Did Russian Hackers Target Qatar?

CNN reports the action precipitated a rift among Arab nations.

A shop with a picture of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani is seen in Doha, Qatar, June 6, 2017.
Naseem Mohammed Bny Huthil / Reuters

Russian hackers may have planted a fake news story on the Qatar news agency’s website, CNN reported Tuesday evening. The hack may also have precipitated the crisis that saw six Arab countries sever their relations with Qatar.

Here’s more from the CNN report, which cited U.S. officials briefed on the investigation:

The FBI recently sent a team of investigators to Doha to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hacking incident, Qatari and US government officials say.

Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago, US officials say.

As I reported Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, and Yemen cut relations with Qatar over its alleged support of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Shia rebels in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The allegations aren’t new. Qatar’s foreign policy has long been a source of irritation for its Arab neighbors. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Doha from 2002 to 2008. In 2014, some of the same countries withdrew their diplomats from Qatar citing similar concerns. That dispute took nearly a year to resolve. But Monday’s move went further: It closed Saudi Arabia’s land border with Qatar, which could have severe economic consequences for the country.

The catalyst for Monday’s action was said to be a Qatari news report that quoted Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as criticizing Saudi Arabia, praising Iran, and describing Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good.” Qatari officials dismissed the news as fake, adding the news websites that published the report were the victim of a “shameful cybercrime.” But the purported remarks were widely believed to echo official Qatari policy.

The dispute raised serious concerns for U.S. policy in the region, as it tries to forge a united front against ISIS and other extremist groups. Qatar is home to the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, from where ISIS is targeted in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis said they hoped diplomacy among the Arab nations would resolve the crisis, but, in a series of tweets Tuesday, President Trump appeared to suggest his pressure on Arab nations to strike at the heart of terrorist financing brought about the joint action against Qatar. Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, said Tuesday: “The U.S. still wants to see this issue de-escalated and resolved immediately, in keeping with the principles that the president laid out in terms of defeating terror financing and extremism.”

Taking the CNN report at face value, the story raises a number of issues: First, why would Russian hackers target the Qataris? The answer, CNN noted, “appears to be to cause rifts among the US and its allies.” U.S. intelligence agencies say Russian hackers interfered with the U.S. election to favor Trump—though they say there’s no evidence to suggest the hacking succeeded. Russia is also accused of using fake news to target elections in the U.S., France, Netherlands, and elsewhere.

Second, even if the purported Qatari news report was fake, how much did it deviate from official Qatari policy? As David Roberts, a professor of defense studies at King’s College, wrote for the BBC Monday: “The key problem was that these comments simply voiced out loud what many have long understood as Qatar’s true policy positions. [P]articularly under the leadership of the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar sought to carve out a unique niche for itself and its policies, such as augmenting relations with Israel or Iran, and rejecting the wider consensus of the regional group of the monarchies, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).”

Third, it’s unclear what impact the purported Qatari report had. Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, have long been annoyed by Qatar and its policies. The purported report may merely have been the tipping point. “I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of some irritants in the region that have been there for some time,” Tillerson said in Sydney, Australia, on Monday, “and obviously they have now bubbled up to a level that countries decided they needed to take action in an effort to have those differences addressed.”

Finally, even if the Russian hackers are shown to have placed fake news on Qatari websites, it’s unclear if that will immediately change the minds of Saudi Arabia and its allies about Qatar’s role in the region. That’s likely to be a bigger challenge for the U.S. to overcome in the days and weeks ahead.