A group of American hackers who once worked for US intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures after the UAE and its allies imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017.
The American operatives worked for Project Raven, a secret Emirati intelligence programme 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 US journalists.
The Raven operatives - who included at least nine former employees of the US National Security Agency and the US 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 US 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 supporting extremism, charges that Doha has denied.
The UAE camp demanded Qatar take a series of actions, including shuttering the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television network 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 programme 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.
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. Sheikh 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 US 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 US government-trained hackers after they leave the intelligence community.
"Folks with these skill sets should not be able to knowingly or unknowingly undermine US interests or contradict US values,” Smith told Reuters.
Among the Arab journalists hacked, Raven project documents show, was Giselle Khoury, Beirut-based host of BBC Arabic’s "The Scene," a programme that interviews Middle Eastern leaders on current events. Three days after the blockade began, Raven operatives hacked her iPhone. Raven programme documents show she was targeted because of her contact with Azmi Bishara, a Doha-based writer who has been critical of the UAE and founded the news outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
"They need to spend their time on making better their country, their economy,” Khoury said in an interview after Reuters informed her of the hack. "Not on having Giselle Khoury as a hacking target.”
On June 19, 2017, Americans working for Raven targeted Faisal al-Qassem, host of a popular Al Jazeera show called "The Opposite Direction,” interviews and documents show.
The show features guests who heatedly debate controversial topics such as corruption in Middle Eastern governments. Informed by Reuters about his hacking, al-Qassem said he was not surprised he was targeted by the UAE, which he accuses of being "a symbol of corruption and dirty politics.”
"In a word, they are afraid of the truth,” he said.
That same day, Raven operatives targeted the iPhone of Al Jazeera’s chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohamed al-Thani. Through an Al Jazeera spokesman, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani declined to comment.
The attacks utilised a cyber weapon called Karma. As Reuters reported in January, Karma allowed Raven operatives to remotely hack into iPhones by inputting a target’s phone number or associated email address into the attack software. Unlike many exploits, Karma did not require a target to click on a link sent to an iPhone, they said. Apple declined to comment.
Karma provided Raven operatives access to the contacts, messages, photos and other data stored on iPhones. It did not allow them to monitor phone calls.
While Raven operatives broke into the devices, they did not have full access to the data they collected; they passed the material on to UAE intelligence officials overseeing the operation. It’s unclear what they found.
In January, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash was asked by reporters in New York about Project Raven after the initial Reuters report. Gargash acknowledged his country has a "cyber capability” but didn’t specifically address the programme. He denied targeting US citizens or countries with which the UAE has good relations.
The UAE created Project Raven in 2009 with the help of American intelligence contractors and former senior White House officials from the George W Bush administration. The US National Security Council declined to comment on Project Raven.
At first, the goal was to crack down on terrorism by helping the UAE monitor militants around the region. But Raven’s mission quickly expanded to include monitoring and suppressing a range of UAE political opponents, the documents show. Among its targets were Qatar and Al Jazeera.
Al-Qassem, the host hacked by Raven, said Al Jazeera presents all sides, without censorship. "The street and the Arab people can decide what’s right,” he said.
The Emiratis also tapped Raven in the effort to contain dissent at home, according to former Raven operatives and project documents. In the years after the Arab Spring, the operatives were increasingly tasked with targeting human rights activists and journalists who questioned the government.
In June 2017, after Gulf nations began their blockade of Qatar, the UAE ramped up efforts to spy on journalists seen as tied to Qatar. That month, Project Raven’s Qatar mission expanded from two full-time operatives assigned to the country to seven.
On June 20, Raven operatives hacked into the iPhone of Abdullah al-Athba, chief editor of Qatar’s oldest newspaper, Al-Arab, programme documents show.
In an interview with Reuters, Al-Athba said he believed he was targeted "because I am a supporter of the Arab Spring since the beginning,” who repeatedly criticised the Emiratis for their opposition to the movement.
The Raven effort went beyond the Middle East. Operatives used Karma to target the mobile phones of other media figures the UAE believed were being supported by Qatar, including journalists for London-based Arabic media outlets Al-Araby TV and Al-Hiwar. Both networks televise Arabic language channels popular in the Middle East.
Sheikh Jassim bin Mansour al-Thani, the Qatari spokesman, said the government does not support Al-Araby TV, Al-Hiwar or Al Arab.
Al-Araby TV sees itself as the voice of "secular, liberal, pro-democracy” Arabs, said Abdulrahman Elshayyal, director of the channel. He and two other Araby employees were hacked in the weeks following the start of the blockade, Raven documents show.
"It’s a very worrying trend that a state is using all these things to spy on people critical of them,” Elshayyal said in a phone interview. "I’m not a terrorist or a money launderer.”
Bishara, the founder of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, was also targeted by Raven. He told Reuters he regards his outlet as "relatively independent” in the context of the Arab world. "Nobody tells us what to say,” said Bishara, a Palestinian who lives in Qatar.
Al-Hiwar, another London-based Arabic satellite channel, was targeted by Raven on the day the blockade began. Al-Hiwar founder Azzam Tamimi said he believes the UAE was fearful of his channel’s support for political reform and democratisation in the Arab world.