The February 13 bomb blast that killed former Chechen president Salim Khan Yandarbiyev on the streets of Doha pulled Qatar briefly into the forefront of the "war on terror". It also highlighted the emirate's difficulty in balancing disparate, often conflicting, political interests, as with it have come international dispute, contradictory accusations and some tough decisions.
Doha's normally quiet aspect seemed unshaken by the 2 kg device that exploded under Yandarbiyev's Toyota Land Cruiser, killing him and putting his 13-year-old son in critical condition.
However, security was not noticeably stepped up around the capital afterwards, and the threat level is not said to have increased. Investigations began immediately, but the site of the incident was quickly cleared of potential evidence, according to journalists on the scene 45 minutes later. Five days later, however, two Russian men working in their country's embassy to Qatar were arrested.
The Qatari prosecutor alleges that the bomb used in the assassination had been sent to the alleged perpetrators via a diplomatic bag. The two men are known, from security camera footage, to have hired a van seen near the site of the explosion; rumour has it the Qatari police monitored mobile phone lines taken out by them under false names. But Igor Ivanov, Russia's then acting foreign minister, accused Qatar of seizing Russian citizens by force without immediately informing the embassy, and thus violating the norms of international law.
A third Russian diplomat was soon also arrested, but a statement subsequently released by the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that all three "were in Qatar legally and worked on information and analysis within the framework of the international campaign against terrorism". The SVR, the successor to the KGB, also produced a remarkable statement to the effect that assassinations had not been carried out by the organisation since 1959.
Tense negotiations were ongoing as Ivanov made it clear that Russia would do everything in its power to get its detained citizens back. He told reporters, "The state will use all available instruments to release the Russian citizens illegally detained in Qatar." This was thought to be a reference to a statement in October 2003 to the effect that Moscow would use preventive military force in case of a "direct threat" to Russian citizens, thus provoking rumours of a potential special-forces operation to extract the detainees.
Seen as the father of Chechen independence, Yandarbiyev had lived in Qatar since 2000. He resigned from his role as roaming Chechen ambassador in 2002 and was supposedly not involved in either political or guerrilla activities, but is known to have maintained contact with networks of Chechens across the Middle East. In 2003, he was put on a UN list of terrorists associated with al-Qaida and a US government list of international terrorists subject to financial restrictions. The Russians had sought his extradition for a number of years, and in 2003 Russian President Vladimir Putin alleged the US had held talks with Yandarbiyev.
While diplomatic negotiations carried on, the Russians added pressure with the arrest of two Qatari citizens in Moscow. The Russians hoped to swap Nasser Ibrahim Saad al-Madhihiki - named as an official with the Qatari Greco-Roman wrestling team - and Ibrahim Ahmad Nasser Ahmad for the detained security officials held in Qatar.
Following a conversation between Putin and Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Qataris were released on March 24, while the third Russian diplomat to be detained was simultaneously evicted from Qatar; the other two remain to face trial.
In Russia, the incident fanned conspiracy theories and nationalist rhetoric in the run-up to presidential elections in Russia. Some media reports have suggested the security services had obtained CIA approval to assassinate Yandarbiyev, and that the Qataris had been instructed to take no action. Others have accused the CIA of tipping off Qatari intelligence about Russian involvement.
Suggestions also abound that Yandarbiyev was killed as a result of an internal Chechen dispute. It may have been a traditional Chechen blood feud, but more likely, some argued, was a feud among the Chechen separatist leaders and their sponsors. According to Russia's Interfax news agency, "Yandarbiyev was aware of the transfers made from abroad to the Chechen bandit formations. Today, the situation has changed; many foreign sponsors changed their attitude to financing Chechen rebels, and witnesses like Yandarbiyev are simply dangerous for them."
Whoever is to blame, the incident highlights the difficult balance that Qatar must find in managing its international interests. The country's recent, rapid economic development has been achieved with considerable support from the US, in terms of both security and investment. In the US-led war against international terrorism, Qatar must keep the world superpower onside while remaining true to its domestic Muslim traditions and Islamic allies.
Qatar has granted entry to a variety of Muslim politicians and militants in recent years. Palestinian Hamas leaders, Algerian Muslim fundamentalists and Iraqi officials of Saddam Hussein's regime have been accepted on the premise of an Arab tradition that provides hospitality to guests and offers sanctuary to refugees. This has also served to defuse animosity with other Middle Eastern states over the presence of large US military facilities, including CENTCOM, the regional command HQ. This resentment has been particularly strong over the last year, as Qatar was used as the jump-off point for US military action in Iraq.
US discomfort with Qatar granting refuge to potential and active enemies also provides an alternate explanation in the "whodunnit?" question of the affair. One theory hypothesises that in order to create diplomatic controversy over the harbouring of terrorist leaders, the CIA facilitated the assassination so as to create an international stink. The suggested intention is to make the Qataris more aware of their need for American support and less inclined to balance this with their Muslim sympathies.
Either way, Qatar has become involved in a potentially very messy international scandal and, many feel, must review how to play the game of managing their position in a particularly complex international environment.