US officials say they believe the diplomatic rift among key Arab Gulf nations with Qatar was a consequence of Russian hackers deliberately trying to undermine the US and its allies.
In an exclusive report by CNN, US security agencies say they have intelligence that Russian hackers planted a fake news story on Qatar’s state news agency which made the Qatari ruler “appear friendly to Iran and Israel and questioned whether President Donald Trump would last in office.”
The alleged hack happened on May 23 and US and Qatari officials say they believe the fake news article helped precipitate the worst breakdown in diplomatic and economic relations in the Arab Gulf in decades.
The US had sent FBI investigators to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hack. Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Hohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani confirmed the fake news story appeared after a successful cyber-attack.
“Whatever has been thrown as an accusation is all based on misinformation and we think that the entire crisis is being based on misinformation,” the minister told CNN. “Because it was started based on fabricated news, being wedged and being inserted in our national news agency which was hacked and proved by the FBI.”
On Monday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt severed their diplomatic ties, expelling envoys and cutting transport and trade links to Qatar in an effective diplomatic and economic blockade, heightening regional tensions.
They accuse Qatar of supporting and funding terrorism a charge the Qatari government denies amid already high tensions in the region between Saudi Arabia and arch rival Iran.
According to CNN, Saudi Arabia listed the fake news article among its reasons to suspend to coordinate Qatar’s isolation.
It remains unclear whether US and Qatari investigators have proof the hack of Qatar’s state news agency was conducted by the Russian security services or by criminal Russian organisations.
The investigators are also joined by the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency.
Sheikh Saif Bin Ahmed Al-Thani, the director of the Qatari government’s communications office said the country’s ministry of the interior will reveal the findings of its investigation “when completed.”
The accusation, if proved, will lend credibility to US allegations Russia attempted to meddle in its 2016 presidential election, amid similar allegations Russia attempted the same during France’s election this year.
Despite calls for calm and a dissipation of tensions in the region from European leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, US President Donald Trump appeared to throw his weight behind Saudi Arabia.
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding…— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Taking to social media, Trump praised Saudi Arabia’s “hard line” stance and suggested the Arab bloc’s pressure on Qatar will “be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.”
The crisis appeared to deepen Wednesday when United Arab Emirate officials made it a crime to publish messages expressing sympathy for Qatar. Those found violating the edict could face a fine and up to 15 years in prison.
“Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form,” reported Gulf News, citing UAE Attorney-General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi.
That move comes as Etihad airways, the UAE’s main airline, announced Qatari nationals will not be allowed to board flights to either Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
Foreigners living in Qatar will also no longer be available to buy visas for the UAE on arrival and Qataris are banned from passing through the UAE’s airports to change planes.
The UAE signalled Wednesday they may impose further punitive measures against the country.
Around half of Qatar’s food imports come from the Middle East, much of that will come across the land border from Saudi, which is now closed pic.twitter.com/WzUB0zItHg— Christian Henderson (@CjvHenderson) June 5, 2017
The diplomatic crisis threatens to spill beyond the Arab Gulf as Qatar, a small peninsular nation, imports almost all of its goods from abroad and the UAE’s port of Jebel Ali is the region’s largest trade hub from which goods enter the region.
Shipping companies including Taiwan’s Evergreen, Hong Kong’s OOCL said they had suspended shipping services to Qatar until further notice.
Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, said it could not transport goods in or out of Qatar because it could not take its goods though the Jebel Ali port, prompting fears Qatar may face shortages in food and goods.
Images on social media show long lines at Qatari grocery stores where people can be seen stocking on food and other supplies.
Qatari officials are in talks with Turkey and Iran to secure food and water supplies. The government said it has enough grain to last another four weeks without having to tap into its strategic food supply.