Ali Soufan, the executive director of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies

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Should Jewish Communal Security Be Entrusted to Qatar?

After Oct. 7, the question seems completely insane. Apparently not.

Armin Rosen
November 06, 2023
Ali Soufan, the executive director of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies

© HBO Max - HBO Documentary Films/Alamy

Being Hamas’ major external funder and designated international go-between requires certain highly specialized skills. When the Islamist terrorist group took an estimated 240 hostages during its rampage through southern Israel on Oct. 7, the group’s sponsors in Qatar must have felt unusually well-prepared for the fallout. That’s because in late July, the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, which identified the ex-FBI agent Ali Soufan as its executive director as recently as December of 2022, held a three-day bilateral hostage recovery exercise attended by Brigadier General Hamad Hassan Al Sulait of the Lekhwiya, Qatar’s internal security force. Representatives from the FBI, along with the U.S. departments of State and Defense, participated alongside counterparts in Qatar’s Ministry of the Interior and State Security Agency. Soufan himself attended the event, which was held “under the auspices” of Qatar’s interior minister, according to the pro-government Al-Arab Qatar website.

At the same time, Michael Masters, one of Soufan’s longtime deputies, was running Jewish communal security throughout North America as head of the Secure Community Network (SCN)—a post in which he remains in the aftermath of the Hamas slaughter of over 1,400 Jews.

As an FBI agent, Ali Soufan was one of the few people in the bureau who paid any attention to Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against America, knowledge which did not enable Soufan or anyone else in federal law enforcement to prevent the 9/11 attacks. This now-25-year-old kernel of insight, given heroic dimensions in Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, turned Soufan into one of 21st-century America’s more enduring national security celebrities, a cable news regular with both a global security firm and a think tank named after himself, as well as deep contacts within a world-spanning counterterror establishment.

Qatar is one of that establishment’s hubs, thanks in part to Soufan, who did not respond to Tablet’s requests for an interview. The ex-FBI agent was in charge of the Doha office of Rudy Giuliani’s security firm in 2007, which trained the emirate’s security and intelligence forces. Today, QIASS is the Soufan Group’s “flagship training facility,” according to the company’s website, while the nonprofit Soufan Center and QIASS are the two co-organizers of the Global Security Forum, a policy-themed festival of Qatari regime self-aggrandizement held each March in Doha. QIASS has counted trusted figures in the Qatari government apparatus among its leadership: In the early 2010s, QIASS’ president was Mohamed Hanzab, a former senior official in both the Qatar Information Agency and Qatar’s Air Force. In 2011, Hanzab launched the International Center for Sports Security, with Soufan as one of five members of the group’s advisory board. Majid al Ansari, QIASS’ president since 2019, left the institute to become the Qatari Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson and an adviser to the country’s prime minister in early 2022, according to his LinkedIn page.  However, according to biographies on the websites of both the Qatari Foreign Ministry and the government-operated Hamid bin Khalifa University, Ansari is still QIASS’ president. On Nov. 1, al Ansari briefly listed “Nov. 2023” as his end date with QIASS on LinkedIn before changing his profile to eliminate any sign of overlap with his Foreign Ministry work. (The “about” section of the profile still opens by describing al-Ansari as “President of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS).”) A sidebar on LinkedIn cached on Oct. 31, visible on Google as of this writing, still identifies him as president of the institute.

Soufan was not the only person at the company he’d founded to hold a leadership role at QIASS. “Several other Soufan Group employees are also listed as employees there,” Foreign Policy reported in 2014, “an affiliation they rarely disclose in U.S. media interviews.” The page on QIASS’ website listing its executive team is offline now, and the institute no longer publicly identifies any of its staff on its site, but in December of 2022 the organization named a number of Soufan associates among its leadership in addition to Soufan himself. Martin Reardon, listed as QIASS’ senior director, is an FBI counterterror veteran, former bureau sniper team leader, and current senior training consultant for the Soufan Group. QIASS training director John Waddell, a longtime combat arms instructor in the Marines, is a senior project manager at the Soufan Group, according to his LinkedIn page.

Through QIASS, Soufan positioned himself as a primary nongovernmental channel between the American security sector and Doha. Masters had his own part in this larger project. By 2018, the year QIASS and the Soufan Center launched the Global Security Forum together, Masters had already been board president of Soufan’s nonprofit arm for two years, a position he held until 2022, according to his LinkedIn page. Masters, who was also a senior employee at the for-profit Soufan Group, is listed as “director” and “president” of the Soufan Center in all of the publicly available, full-length 990s the organization has filed, spanning from 2018 to 2021. The Soufan Center’s website names him as president in the earliest cached version of the organization’s staff page, from June of 2017.

