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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.
No evidence has emerged linking the weapons provided by the Qataris during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to the attack that killed four Americans at the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
But in the months before, the Obama administration clearly was worried about the consequences of its hidden hand in helping arm Libyan militants, concerns that have not previously been reported. The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.
The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria, where weapons are flowing in from Qatar and other countries.
The Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration officials. But they said the United States has growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants.
The United States, which had only small numbers of C.I.A. officers in Libya during the tumult of the rebellion, provided little oversight of the arms shipments. Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011, the White House began receiving reports that they were going to Islamic militant groups. They were “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya, said a former Defense Department official.
The Qatari assistance to fighters viewed as hostile by the United States demonstrates the Obama administration’s continuing struggles in dealing with the Arab Spring uprisings, as it tries to support popular protest movements while avoiding American military entanglements. Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations, but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests.
“To do this right, you have to have on-the-ground intelligence and you have to have experience,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who is now dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, part of Johns Hopkins University. “If you rely on a country that doesn’t have those things, you are really flying blind. When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control.”
He said that Qatar would not have gone through with the arms shipments if the United States had resisted them, but other current and former administration officials said Washington had little leverage at times over Qatari officials. “They march to their own drummer,” said a former senior State Department official. The White House and State Department declined to comment.
During the frantic early months of the Libyan rebellion, various players motivated by politics or profit — including an American arms dealer who proposed weapons transfers in an e-mail exchange with a United States emissary later killed in Benghazi — sought to aid those trying to oust Colonel Qaddafi.
But after the White House decided to encourage Qatar — and on a smaller scale, the United Arab Emirates — to ship arms to the Libyans, President Obama complained in April 2011 to the emir of Qatar that his country was not coordinating its actions in Libya with the United States, the American officials said. “The president made the point to the emir that we needed transparency about what Qatar was doing in Libya,” said a former senior administration official who had been briefed on the matter.
About that same time, Mahmoud Jibril, then the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government, expressed frustration to administration officials that the United States was allowing Qatar to arm extremist groups opposed to the new leadership, according to several American officials. They, like nearly a dozen current and former White House, diplomatic, intelligence, military and foreign officials, would speak only on the condition of anonymity for this article.
The administration has never determined where all of the weapons, paid for by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, went inside Libya, officials said. Qatar is believed to have shipped by air and sea small arms, including machine guns, automatic rifles, and ammunition, for which it has demanded reimbursement from Libya’s new government. Some of the arms since have been moved from Libya to militants with ties to Al Qaeda in Mali, where radical jihadi factions have imposed Shariah law in the northern part of the country, the former Defense Department official said. Others have gone to Syria, according to several American and foreign officials and arms traders.