew him and he happened to be in Qatar is far more important than some grand ideological struggle … If Sallabi had been a Christian evangelical chap with lots of support and legitimacy in Libya then I am quite sure that Qatar would have supported him and his cause.”

The matter, however, is more complicated than Professor Roberts describes and it does not explain the long association Qatar had developed with the Islamist cleric, who is also resident in Doha, Yusuf Al Qaradawi—Sallabi’s teacher. The influence that Qatar exerts via Qaradawi’s authority through the Muslim Brotherhood entire network extends far and wide around the globe and is more than just an accident of residential preference.