Soufan was a founding member of the board of the Qatar America Institute in 2017, and was still on the organization’s board in 2019, when it accepted $5.2 million in funding from the Qatari Embassy in Washington. In 2020, the Justice Department determined that the institute was working on behalf of a foreign principal—namely the government of Qatar, or at least its official mission in the nation’s capital—and required the organization to disclose its activities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Becoming one of many willing vectors between Washington and Doha was a good career decision for Soufan, for the same reason becoming a Western access node for Islamic extremists was a savvy geopolitical move for Qatar. During the right kind of crisis, a hotline to the leaders of Hamas can be an invaluable diplomatic asset that nobody else has. A similar advantage comes from heading a training institute that serves the intelligence and security officials of the government hosting those terrorist leaders, who are now responsible for the murder and kidnapping of scores of American citizens. The sense of centrality to real-world events can become both lucrative and downright intoxicating. “Approaching the abyss,” Soufan tweeted portentously on Oct. 18, linking to a Soufan Center brief that repeated the prior day’s lie from Hamas officials that an Israeli strike had killed 500 people at Gaza’s Al-Ahli Hospital.

Since late 2017, Masters has been national director and CEO of the Security Community Network, which tracks threats against Jewish communal institutions. Masters, a former executive director of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Cook County, Illinois, and a Harvard Law graduate, served as executive vice president, and then later as counsel, for the Soufan Group between 2015 and 2020. Masters was president of the Soufan Center, the group’s research institute and nonprofit arm, from 2016 to 2022.

SCN, which began in 2004 as a project of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America, is the organized American Jewish community’s main institutional contact point with the U.S. intelligence and national security apparatus. For the first five years in which he was responsible for that contact point, Masters also worked as a top executive at an organization with intricate ties to the Qatari state, which provides a safe haven to Hamas’ leadership and broadcasts antisemitic bile over Al Jazeera.

Masters was not eager to discuss his work with the Soufan Group or Soufan Center—or anything else, for that matter. He and I communicated indirectly last week, through a spokesperson for SCN. During the time we were in contact, the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum published a pointed article about Masters’ career with Soufan. I explained to SCN that I was interested in the Soufan Group’s and Soufan Center’s activities in Qatar at the time Masters helped run both organizations, and was not eager to jump to conclusions about the potential benefit to U.S. or Jewish communal security that might very well have come from those activities, or about Masters’ motives or personal beliefs. In return, the spokesperson sent a lengthy written statement, reading in part:

Accusations that Michael Masters worked for a foreign government, or by his travel to a foreign country condones all the activities of a foreign government, are as ludicrous as they are unfounded.
What Mr. Masters is being asked to answer for is the equivalent of asking any traveler who ever goes to a foreign country, whether for a conference or because they have an office, friend, or family member there, to assume ownership over not just the policies of that government, but the statements of all government officials, as well as the positions and statements of the financial, academic, and nonprofit organizations based in that country. It’s patently absurd.

Given his several leadership roles within Soufan’s organizations, is it fair to characterize Mr. Masters’ relationship to Qatar, whose security establishment deals directly with Hamas on a daily basis, as simply that of a “traveler” who happened to have a “friend” or “family member” in the emirate? It is theoretically possible, within a highly compartmentalized corporate structure, for the vice president and legal adviser of a company to have no involvement with the country in which that organization’s “flagship training facility” is located. It is similarly possible that the president of a policy institute would have no real relationship with the group that co-hosts that institute’s highest-profile annual event.

This isn’t likely, though. Masters delivered some of the opening remarks at the 2021 Global Security Forum—he was the forum’s second speaker that year, scheduled in between Qatar’s prime minister and the president of the country’s leading public university.  As the MEF article notes, the SCN head wasn’t in Pittsburgh in the days after the deadliest act of antisemitism in American history, but in Doha, where Masters introduced a “fireside chat” with Qatar’s defense minister at a jointly organized Soufan Center-QIASS conference about the threat of returning jihadist foreign fighters.

I asked the SCN spokesperson for additional clarity, in light of the surface implausibility of the claims made in the organization’s written statement. “He never did work on behalf of the government of Qatar, and did not have any business engagements with QIASS,” the SCN spokesperson said by phone, after consulting with Masters.

It is true QIASS isn’t technically part of the Qatari government. But in addition to training Qatari intelligence and security forces it is also funded and staffed by officials of the emirate’s government, an arrangement that would seem to render the difference moot.

The Soufan Group is adept at staying on the legally correct side of exactly these types of dubiously meaningful distinctions.  Aside from the Qatar America Institute snafu, the relationship has been successfully organized to avoid any Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosure that might embarrass either Soufan or his contacts in Doha. But messaging discipline can slip occasionally. In 2020, Middle East Eye, itself a Qatari-linked English-language online publication, reported, “One of the [Soufan Group]’s clients is the government of Qatar, which hired the Soufan Group to train some of its police and intelligence forces.”

