WASHINGTON — Even as the United States military campaign against Iraq was being directed out of headquarters in the Arab emirate of Qatar, counterterror experts expressed concern Thursday that the tiny Persian Gulf state's security chief is an Al Qaeda sympathizer.
U.S. counterterrorism authorities have long believed that Qatar's interior minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani, has sheltered terrorists -- including the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 hijacking plot, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- in and around his farm compound near the capital of Doha.
One former CIA agent familiar with the situation described Al-Thani as a potential danger to U.S. troops operating out of Central Command headquarters in Doha -- especially if the war in Iraq drags on or incites Muslim hostilities in the region. Under an arrangement with the government of Qatar, the U.S.'s forward command and control center is based in Doha, along with thousands of support staff and journalists reporting on the daily media briefings.
"He's a sympathizer, a fellow traveler," said the former agent, Robert Baer. "It's definitely a danger. If things get really bad in Iraq, it's a threat."
It was not known Thursday whether Al-Thani's alleged ties to Al Qaeda figures were considered -- or even known -- by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials involved in the cooperation agreement between Doha and Washington.
Qatari officials in Doha and at the Qatari embassy in Washington did not respond to calls seeking comment. U.S. officials at the White House and the Pentagon had no comment, saying they knew too little of the situation to respond.
At the military command, known as Central Command Forward, or Camp As Sayliah, one officer said Thursday that the Qatari government has been extremely helpful to U.S. forces.
"Since we have been here security has been a priority, but it is not a reflection on our host. The Qataris have been most gracious," said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens. "When you are talking about security issues and terrorism, that needs to be addressed at a much higher level, in Washington."
But Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism director for the White House, said that if Al-Thani was indeed in charge of security for Qatar in his role as interior minister, it could seriously jeopardize U.S. troops in the region.
"I'm shocked to hear [that]," Clarke said. "You're telling me that [Al-Thani] is today in charge of security inside Qatar? I hope that's not true."
Clarke, who left the Bush administration this month after more than a dozen years as a top counterterrorism official, said Al-Thani was minister of Islamic affairs when he provided shelter for Mohammed.
Al-Thani "had great sympathy for Osama bin Laden, great sympathy for terrorist groups, was using his personal money and ministry money to transfer to Al Qaeda front groups that were allegedly charities," Clarke said.
Al-Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family, has been interior minister since January 2001, according to the gulf nation's Web site.
Before that, Al-Thani rose steadily through the administrative ranks. Beginning as a staff officer and commander of armed forces, he became minister of religious endowments and Islamic affairs in 1992 and, in 1996, minister of state for interior affairs, according to Qatari Web sites and documents.
Since 1995, U.S. officials also have been familiar with Al-Thani for another reason: his support of radical Muslim fundamentalists, including moujahedeen who fought for jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and in other conflicts.
Those concerns came to a head in late 1995, when the FBI and the CIA homed in on Mohammed as a serious terrorist. Their investigations had determined that Mohammed -- who would later boast about his role in planning the Sept. 11 attacks -- was involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and unsuccessful plots originating in the Philippines to blow up 12 U.S. airliners and to assassinate the pope and President Clinton.
By early 1996, the FBI had obtained a secret federal indictment of Mohammed and wanted to arrest him near Doha, where they believed he was working as a civil servant and living on Al-Thani's compound.
U.S. diplomats insisted that the Qatari government be notified of U.S. intentions to arrest Mohammed -- and by the time FBI agents arrived to take him into custody, Mohammed had escaped. Several U.S. officials involved in the hunt for Mohammed said Thursday that al-Thani was the one who learned of the imminent FBI dragnet and tipped off Mohammed, allowing him to flee. For the next seven years, U.S. officials sought Mohammed, finally catching him this month in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
During the intervening years, Mohammed rose to become a top commander of Al Qaeda and is believed to be the operational mastermind of not only the Sept. 11 attacks but many other attacks by the terror network.