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UAE hired US hackers to spy on Al Jazeera chief, BBC journalist: Report

Operation began in June 2017 when the UAE and three other Arab countries severed ties with Qatar, Reuters reports
BBC Arabic host Gisele Khoury had her phone hacked as part of the operation (Reuters)

Former US intelligence operatives helped the United Arab Emirates spy on the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures with alleged ties to Qatar, a Reuters investigation has revealed.

The phone-hacking operation dates back to June 2017, the same week that four Arab countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, broke diplomatic ties and imposed a blockade on Qatar.

The hacking was part of Project Raven, Reuters reported, a clandestine Emirati intelligence operation that spied on opponents of the UAE monarchy, including a British activist and several US journalists.

Former Raven operatives told the news agency that they were tasked with finding material showing that Qatar's royal family had influenced the coverage of Al Jazeera, the influential, Doha-based media network, and other outlets.

The operatives also said they were asked to uncover any ties between Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The blockading countries have accused Qatar of meddling in their internal affairs, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and working to build stronger ties to Iran, charges that Doha has repeatedly denied.

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment about the alleged hacking operation, Reuters said in its report.

Phones hacked

According to documents seen by Reuters, three days after the blockade began, Raven operatives hacked into the iPhone of Gisele Khoury, the Beirut-based host of BBC Arabic's The Scene, a current affairs programme.

The documents show that she was targeted because of her contact with Azmi Bishara, a Doha-based writer who has been critical of the UAE and who 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 Gisele Khoury as a hacking target."

That same day, Raven operatives targeted the iPhone of Al Jazeera's chairman, Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed al-Thani, Reuters reported.

Through an Al Jazeera spokesman, al-Thani declined to comment.

Jassim Bin Mansour al-Thani, a media attache for Qatar's embassy in Washington, told Reuters that "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", al-Thani said.

The attacks used a cyber weapon called Karma, which allows Raven operatives to remotely hack into iPhones by inputting a target's phone number or associated email address into the attack software.

'Afraid of the truth'

Fasial al-Qassem, an Al Jazeera host whose phone was also hacked, said he was not surprised that he was targeted by the UAE, describing the country as "a symbol of corruption and dirty politics".

His show, The Opposite Direction, regularly debates controversial topics such as corruption in the Middle East.

"In a word, they are afraid of the truth," al-Qassem said.

Dana Shell Smith, the former US ambassador to Qatar, said she found it alarming that US intelligence veterans were able to work for another government in targeting an American ally.

She said Washington should better supervise US 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.

'Folks with these skill sets should not be able to knowingly or unknowingly undermine US interests or contradict US values'

- Dana Shell Smith, ex-US ambassador to Qatar

The covert campaign also targeted Arab media figures operating in London, where a plethora of Arab channels are broadcast, including employees at Al Araby TV and Al Hiwar.

"It's a very worrying trend that a state is using all these things to spy on people critical of them," Al Araby TV director Abdulrahman Elshayyal, who was targeted according to Raven documents, told Reuters.

"I’m not a terrorist or a money launderer," he said.

The NSA and a US Department of Defense spokesperson declined to comment on the report, Reuters said.