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US hackers helped UAE spy on Al Jazeera chairman

A picture taken on December 5, 2019, shows a general view of the headquarters of al-Jazeera Media Network, in the Qatari capital Doha [KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images]
A picture taken on December 5, 2019, shows a general view of the headquarters of al-Jazeera Media Network, in the Qatari capital Doha [KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images]

A group of American hackers who once worked for US intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures during a tense 2017 confrontation pitting the UAE and its allies against the Gulf state of Qatar, says Reuters.

The American operatives worked for Project Raven, a secret Emirati intelligence program that spied on dissidents, militants and political opponents of the UAE monarchy. A Reuters investigation in January revealed Project Raven's existence and inner workings, including the fact that it surveilled a British activist and several unnamed US journalists.

The Raven operatives — who included at least nine former employees of the US National Security Agency and the US military — found themselves thrust into the thick of a high-stakes dispute among America's Gulf allies. The Americans' role in the UAE-Qatar imbroglio highlights how former US intelligence officials have become key players in the cyber wars of other nations, with little oversight from Washington.

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The crisis erupted in the spring of 2017 , when the UAE and allies — including Saudi Arabia and Egypt — accused Qatar of sowing unrest in the Middle East through its support of media outlets and political groups. The UAE camp demanded Qatar take a series of actions, including shuttering the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera satellite television network, withdrawing funding from other media outlets Doha supports, and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement some Arab governments regard as a threat.

In June 2017, the UAE camp severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an air, land and sea blockade against the tiny nation. It was an unprecedented confrontation among Arab countries that had historically prized consensus.

That week, Project Raven operatives sprang into action, launching operations to break into the Apple iPhones of at least 10 journalists and media executives they believed had connections to the Qatari government or the Muslim Brotherhood, according to program documents reviewed by Reuters and four people involved in the activities.

Raven targeted Arab media figures who spanned a range of political thought — from a Beirut-based BBC host to the chairman of Al Jazeera and a producer from a London satellite channel founded by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The goal, the former Raven operatives said, was to find material showing that Qatar's royal family had influenced the coverage of Al Jazeera and other media outlets, and uncover any ties between the influential TV network and the Muslim Brotherhood. Reuters couldn't determine what data Raven obtained.

Al Jazeera has long maintained it is independent from Qatar's government. Jassim Bin Mansour Al-Thani, a media attaché for Qatar's embassy in Washington, said "the government of Qatar does not request, ask, or enforce on Al Jazeera any agenda whatsoever." Al Jazeera "is treated like any other respected media outlet."

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. The NSA declined to comment. A Department of Defense spokeswoman declined to comment.

Dana Shell Smith, the former US ambassador to Qatar, said she found it alarming that American intelligence veterans were able to work for another government in targeting an American ally. She said Washington should better supervise U.S. government-trained hackers after they leave the intelligence community.

"Folks with these skill sets should not be able to knowingly or unknowingly undermine US interests or contradict US values," Smith told Reuters.

Among the Arab journalists hacked, Raven project documents show was Giselle Khoury, Beirut-based host of BBC Arabic's "The Scene," a program that interviews Middle Eastern leaders on current events. Three days after the blockade began, Raven operatives hacked her iPhone. Raven program documents show she was targeted because of her contact with Azmi Bishara, a Doha-based writer who has been critical of the UAE and founded the news outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

"They need to spend their time on making better their country, their economy," Khoury said in an interview after Reuters informed her of the hack. "Not on having Giselle Khoury as a hacking target."

On June 19, 2017, Americans working for Raven targeted Faisal al-Qassem, host of a popular Al Jazeera show called "The Opposite Direction," interviews and documents show.

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The show features guests who heatedly debate controversial topics such as corruption in Middle Eastern governments. Informed by Reuters about his hacking, al-Qassem said he was not surprised he was targeted by the UAE, which he accuses of being "a symbol of corruption and dirty politics."

The Arab rift with #Qatar intensifies - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Arab rift with Qatar intensifies – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

"In a word, they are afraid of the truth," he said.

That same day, Raven operatives targeted the iPhone of Al Jazeera's chairman, Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed Al Thani. Through an Al Jazeera spokesman, Al Thani declined to comment.

The attacks utilized a cyber weapon called Karma. As Reuters reported in January, Karma allowed Raven operatives to remotely hack into iPhones by inputting a target's phone number or associated email address into the attack software. Unlike many exploits, Karma did not require a target to click on a link sent to an iPhone, they said. Apple declined to comment.

Karma provided Raven operatives access to the contacts, messages, photos and other data stored on iPhones. It did not allow them to monitor phone calls.

While Raven operatives broke into the devices, they did not have full access to the data they collected; they passed the material on to UAE intelligence officials overseeing the operation. It's unclear what they found.

In January, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash was asked by reporters in New York about Project Raven after the initial Reuters report. Gargash acknowledged his country has a "cyber capability" but didn't specifically address the program. He denied targeting U.S. citizens or countries with which the UAE has good relations.

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