Group of American hackers who once worked for U.S. intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures during a tense 2017 confrontation pitting the UAE and its allies against the Gulf state of Qatar.
The American operatives worked for Project Raven, a secret Emirati intelligence program that spied on dissidents, militants and political opponents of the UAE monarchy. A Reuters investigation in January revealed Project Raven’s existence and inner workings, including the fact that it surveilled a British activist and several unnamed U.S. journalists.
The Raven operatives — who included at least nine former employees of the U.S. National Security Agency and the U.S. military — found themselves thrust into the thick of a high-stakes dispute among America’s Gulf allies. The Americans’ role in the UAE-Qatar imbroglio highlights how former U.S. intelligence officials have become key players in the cyber wars of other nations, with little oversight from Washington.
The crisis erupted in the spring of 2017, when the UAE and allies — including Saudi Arabia and Egypt — accused Qatar of sowing unrest in the Middle East through its support of media outlets and political groups. The UAE camp demanded Qatar take a series of actions, including shuttering the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera satellite television network, withdrawing funding from other media outlets Doha supports, and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement some Arab governments regard as a threat.
In June 2017, the UAE camp severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an air, land and sea blockade against the tiny nation. It was an unprecedented confrontation among Arab countries that had historically prized consensus.
That week, Project Raven operatives sprang into action, launching operations to break into the Apple iPhones of at least 10 journalists and media executives they believed had connections to the Qatari government or the Muslim Brotherhood, according to program documents reviewed by Reuters and four people involved in the activities.
Raven targeted Arab media figures who spanned a range of political thought — from a Beirut-based BBC host to the chairman of Al Jazeera and a producer from a London satellite channel founded by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The goal, the former Raven operatives said, was to find material showing that Qatar’s royal family had influenced the coverage of Al Jazeera and other media outlets, and uncover any ties between the influential TV network and the Muslim Brotherhood. Reuters couldn’t determine what data Raven obtained.
Al Jazeera has long maintained it is independent from Qatar’s government. Jassim Bin Mansour Al-Thani, a media attaché for Qatar’s embassy in Washington, said “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.”
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. The NSA declined to comment. A Department of Defense spokeswoman declined to comment.
Dana Shell Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, said she found it alarming that American intelligence veterans were able to work for another government in targeting an American ally. She said Washington should better supervise U.S. government-trained hackers after they leave the intelligence community.
“Folks with these skill sets should not be able to knowingly or unknowingly undermine U.S. interests or contradict U.S. values,” Smith told Reuters.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
After Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain imposed a blockade on Qatar, UAE’s Project Raven ramped up its cyber attacks against Qatar and media targets. U.S. operatives hacked the iPhones of ten media figures, Reuters learned. Here’s a look at how a group of American mercenaries became enmeshed in a regional crisis between close U.S. allies.