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Qatar crisis: when patriotic hackers and fake news destabilize a whole region

Qatar crisis: when patriotic hackers and fake news destabilize a whole region

In the last days, the whole world witnessed in bewilderment how a whole region, involving 14 countries, from Egypt to Maldives Islands, suddenly shifted to the brink of war.

In a much-unexpected move, between 5 and 6 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives, and Bahrain all separately announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposing trade and travel bans. The Libyan interim government, which is based in eastern Libya and is one of Libya’s three rival governments, also cut off ties. All involved countries ordered their citizens out of Qatar.

Three Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain) gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave their countries. The foreign ministries of Bahrain and Egypt gave Qatari diplomats 48 hours to leave their countries. This, of course, created some dramatic situations when mix-nationalities families got separated because of the travel ban.

Other measures involved Qatar being expelled from the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, shut down the local office of Al Jazeera Media Network in Saudi Arabia, interdiction for Qatari vessels or ships owned by Qatari companies or individuals in Saudi Arabia and the UAE ports, border shutdown of Saudi Arabia – Qatar border, bank restrictions and airspace restriction to Qatar Airways over Saudi Arabia (and this last measure, taken overnight, brought havoc all over the region with global implications and huge uncertainties about the future of Chicago Convention and the Transit Agreement which assure open skies for everyone).

As a detail, I must say that Hamad Saif al-Shamsi, the Attorney-General of the UAE, announced on the 7th of June that publishing expressions of sympathy towards Qatar through social media or any type of written, visual or verbal form is considered illegal under UAE’s Federal Penal Code and the Federal Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes. Violators of this offense face between 3 to 15 years imprisonment, a fine of up to 500,000 Emirati dirhams ($136,000), or both.

All of these look like the whole region is preparing for war because, in diplomatic terms, there is little left to show more aggression than what was already done and said.

In a troubled region, neighboured by several warm conflicts (Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen) and some of the poorest and most unstable countries (Eritrea, Sudan, or Somalia), more instability is the least of what people need.

What startled all this diplomatic earthquake?

If someone looks at the general picture in the Gulf area, how it was till days ago, can notice a couple of muffled tensions between Saudi Arabia and the much smaller neighbor – Qatar. These tensions date back to 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain temporarily pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar because of its support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

But it is not only about the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also about Saudi Arabia which tries to impose its position over all the GCC countries, about Qatar which tries to project a much bigger shadow, or about the regional clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the control of the world’s largest natural gas deposit which is shared by Qatar and Iran.

None of these could predict what is happening now.

It all started on the 24th of May just three days after President Trump’s visit to Riyadh with the hacking of Qatar State News Agency and subsequently carrying of “false statements” on sensitive regional topics attributed to the country’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Amid an apparent wide-scale security breach it was also reported that the agency’s official Twitter account had also been hacked and “fake” reports that Qatar was withdrawing ambassadors from several countries in the region appeared online.

Among the issues allegedly addressed by the Qatari ruler in the statement were the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, strategic relations with Iran, and comments about Hamas. There were also alleged negative remarks about Qatar’s relationship with the new administration of US President Donald Trump (and this despite President Trump’s declarations in Riyadh, just three days before, which we’re saying that “Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner”).

Despite the Government Communications Office statement which said that “The Qatar News Agency website has been hacked by an unknown entity” and “a false statement attributed to His Highness has been published”, the remarks on QNA were picked up and reported by broadcasters in the region, including some in the United Arab Emirates.

What is really interesting are the early findings of an FBI investigation, called in by Qatar’s authorities, onto the security breach. Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told CNN the FBI has confirmed the hack and the planting of fake news.

If this statement will be confirmed by the final report, we can all say that it is for the first time in history when a cyber-attack combined with fake news creates a real regional crisis.

What is equally interesting is the link between some Russian hackers and very well-targeted fake news insertion into a State News Agency. There is no money ransom, no database theft, no “this site was hacked by…”. Actually, it is difficult, if not impossible to believe that hackers (no matter their nationality or how patriotic they are) will conduct such an attack otherwise than at the request and guidance of a state actor. In this case Russia.

In police investigations, the leading line is “follow the money”. In geopolitics, we can say “cui prodest”.

Who would benefit from a fractured GCC and a weakened alliance with the United States?

Syria? Bashar al-Assad regime is in no way capable of conducting such an organized attack.

Iran? Iran benefits more from today’s certain nuclear deal than from an unclear future of a tougher conflict with Saudi Arabia and most of the other Arab countries.

There is only one state actor, present in the region, capable of orchestrating such a plot, that would cash in the effects of a fractured GCC, a weaker US in the Middle East and even a higher uncertainty on the oil and gas market. This is Russia!

No lucid analyst can buy the theory which says that all this trouble is because of the many accusations, pointing towards Qatar, saying that the Gulf state is a major sponsor of various terrorist organizations.

These accusations are not new, they are circulating around for years and even if now is the time to clarify them, they don’t justify the huge regional crisis we are witnessing.

Also, similar accusations, even more, serious ones, like the yet unpublished UK government report about terror funding in the UK, are pointing to Saudi Arabia.

There is no need to even mention Iran and its proven links with Hamas and Hezbollah.

If all of these are about cutting ties with terrorism and its funding there is no better moment. The international community has never been more determined to tackle this problem in such a way it will not bounce back in just a year. But destabilizing a whole region is not solving problems is just bringing new ones.

I believe that instead of rushed actions it is time for calm, diplomacy, and vision.

The future of the Gulf countries is together, cooperating as a strong alliance and a reliable partner for both US and EU. Everyone needs a strong Arab countries alliance in the Gulf area, from their citizens to the countries in the neighborhood.

It is also time for the UN to step in and tackle the issue of state actors accused of sponsoring terrorism. This cannot limit to only one country and it must cover all the accusations that are floating around.

Last but even more important, it is time for the international community to acknowledge the urgency of criminalizing cyberwarfare, cyberterrorism, and cybercrime in such a manner they can be prosecuted in a credible way. Countries that are still blocking this process must understand that nobody and no one is fenced when we talk about cyber threats and any aggressor can become a victim.

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