On Nov. 2, Masters emailed a response to the MEF article to various heads of Jewish Community Relations councils around the country. The email was published on a public Mailchimp page, though it is unclear if this was intentional.

“I am proud of my past service as a member of the Board of Directors of The Soufan Center, an American 501(c)(3),” Masters wrote. “In that role, and in my previous roles in both government and civil society, I worked with security experts from numerous countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—to include the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and Israel, among many others. The suggestion by the ‘Middle East Forum’ that there is something inappropriate with that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the important work done by US government officials and members of the nonprofit, academic, and private sectors, and the relationships that result from these efforts—particularly in the national security space. It is thanks, in part, to these numerous relationships that Israeli and American officials are better able to protect our Jewish communities.”

Masters then addressed his relationship with Soufan. “I am also proud to call Ali H. Soufan, who many of you know, a colleague and friend. Ali is an internationally recognized expert on counterterrorism and geopolitical strategy, and the author of two New York Times best-selling books. He is also a Muslim American and one of only a handful of native Arabic speakers in the FBI on September 11, 2001, where he led the effort to dismantle Al Qaeda after leading the U.S.S. Cole bombing investigation. His integrity and patriotism are beyond reproach. He and I serve together on the Secretary’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and have had the opportunity to testify or address Congress, the UK Parliament and its members, the United Nations, and the National Security Council together. Directly, if the accusation is that he and I are associates, then count me in. I am honored by the association.”

Masters’ value to a place like SCN doesn’t come from his work on behalf of an organization with extensive business in Qatar, but from his ties to American law enforcement and intelligence. He is someone with an intricate understanding of the inner workings of American security agencies, and very likely a believer in their efficacy and their good intentions.

Soufan has shown a repeated inclination to defend the bureau’s institutional equities at the expense of the truth and his own personal credibility. Soufan was a leading apologist for the FBI during the Russiagate saga, repeatedly claiming, with decreasing plausibility, that the bureau couldn’t possibly be involved in domestic political warfare and that its critics were putting Americans at physical risk. ”The few GOP politicians attacking the FBI are, frankly, demagogues,” Soufan told the Daily Beast in 2018. “They’re putting party and self-interest above country. They are damaging national security.”

Soufan moved in lockstep with the FBI’s shifting focus on domestic extremism during the Biden years. “The United States today is basically the Mecca of white supremacist ideologues,” Soufan claimed to Time in 2021, signaling his support for the Biden administration’s new enforcement priorities. In the interview, Soufan called for designating domestic “far-right extremist organizations” as terrorist groups, a proposal with troubling implications for civil liberties, and likened the impact of the Jan. 6, 2021, events at the U.S. Capitol to that of far deadlier preludes to war. “I look at it as one of these events in our history,” he says, “like Pearl Harbor, like 9/11, that woke up a sleeping giant.”

Soufan has deftly utilized his links to the American national security establishment to harm the reputation of Qatar’s chief regional rival. In 2020, Soufan claimed that the U.S. government had warned him of an al-Qaida threat to his safety, though the Soufan Group’s own investigation found only vague “online threats,” according to NPR. Soufan himself appeared to conflate al-Qaida with Saudi Arabia, implying he could be a second Jamal Khashoggi. “Is the Saudi government plotting against another U.S.-based critic?” The New Yorker asked in reference to Soufan, in an article that furnished remarkably little proof of its central implicit claim (the article did note, however, that Soufan’s company “runs a training academy for police and intelligence forces in Qatar, a neighbor and bitter rival of Saudi Arabia”). “We started to see a major misinformation and intimidation campaign. We were able to connect it to Saudi Arabia,” Soufan told NPR.

Soufan’s PR-driven persona, and the perceived safety one gets from having an establishment-approved access channel to the national security state, have perhaps worked their magic on American Jewish communal leadership, too. As a result, the person responsible for the Jewish community’s security interests appears to have connections to two different groups of law enforcement and intelligence elites, just as Soufan does. One, in the U.S., insists that “white supremacists,” rather than Islamist terror groups, mobs chanting in favor of Hamas, or governments like the one in Doha are the main threat to Jews and communities in America. Another, namely the one in Doha itself,  actively supports Hamas, sheltering its leadership and negotiating on the Islamist group’s behalf. 

In identifying itself so closely with the U.S. establishment and its avatars like Ali Soufan, the leadership of the American Jewish community has perhaps made a fundamental error about where the threats to Jewish security lie. On Oct. 7, the Qatari Foreign Ministry, whose chief spokesman continues to serve as president of QIASS, according to two Qatari government biographies, proclaimed that Israel alone was responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against its citizens. The attempt to transform Qatar into a force for good for the U.S. and American Jews clearly hasn’t worked. But it has at least worked out for Soufan and Masters.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.