The Cable

Did Russian Hackers Create Qatar’s Diplomatic Disaster?

U.S. investigators think Moscow planted fake news to start a fight, and have been on the ground in Doha.

US President Donald Trump (C) is welcomed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (3rd-R) upon arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017, followed by First Lady Melania Trump (2nd-R). / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) is welcomed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (3rd-R) upon arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017, followed by First Lady Melania Trump (2nd-R). / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian hackers, who played such a prominent part last year in the U.S. election and this year in the French presidential race, may have helped blow up relations between Qatar and its neighbors in the Arab world.

The Qatari government claims that a May 23 news report — in which the Qatari ruler purportedly criticized the Saudis while praising Iran and Israel — was actually a fake story planted by Russian hackers. CNN reported Tuesday night that U.S. intelligence officials also believe Russian hackers planted the fake story; FBI investigators were recently on the ground in Doha.

The article is thought to have served as the catalyst for several Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia and most Persian Gulf states, to cut their economic and political ties with Qatar this week. They accuse Qatar of supporting extremist groups and cozying up to Iran, a regional rival to the Sunni nations.

President Donald Trump piled on Tuesday, blaming Qatar for funding extremism and implicitly taking credit for the Gulf countries’ hard-line approach.

“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he wrote on Twitter. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” (He did not mention Saudi Arabia’s funding of Wahabi extremist groups.)

Qatar’s foreign minister blamed the entire diplomatic crisis on “misinformation.”

“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,” he said.

CNN cited U.S. officials who say the “Russian goal appears to be to cause rifts among the U.S. and its allies.”

Qatar is home to a key U.S. air base, a centerpiece in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State. While U.S. defense officials have so far downplayed the impact of the diplomatic spat on the base, some security experts are worried a further deterioration in U.S.-Qatari relations could jeopardize the Pentagon’s ability to use the base.

It is still unclear how many fake news stories were planted, if at all, and whether the hack, if there was one, was instigated by Russian security services or Russian criminal organizations. Qatari News Agency, the source of the purportedly false news story, has been offline since the alleged hack.

If Russian cybermischief is indeed behind the Qatari dust-up, it would fit a clear pattern of Russian hacking meant to sow instability and division in the West and between allies. Hacks of political candidates, embarrassing leaks, and a flood of fake news stories — which cyberinvestigators all blame on state-supported Russian hackers — were a constant in recent U.S. and European elections.

But one big question remains about the motivations behind the alleged hack in this case: Qatar has for years annoyed its neighbors in the Gulf for supporting groups like the Muslim Brotherhood — seen as incubators of terrorism by Saudi Arabia and Egypt — while openly seeking more cordial relations with Iran and Israel. Likewise, Qatar waged a proxy battle with its Gulf neighbors during the recent Libyan unrest.

In other words, fake news story or not, the sentiments attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, do not significantly deviate from what is widely considered official Qatari policy.

Russia denied involvement in the hack, stealing a page from the White House’s media relations strategy.

“Unfortunately, our colleagues from CNN again and again publish references to unnamed sources in unnamed agencies, etc, etc. These streams of information have no connection with the reality. It’s so far away from the reality. Fake is a fake,” a Kremlin spokesman said.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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