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UAE spies intercepted emails between Qatar's Sheikha Moza, Michelle Obama: Report

New York Times reports email communications between Qatari royal and former US first lady were surveilled
Former US First Lady Michelle Obama (L) meets with Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation, on 3 November 2015 (AFP/File photo)

Spies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hacked devices belonging to Qatar's royal family and intercepted private communications between the mother of Qatar's emir and former-US First Lady Michelle Obama, according to excerpts from a book by a New York Times reporter.

According to the report, contractors working for Cyberpoint, a US-based cybersecurity company, were initially tasked with tracking terror cells in the Gulf but were later instructed to "prove" Qatar was funding the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The only way to do that... would be to hack Qatar," David Evenden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst, who was involved in the mission, told the Times.

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In late 2015, Evenden said he found himself spying on Michelle Obama when she was in contact with Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the mother of Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, while she was arranging an appearance at the annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) to promote her "Let Girls Learn" initiative.

"That was the moment I said, 'we shouldn't be doing this'… we should not be targeting these people," Evenden told Nicole Perlroth, cybersecurity reporter at the Times, who penned the report.

The communications intercepted by Abu Dhabi included personal reflections, security details, and an itinerary change.

After leaving the UAE, the operative tipped off the FBI, and some former employees also spoke to Reuters about the Gulf nation's extensive spying operation run by ex-NSA employees.

The Times reported that the FBI was now investigating the allegation due to US laws that prohibit the hacking of US networks or stealing the communications of Americans.

UAE's Project Raven

Over the past few years, news reports have highlighted the UAE's sophisticated intelligence operations which have had help from former US operatives. The targets of these spy campaigns included government officials, United Nations offices in New York, and FIFA executives.

Known as Project Raven, hackers employed state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools to help the UAE engage in surveillance of other governments, armed groups, and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.

One of the tools that was used was Karma, with which Raven operatives say they hacked into the iPhones of hundreds of activists, political leaders and alleged terrorists.

The Times' report said that the Emirati government offered US operatives double their previous salaries in order to persuade them to work with Abu Dhabi.

One of the main targets of the espionage and hacking campaign was Qatar, which in 2010 gained global attention by winning the right to hold the 2022 Football World Cup.

In 2014, UAE operatives targeted directors at FIFA, the Swiss-based body that runs international football, and people involved in Qatar’s World Cup organising body.

The operation was dubbed Brutal Challenge. Hackers sent boobytrapped Facebook messages and emails containing a malicious link to a website called “worldcupgirls”. Clicking on the link deployed spyware into the target’s computer.

It is not clear whether the mission succeeded but the targets included Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary-general of Qatar's FIFA organising body.

In December 2020, dozens of journalists at the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera network were also targeted by advanced spyware in an attack, which was likely linked to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Al Jazeera presenter Ghada Oueiss told MEE last month that she hoped the lawsuit would reveal the UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading a "campaign of terror against journalists and activists".

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