FBI investigates former US general over Qatar lobbying role

According to FBI probe, Allen had financial incentives for helping Qatar and maintained strong ties to its top leaders.

John R. Allen
Former US Marine General and Brookings Institution President John R Allen waits to speak at a forum during the 2018 IMF/World Bank spring meetings April 20, 2018, in Washington, DC [File: Brendan Smialowski/AFP]

The FBI has seized the electronic data of a retired four-star general who authorities say withheld “incriminating” documents and lied about his role in an illegal foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of Qatar.

New federal court filings obtained Tuesday outlined a potential criminal case against former Marine General John R Allen, who led United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan before being tapped in 2017 to lead the influential Brookings Institution think-tank.

It’s part of an expanding investigation that has ensnared Richard G Olson, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, who pleaded guilty to federal charges last week, and Imaad Zuberi, a prolific political donor now serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges. Several members of the US Congress have been interviewed as part of the investigation.

The court filings detail Allen’s alleged behind-the-scenes efforts to help Qatar influence US policy in 2017 when a diplomatic crisis erupted between the gas-rich Persian Gulf monarchy and its neighbours.

According to the documents, Zuberi “viewed the diplomatic crisis as a business opportunity” and began working on selling lobbying services to Qatar. He contacted Olson, who in turn brought in Allen.

“If we can do this, we will own half of Qatar,” Zuberi wrote to Olson in a WhatsApp message cited in the filing.

US federal law stipulates that an individual lobbying for a foreign government must register with the Department of Justice.

“There is substantial evidence that these FARA violations were willful,” FBI agent Babak Adib wrote in a search warrant application, referring to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Allen also misrepresented his role in the lobbying campaign to US officials, Adib wrote, and failed to disclose “that he was simultaneously pursuing multimillion-dollar business deals with the government of Qatar”.

The FBI said Allen gave a “false version of events” about his work for Qatar during a 2020 interview with law enforcement officials and failed to produce relevant email messages in response to an earlier grand jury subpoena.

Allen declined to comment on the new filings. He has previously denied ever working as a Qatari agent and said his efforts on Qatar in 2017 were motivated to prevent a war from breaking out in the Gulf that would put US troops at risk.

Allen’s spokesperson Beau Phillips told The Associated Press last week that Allen “voluntarily cooperated with the government’s investigation into this matter” and that he had “not received a fee for his efforts”.

TTAJ - General John Allen
Retired US General John Allen speaks to the media during a news conference at the US embassy in Baghdad on January 14, 2015 [File: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

Financial incentives

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries announced a diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar over what they claimed were ties to “terror” groups and other issues.

Shortly after the blockade was announced, then-President Donald Trump appeared to side against Qatar.

The court papers said Allen played an important role in shifting the US’s response.

Specifically, authorities said Allen lobbied then-National Security Adviser HR McMaster to have the Trump administration adopt a more Qatar-friendly tone.

In an email to McMaster, Allen said the Qataris wanted the White House or US Department of State to issue a statement with language calling on all sides of the Gulf diplomatic crisis to “act with restraint”.

Federal law enforcement officials have said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did just that two days later, issuing a statement that called on other Gulf countries to “ease the blockade against Qatar” and asked “that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region”.

The Qatari foreign ministry and the Qatari embassy in Washington, DC have not commented on the matter.

As part of the lobbying campaign, federal law enforcement authorities said Olson and Allen travelled to Qatar to meet with the country’s emir and other top officials.

Before they went to Doha, Allen wanted to “have a chat” with Olson and Zuberi about his compensation, the affidavit said.

Allen suggested in an email that he be paid a $20,000 “speaker’s fee” for the weekend trip – even though he wasn’t giving a speech – and then later “work out a fuller arrangement of a longer-term relationship,” the affidavit said.

Zuberi paid Allen’s first-class airfare to Qatar, the affidavit said, but there is no indication the speaker’s fee was paid.

Allen also had other financial incentives for helping the Qataris and maintaining strong ties to its top leaders, the FBI said.

“At the same time he was lobbying US government officials on behalf of Qatar, Allen pursued at least one multimillion-dollar business deal with the Qatari government on behalf of a company on whose board of directors he served,” the affidavit said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies