UAE tied to hack tar­get­ing Qatar

In­cen­di­ary false claims posted on­line led to cri­sis

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN DEYOUNG AND ELLEN NAKASHIMA

The United Arab Emi­rates or­ches­trated the hack­ing of Qatari gov­ern­ment news and so­cial me­dia sites in or­der to post in­cen­di­ary false quotes at­trib­uted to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Ha­mad al-Thani, in late May that sparked the on­go­ing up­heaval be­tween Qatar and its neigh­bors, ac­cord­ing to U. S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

Of­fi­cials be­came aware last week that newly an­a­lyzed in­for­ma­tion gath­ered by U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies con­firmed that on May 23, se­nior mem­bers of the UAE gov­ern­ment dis­cussed the plan and its im­ple­men­ta­tion. The of­fi­cials said it re­mains un­clear whether the UAE car­ried out the hacks it­self or con­tracted to have them done. The false re­ports said that the emir, among other things, had called Iran an “Is­lamic power” and praised Ha­mas.

The hacks and post­ing took place on May 24, shortly af­ter President Trump com­pleted a lengthy coun­tert­er­ror­ism meet­ing with Per­sian Gulf lead­ers in neigh­bor­ing Saudi Ara­bia and de­clared them uni­fied.

Cit­ing the emir’s re­ported com­ments, the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt im­me­di­ately banned all Qatari me­dia. They then broke re­la­tions with Qatar and de­clared a trade and diplo­matic boy­cott, send­ing the re­gion into a po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic tail­spin that Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has warned could

un­der­mine U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts against the Is­lamic State.

In a state­ment re­leased in Washington by its am­bas­sador, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE said the Post ar­ti­cle was “false.”

“The UAE had no role what­so­ever in the al­leged hack­ing de­scribed in the ar­ti­cle,” the state­ment said. “What is true is Qatar’s be­hav­ior. Fund­ing, sup­port­ing, and en­abling ex­trem­ists from the Tal­iban to Ha­mas and Qadafi. In­cit­ing vi­o­lence, en­cour­ag­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion, and un­der­min­ing the sta­bil­ity of its neigh­bors.”

The rev­e­la­tions come as emails pur­port­edly hacked from Otaiba’s pri­vate ac­count have cir­cu­lated to jour­nal­ists over the past sev­eral months. That hack has been claimed by an ap­par­ently proQatari or­ga­ni­za­tion call­ing it­self Glob­alLeaks. Many of the emails high­light the UAE’s de­ter­mi­na­tion over the years to rally Washington thinkers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to its side on the is­sues at the cen­ter of its dis­pute with Qatar.

All of the Per­sian Gulf na­tions are mem­bers of the U.S.-led coali­tion against the Is­lamic State. More than 10,000 U.S. troops are based at Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base, the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand’s re­gional head­quar­ters, and Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. All are pur­chasers of U.S. de­fense equip­ment and tied to U.S. for­eign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties in nu­mer­ous ways.

The con­flict has also ex­posed sharp dif­fer­ences be­tween Trump — who has clearly taken the Saudi and UAE side in a se­ries of tweets and state­ments — and Tiller­son, who has urged com­pro­mise and spent most of last week in shut­tle diplo­macy among the re­gional cap­i­tals that has been un­suc­cess­ful so far.

“We don’t ex­pect any near-term res­o­lu­tion,” Tiller­son aide R.C. Ham­mond said Satur­day. He said the sec­re­tary had left be­hind pro­pos­als with the “Saudi bloc” and with Qatar in­clud­ing “a common set of prin­ci­ples that all coun­tries agree to so that we start from . . . a common place.”

Qatar has re­peat­edly charged that its sites were hacked, but it has not re­leased the re­sults of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials said their work­ing the­ory since the Qatar hacks has been that Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE, Egypt or some com­bi­na­tion of those coun­tries were in­volved. It re­mains un­clear whether the oth­ers also par­tic­i­pated in the plan.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence and other of­fi­cials spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to discuss the sen­si­tive mat­ter.

The Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence de­clined to com­ment, as did the CIA. The FBI, which Qatar has said was help­ing in its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, also de­clined to com­ment.

A spokesman for the Qatari Em­bassy in Washington re­sponded by draw­ing at­ten­tion to a state­ment by that gov­ern­ment’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Ali Bin Fe­tais al-Marri, who said late last month that “Qatar has ev­i­dence that cer­tain iPhones orig­i­nat­ing from coun­tries lay­ing siege to Qatar were used in the hack.”

Ham­mond said he did not know of the newly an­a­lyzed U.S. in­tel­li­gence on the UAE or whether Tiller­son was aware of it.

The hack­ing in­ci­dent re­opened a bit­ter feud among the gulf monar­chies that has sim­mered for years. It last erupted in 2013, when Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE and Bahrain ac­cused Qatar of pro­vid­ing safe haven for their po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents and sup­port­ing the pan-Arab Mus­lim Brother­hood; fund­ing ter­ror­ists, in­clud­ing U.S.-des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist groups such as Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah; and us­ing its state­funded me­dia out­lets to desta­bi­lize its neigh­bors.

Qatar — an en­ergy-rich coun­try ruled by its own un­elected monar­chy — saw the Saudi-led ac­cu­sa­tions as an at­tempt by neigh­bor­ing au­to­crats to sti­fle its more lib­eral ten­den­cies. Sep­a­rately, the United States warned Qatar to keep a tighter rein on wealthy in­di­vid­u­als there who sur­rep­ti­tiously funded Is­lamist ter­ror groups — a charge that Washington has also made in the past against the Saudis and other gulf coun­tries. While Qatar promised some steps in re­sponse to the charges in a 2014 agree­ment with the oth­ers, it took lit­tle ac­tion.

Dur­ing his two-day visit to Riyadh, Trump met with the sixmem­ber Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil — Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar — and held in­di­vid­ual closed-door meet­can ings with sev­eral GCC lead­ers, in­clud­ing the Qatar emir. The day be­fore his de­par­ture on the morn­ing of May 22, Trump de­liv­ered a speech, fo­cused on the need for re­li­gious tol­er­ance and unity against ter­ror­ism, to more than 50 Mus­lim lead­ers gath­ered from around the world for the oc­ca­sion.

But he de­voted most of his at­ten­tion to Saudi King Sal­man, prais­ing as a wise leader the man who con­trols his coun­try’s vast oil re­serves. In what the ad­min­is­tra­tion hailed as a high point of the visit, the Saudis agreed to pur­chase $110 bil­lion in U.S. arms and signed let­ters of in­tent to in­vest hun­dreds of bil­lions in deals with U.S. com­pa­nies.

He had told the Saudis in ad­vance, Trump said in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day with the Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Net­work, that the agree­ments and pur­chases were a pre­req­ui­site for his pres­ence. “I said, you have to do that, oth­er­wise I’m not go­ing,” Trump re­counted.

The state­ments at­trib­uted to the emir first ap­peared on the Qatar News Agency’s web­site early on the morn­ing of May 24, in a report on his ap­pear­ance at a mil­i­tary cer­e­mony, as Trump was wrap­ping up the next stop on his nine-day over­seas trip, in Is­rael. Ac­cord­ing to the Qatari gov­ern­ment, alerts were sent out within 45 min­utes say­ing the in­for­ma­tion was false.

Later that morn­ing, the same false in­for­ma­tion ap­peared on a ticker at the bot­tom of a video of the emir’s ap­pear­ance that was posted on Qatar News Agency’s YouTube chan­nel. Sim­i­lar ma­te­rial ap­peared on gov­ern­ment Twit­ter feeds.

The re­ports were re­peat­edly broad­cast on Saudi Ara­bian gov­ern­ment out­lets, con­tin­u­ing even af­ter the Qatari alert said it was false. The UAE shut down all broad­casts of Qatari me­dia in­side its borders, in­clud­ing the Qatar­i­funded Al Jazeera satel­lite net­work, the most watched in the Arab world.

The first week in June, the Saudi-led coun­tries sev­ered re­la­tions, or­dered all Qatari na­tion­als in­side their coun­tries to leave, and closed their borders to all land, air and sea traf­fic with Qatar, a penin­su­lar na­tion in the Per­sian Gulf whose only land con­nec­tion is with Saudi Ara­bia.

In ad­di­tion to charges of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism and pro­mot­ing in­sta­bil­ity in­side their coun­tries, they ac­cused Qatar of be­ing too close to Iran, Saudi Ara­bia’s main ri­val for re­gional power and, ac­cord­ing to the United States, the world’s fore­most sup­porter of global ter­ror­ism. Iran con­ducts ro­bust trade with most of the gulf, in­clud­ing the UAE, and shares the world’s largest nat­u­ral gas field with Qatar.

The day af­ter the boy­cott was an­nounced, Trump in­di­rectly took credit for it. “So good to see the Saudi Ara­bia visit with King and 50 coun­tries al­ready pay­ing off,” he tweeted. “They said they would take a hard line on fund­ing ex­trem­ism, and all ref­er­ence was point­ing to Qatar.”

At the same time, Tiller­son and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis called for ne­go­ti­a­tions and a quick res­o­lu­tion of the dis­pute. When the Saudi-led group re­leased a list of 13 “non-ne­go­tiable” de­mands for Qatar — in­clud­ing shut­ting down Al Jazeera and ex­pelling a num­ber of peo­ple deemed ter­ror­ists — the State Depart­ment sug­gested that they were un­rea­son­able and that the ter­ror­ism fund­ing is­sue was a smoke­screen for long-stand­ing re­gional griev­ances that should be re­solved through me­di­a­tion and ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Qatar re­jected the de­mands. Tiller­son ap­peared to agree that they were dra­co­nian. But when he called for the boy­cott to be eased, say­ing it was caus­ing both se­cu­rity and hu­man­i­tar­ian hard­ship, Trump said the mea­sure was harsh “but nec­es­sary.”

The one con­crete re­sult of Tiller­son’s stops in the re­gion last week was a new bi­lat­eral agree­ment signed with Qatar on stop­ping ter­ror­ism fi­nanc­ing, the only one of the gulf coun­tries that had re­sponded to an in­vi­ta­tion to do so, Ham­mond said.

Speak­ing to re­porters on his plane fly­ing back to Washington on Fri­day, Tiller­son said the trip was use­ful “first to lis­ten and get a sense of how se­ri­ous the sit­u­a­tion is, how emo­tional some of these is­sues are.” He said that he had left pro­pos­als with both sides that sug­gested “some ways that we might move this for­ward.”

All of the coun­tries in­volved, Tiller­son said, are “re­ally im­por­tant to us from a na­tional se­cu­rity stand­point. . . . We need this part of the world to be sta­ble, and this par­tic­u­lar con­flict be­tween these par­ties is ob­vi­ously not help­ful.”

Asked about Trump’s tweets and other com­ments, he noted that be­ing sec­re­tary of state “is a lot dif­fer­ent than be­ing CEO of Exxon,” his pre­vi­ous job, “be­cause I was the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion-maker.” He knew what to ex­pect from long­stand­ing col­leagues, he said, and de­ci­sion-mak­ing was dis­ci­plined and “highly struc­tured.”

“Those are not the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the United States gov­ern­ment. And I don’t say that as a crit­i­cism, it’s just an ob­ser­va­tion of fact,” Tiller­son said. While nei­ther he nor the president came from the po­lit­i­cal world, he said, his old job put him in con­tact with the rest of the world and “that en­gage­ment . . . is ac­tu­ally very easy for me.”

For his part, Trump agreed in the Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Net­work in­ter­view that he and Tiller­son “had a lit­tle bit of a dif­fer­ence, only in terms of tone” over the gulf con­flict.

Qatar, Trump said, “is now a lit­tle bit on the outs, but I think they’re be­ing brought back in.” Asked about the U.S. mil­i­tary base in Qatar, Trump said he was not con­cerned.

“We’ll be all right,” he said. “Look, if we ever have to leave” the base, “we would have 10 coun­tries will­ing to build us an­other one, be­lieve me. And they’ll pay for it.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Ha­mad al-Thani, right, holds hands with the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, last month af­ter four Arab states broke re­la­tions with Qatar.

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