WASHINGTON — The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but US officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamist militants, according to US officials and foreign diplomats.
No evidence has emerged linking the weapons provided by the Qataris during the uprising against Moammar Khadafy to the attack that killed four Americans at the US 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 Khadafy.
The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria.
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 CIA officers on the ground 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 Islamist militant groups.
They were ‘‘more anti-democratic, 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. 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 US interests.
During the frantic early months of the Libyan rebellion, various players motivated by politics or profit — including a US arms dealer who proposed weapons transfers in an e-mail exchange with a US emissary later killed in Benghazi — sought to aid those trying to oust Khadafy.
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 US 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 US 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.
US officials say that the United Arab Emirates first approached the Obama administration during the early months of the Libyan uprising, asking for permission to ship US-built weapons that the United States had supplied for the emirates’ use. The administration rejected that request but instead urged the emirates to ship weapons to Libya that could not be traced to the United States.