Who Hacked Qatar's News Sites?

The Washington Post reported the UAE was behind the planting of fake news that sparked the diplomatic crisis. The Emirates denies the charge.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE's foreign minister  (Neil Hall / Reuters )

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates denied Monday a report in The Washington Post that said the Emirates was behind the posting of false stories on Qatari news websites that sparked the regional fallout between four Saudi-led Arab countries and Qatar.

Anwar Gargash, the Emirates foreign minister, told the BBC the Post report was “untrue.” In a statement posted on Twitter, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, also dismissed the Post’s reporting:

At issue are Qatari news reports in May that quoted Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the country’s emir, as criticizing Saudi Arabia, praising Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, describing Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good,” and also lauding Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Qatari officials immediately called the remarks fake, adding its news websites were a victim of a “shameful cybercrime.” The trouble, though, as regional experts said at the time, was that the comments attributed to Qatar’s emir have long been viewed as Qatar’s policy. Then in June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain severed relations with Qatar, citing its support of terrorism. They expelled Qatari citizens from their countries, recalled their citizens from Qatar, and cut off transportation links with the kingdom, which relies on imports brought in by road from Saudi Arabia and from the UAE’s ports.  In response, Qatar turned to Iran and Turkey for supplies and support.

The four countries cited Qatar’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt, elements of al-Qaeda, Hamas, ISIS, and other Islamist extremist groups, as the reasons for their actions. Qatar has denied supporting al-Qaeda and ISIS, and says its relations with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are no different from those maintained by other Arab countries.

The four countries then set a deadline and sent Qatar a list of 13 demands, including the closure of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned Arabic language broadcaster; the severing of links with Iran; the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar; and the severing of links with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar rejected the demands. The U.S. says some of the demands could be met. Saudi Arabia and the others say the offer no longer stands. Kuwait, which has not joined the action against Qatar, is mediating the crisis.

Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, spent last week shuttling among Arab capitals in an attempt to resolve the dispute, though the U.S. acknowledges that will take time. The U.S. finds itself caught in the middle among allies. On the one hand, the Saudis are perhaps the closest U.S. ally in the Arab world and seen as a necessary partner to keep Iran and Islamist extremism in check; on the other, Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region, from where coalition aircraft strike ISIS targets.

Amid this back and forth lay the question who placed the false stories on Qatari websites? Last month the Guardian reported that an FBI investigation concluded that Russia had carried out the hack, but the Post’s story, based on statements from unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, said the Emirates were behind the hack.

The officials told the Post that senior UAE officials had discussed the hack on May 23. The purported hack occurred one day later. The Post also cited the officials as saying it was unclear whether the Emirates carried out the action itself or had outsourced the task. Either way the impact of the Qatari news accounts has been dramatic in a region not short of drama.