Special report: US hackers have helped the UAE to spy on the president of Al Jazeera, the BBC host



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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of American hackers who have worked for intelligence agencies helped the UAE spy on a BBC host, Al Jazeera president and other prominent Arab media figures during a tense confrontation between the Emirates United Arab Emirates and its allies against the state of the Gulf of Qatar.

US operatives worked for Project Raven, a secret intelligence program of the Emirates that spied on dissidents, militants and political opponents of the UAE monarchy. A Reuters investigation in January revealed the existence of the Raven Project and its inner workings, including the watchfulness of a British activist and several unidentified American journalists.

Raven workers – including at least nine former employees of the US National Security Agency and the US military – found themselves in the midst of a high-risk battle between US Gulf allies. The role of Americans in the imbroglio of the United Arab Emirates emphasizes how former US intelligence officials have become key players in the cyber wars of other nations with little Washington oversight.

The crisis erupted in the spring of 2017 when the United Arab Emirates and its allies – including Saudi Arabia and Egypt – accused Qatar of sowing the Middle East unrest through its support of the media and political groups. The Emirates Army has demanded that Qatar carry out a series of actions, including the closure of the Al Jazeera satellite television network, withdrawing funds from other Doha media outlets and repressing the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement that some Arab threat. .

In June 2017, the United Arab Emirates broke diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed an air, land and sea blockade against the small nation. It was an unprecedented confrontation between Arab countries that historically valued consensus.

That week, Project Raven operatives kicked in, launching operations to invade Apple iPhones of at least 10 journalists and media executives who they believed had connections with the Qatar government or the Muslim Brotherhood, according to program documents analyzed By Reuters and four people involved. activities.

Raven attacked Arab media figures who went through a series of political ideas – from a BBC host to the Al Jazeera president and a London satellite channel producer founded by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The goal, said the former members of Raven, was to find material showing that the Qatari royal family had influenced Al Jazeera coverage and other media, and discovered any connections between the influential TV network and the Muslim Brotherhood. Reuters was unable to determine what data Raven got.

Al Jazeera has long been independent of the Qatari government. Jassim Bin Mansour Al-Thani, media attaché of the Qatari embassy in Washington, said that "the Qatari government does not apply for, apply for or apply to Al Jazeera." Al Jazeera is treated like any other respected media. "

The Foreign Office of the United Arab Emirates and its embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comments. The NSA declined to comment. A Defense Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

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

"People with these skill sets should not be able to consciously or unconsciously harm US interests or contradict US values," Smith told Reuters.

Among hacked Arab journalists, documents from the Raven project included Giselle Khoury, host of BBC Arabic "The Scene," a program that interviews Middle Eastern leaders about current events. Three days after the start of the blockade, Raven's agents hacked their iPhone. Documents from Raven's program show that she was targeted because of her contact with Azmi Bishara, a Doha writer who has criticized the United Arab Emirates and founded the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed news agency.

"They need to spend their time to improve their country, their economy," Khoury said in an interview after Reuters reported on the hack. "Not by having Giselle Khoury targeted by hackers."

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

The show features guests who hotly discuss controversial topics, such as corruption, in Middle Eastern governments. Reported by Reuters about his piracy, al-Qassem said he was not surprised to be targeted by the United Arab Emirates, which he accuses of being "a symbol of corruption and dirty politics."

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

That same day, Raven agents attacked the president of Al Jazeera's iPhone, Hamad Bin Thamer bin Mohammed Al Thani. Through an Al Jazeera spokesman, Al Thani declined to comment.

The attacks used a cyber weapon called Karma. As reported in January, Karma allowed Raven agents to remotely invade iPhones by entering the phone number of a target or the associated email address in 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 operators with access to contacts, messages, photos, and other data stored on iPhones. He did not allow them to monitor phone calls.

While Raven agents invaded the devices, they did not have full access to the data collected; they passed the material on to the UAE intelligence officers overseeing the operation. It is not clear what they found.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An overview shows the headquarters of the Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha, Qatar, June 8, 2017. REUTERS / Naseem Zeitoon / File Photo

In January, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash was questioned by reporters in New York about the Raven Project after the initial Reuters report. Gargash acknowledged that his country has a "cybernetic capability," but did not specifically address the program. He denied targeting US citizens or countries with which the UAE has good relations.

