A group of American hackers, who previously worked for US intelligence, were engaged with the United Arab Emirates, to spy on prominent media figures, during the tense engagement of UAE and allies against Qatar, during the spring of 2017.
The American hackers worked for ‘Project Raven,’ a secret intelligence program created by the UAE that was utilized to spy on dissidents, militants, and political opponents of the UAE monarchy, including a British journalist and several unnamed American journalists.
The existence of Project Raven and their inner workings were revealed by a Reuter’s investigation that took place in January.
Project Raven consisted of at least nine former employees of the National Security Agency of the US.
The discovery highlights how former US intelligence employees play a pivotal role in the conflicts of other nations, often with little to no oversight from Washington.
The crisis erupted in the spring of 2017, when the UAE and its allies which include Saudi Arabia and non-GCC member Egypt, accused the Gulf state of Qatar of supporting certain media outlets and political groups and sowing unrest in the Middle East.
The UAE camp demanded that Qatar should take a prompt series of action, which included shuttering the Qatar funded satellite channel Al Jazeera, withdrawing funding from other media outlets and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic Movement considered a threat by Arab governments.
After an unexpected confrontation among Arab countries, in June 2017, the UAE camp severed all diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the nation.
That was the week when Project Raven sprang to action, its operatives breaking into the iPhones of at least 10 journalists and media persons, who were supposedly believed to have connections either with the Qatar government or the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the documents reviewed by Reuters.
Those affected by Raven Operatives includes notable Arab media figures with different political thoughts such as the 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 objective of Project Raven was to find whether the Royal Family of Qatar had influenced the coverage of media networks, such as Al Jazeera and if any ties could be found linking the Muslim Brotherhood to specific television networks.
Al Jazeera has long maintained that it is independent of the Qatar government and does not force their agenda on anyone. Jassim Bin Mansour Al-Thani, a media attaché for Qatar’s embassy in Washington says that Al Jazeera is treated like any other respected media outlet.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Washington declined to comment. The NSA refused to comment. A Department of Defense spokeswoman declined to comment.
Dana Shell Smith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, found this discovery to be a cause for alarm, as old US veterans were able to help another government to disparage an American ally. Smith further says that Washington should supervise former US-trained hackers, even when they are no longer in service.
“Folks with these skill sets should not be able to knowingly or unknowingly undermine US interests or contradict US values,” Smith told Reuters
One Arab journalist hacked was Giselle Khoury, Beirut-based host of BBC Arabic’s “The Scene, “a program that interviews Middle Eastern leaders on pressing affairs. Project Raven documents show that Khoury was targeted because of her association with Azmi Bishara, a Doha-based writer who has been critical of the UAE and founded the news outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
After being informed of the hack, Khoury urged the government to focus their efforts on making their country better, instead of covert hacking operations.
Similarly, on June 19, 2017, American Raven operatives’ targeted Faisal al-Qassem, host of a favorite Al Jazeera show called “The Opposite Direction, “who says that he was not surprised by the hack, and accuses the UAE of being “a symbol of corruption and dirty politics.”
“In a word, they are afraid of the truth,” he said
On that same day the chairman of Al Jazeera, Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed Al Thani, was also targeted. Mr. Thani refused to comment.
The cyber-attacks were carried out with the help of a new cyber weapon, Karma. Karma allowed Raven operatives to covertly hack into the targets iPhones by entering their phone numbers or linked email addresses to the attacking software.
Karma permitted access to all the contacts, messages, photos and all the other data stored; however, it did not monitor phone calls.
Project Raven hackers, then forwarded the collected data to the UAE intelligence officials. The contents of their discovery are still unclear.
The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash acknowledged that his country has a ‘cyber capability’ but denied having any knowledge of Project Raven or any such intelligence program.
Project Raven was created in 2009 by the UAE government with the help of intelligence contractors and senior white house officials under the George Bush administration. Despite this, The US National Security Council declined to comment on Project Raven.
Its initial goal was to crack down on terrorism by monitoring militants, but it quickly grew to include monitoring and suppressing a range of UAE political opponents, as the documents show.
In June 2017, after the Gulf nations started the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, there was a massive increase in the pace of the project, with Project Raven’s Qatar mission expanded from two full-time operatives assigned to the country to seven.
On June 20, operatives hacked into the iPhone of Abdullah Al-Athba, chief editor of Qatar’s oldest newspaper, Al-Arab. Athba believes he was singled out because he was a supporter of the Arab Spring and was against the opposition of the Emiratis.
Others targeted include Al-Hiwar, another London-based Arabic satellite channel, was focused byProject 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 democratization in the Arab world.
However, unlike others, Al-Hiwar doesn’t deny being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the outlet supports “because they are the victims.”
In a phone interview, Tamimi states, “The majority of our viewers are Muslim, We are not going to market ideas that are alien to our culture. That’s what makes us popular.”