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Former NSA spies from the U.S. worked with UAE government to spy on BBC and Al-Jazeera journalists and activists according to an investigative report.
A group of hackers from the United States who once worked for U.S. intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al-Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures according to a Reuters investigative report.
The operation named Project Raven was a secret Emirati intelligence program that spied on dissidents, militants and political opponents of the UAE monarchy including a British activist and several journalists from the United States.
Former Raven operatives told Reuters they were given the task to find materials that will implicate Qatar’s royal family for influencing Al-Jazeera’s coverage along with other media outlets. They were also supposed to find ties between Al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood.
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 political movement some Arab governments regard as a threat.
In June 2017, the UAE along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an air, land and sea blockade against the country for their alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood and building ties with Iran, accusations that Qatar has always denied.
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.
They targeted Arab-based journalists like Gisele Khoury, Beirut based host of BBC Arabic’s "The Scene," a program that interviews Middle Eastern leaders on current events.
Khoury was targeted because of her contact with Azmi Bishara, a Doha-based writer and founder of news organization Al Araby Al Jadeed, known for being critical of the UAE and other Arab Gulf countries.
"They need to spend their time on making better their country, their economy," Khoury said in an interview to Reuters after being informed of the hack. "Not on having Gisele Khoury as a hacking target."
Al-Jazeera's chairman, Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed al-Thani’s phone was also hacked. Al-Jazeera has always reiterated its independence from Qatar’s government.
Jassim Bin Mansour Al-Thani, a media attache 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.”
Dana Shell Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, said she found it alarming that U.S. intelligence veterans were able to work for another government in targeting a U.S. 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 U.S. interests or contradict U.S. values,” Smith told Reuters.
The hackers used a cyber weapon called Karma which allowed the operatives to hack into iPhones remotely by inputting their numbers or email address into the software. Unlike many exploits, Karma did not require a target to click on a link sent to an iPhone, they said. Karma provided Raven operatives access to the contacts, messages, photos and other data stored on iPhones.
On June 19, 2017, Raven operatives targeted Faisal al-Qassem, host of a popular Al Jazeera show called “The Opposite Direction.”
The show features guests who debate 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.”
“In a word, they are afraid of the truth,” he said.
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.
Project Raven was created in 2009 by the UAE with the help of U.S. intelligence contractors and former senior White House officials from the former U.S. President George W. Bush administration.
The initial goal was to crack down on terrorism by monitoring alleged militants but later it was expanded to monitor and suppress political dissidents.
During the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Gulf countries viewed Al-Jazeera’s coverage of street demonstrations as a deliberate attempt by Qatar to fuel opposition to their monarchs. According to many leaders, the broadcasts sent a message to protesters that “this battle is happening everywhere, you are not alone.”
In the years after the Arab Spring, the operatives were increasingly tasked with targeting human rights activists and journalists who questioned the government.
When Reuters reached out to UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Washington, the NSA, and a Department of Defense spokeswoman, all declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.