SPYING EFFORT LINKS UNITED STATES LINKS

The United Arab Emirates created the Raven Project in 2009 with the help of US intelligence contractors and former senior White House officials from the George W. Bush administration. The US National Security Council declined to comment on the Raven Project.

Initially, the aim was to crack down on terrorism, helping the United Arab Emirates monitor militants throughout the region. But Raven's mission expanded rapidly to include the monitoring and suppression of several UAE political opponents, documents show.

Among its targets were Qatar, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia long accused of fueling political opposition throughout the region, in part through funding from the government of Qatar to Al-Jazeera.

During the Arab Spring 2011 protests, Gulf countries saw Al Jazeera's wide-ranging coverage of street demonstrations as a deliberate attempt by Qatar to fuel opposition to its monarchs. "It has been seen as a tool to foster popular unrest," said Elisa Catalano Ewers, a former councilor in the region for President Barack Obama's National Security Council.

Al Jazeera's protest coverage "had a huge psychological impact" on protesters, said Moncef Marzouki, a former Tunisian president, who was elected in 2011 after Arab Spring demonstrations knocked out former leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. broadcasters sent a message to the protesters saying that "this battle is going on everywhere, you are not alone."

Al-Qassem, the host hacked by Raven, said Al Jazeera has all sides, uncensored. "The street and the Arab people can decide what is right," he said.

Be wary of the Muslim Brotherhood's growing influence in the region after the 2011 protests, authorities in the United Arab Emirates launched an offensive against dozens of suspected Muslims, many of whom were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. In 2014, the United Arab Emirates formally designated the Brotherhood and local affiliates as terrorist groups.

The Emirates also used Raven in an effort to contain dissent at home, according to former Raven agents and project documents. In the years after the Arab Spring, workers were increasingly charged with attacking human rights activists and journalists who questioned the government.

DIRECTOR OF JOURNALISTS

In June 2017, after Gulf nations began the Qatari blockade, the United Arab Emirates stepped up efforts to spy on journalists seen as tied to Qatar. That month, the Raven Project mission in Qatar expanded from two full-time agents assigned to the country to seven.

On June 20, Raven agents invaded the iPhone of Abdullah Al-Athba, editor-in-chief of Qatar's oldest newspaper, Al-Arab, show documents from the show.

In an interview with Reuters, Al-Athba said he believed he was targeted "because I am a champion of the Arab Spring from the start," which repeatedly criticized the Emirates for their opposition to the movement.

Raven's effort went beyond the Middle East. The operators used Karma to attack the cellphones of other media personalities, which the United Arab Emirates believed to be being supported by Qatar, including journalists from the London-based Arab media, Al-Araby TV and Al-Hiwar. Both networks broadcast popular Arabic language channels in the Middle East.

Al-Thani, the Qatari spokesman, said the government does not support Al-Araby TV, Al-Hiwar or Al Arab.

The Al-Araby TV satellite channel and its homonym website are units of London-based Fadaat Media Ltd owned and supported by Qatar businessmen. The store sees itself as the voice of Arabs "secular, liberal and pro-democracy," said Abdulrahman Elshayyal, director of Al-Araby TV. He and two other Araby employees were hacked in the weeks following the start of the blockade, Raven documents show.

"It's a very disturbing trend for a state to use all these things to spy on people who are critical," Elshayyal said in a telephone interview. "I'm not a terrorist or a money launderer."

Bishara, the founder of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, was also targeted by Raven. He told Reuters he considers his vehicle "relatively independent" in the context of the Arab world. "No one tells us what to say," said Bishara, a Palestinian Christian living in Qatar, though "sometimes the newspaper is sensitive about what not to say because you are not there to provoke the people who fund it."

Al-Hiwar, another Arab satellite channel based in London, was targeted by Raven on the day the blockade began. Al-Hiwar's founder Azzam Tamimi said he believed the United Arab Emirates feared the support of his channel for political reform and democratization of the Arab world.

Unlike others caught up in the Raven Project, Al-Hiwar does not deny being in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the broadcaster supports "because they are the victims," ​​he said. Tamimi told Reuters he is a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Slideshow (8 pictures)

Tamimi declined to say whether the channel received money from the Qatari government, but said it will accept any support as long as there are no restrictions. He said the channel gives voice to a number of opinions and encourages dialogue. But there are limitations.

"Most of our viewers are Muslim," he said in a telephone interview. "We will not market ideas that are foreign to our culture. That's what makes us popular. "

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