“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” – Sun Tzu
With every passing incident that gets reported, Cyber Warfare, particularly the type perpetrated by nation states seems to be becoming more and more potent. In this article we look at a well-rounded Influence operation whose corner stone was a hack on the national news agency of Qatar. The Influence Operation has brought Qatar to such a state of isolation and turmoil which it would not have dreamt of a few months back;ultimate war craft by the perpetratorswithout firing a single round! Sun Tzu would have surely been proud of such students / practitioners.
The present round of turmoil in Middle East Asia, has been precipitated by the current visit of US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia and his apparent support to them in their fight against terror.On 24 May 2017 statements appeared on the Qatar News Agency attributed to the Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, from a speech he gave in a military graduation ceremony, where he apparently supported Iran, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hezbollah.He further accused Saudi Arabia of adopting an extremist ideology that fosters terrorism and suggested Donald Trump may not last long as US president. He supposedly also brought out the importance of Iran as a regional power; this was a direct affront to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz who had tried to isolate Iran during last month’s summit in Riyadh, attended by President Trump.
Since then Qatari officials have vigorously denied that Thani made such comments and claimed their news agency — and its various social media accounts — had been hacked. However, this did not deter the Saudi and UAE press, they totally dismissed the hacking story, and instead accused Qatar directly, of supporting Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. The very next day on 25 May 2017, Emirati newspaper Al Bayan ran the headline “Qatar divides the Arabs” on its front page, and Saudi-owned daily Al Hayat spoke of “large-scale resentment” over Qatar. Apparently part of concerted influence operations.
Around the same time of end May and early June 2017, an anonymous group of hackers calling themselves “Global Leaks” released a bunch of emails of the UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba. The emails show communication between UAE and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies(FDD), a pro-Israel, Washington based think tank. The drift of the emails show clear collaboration between the FDD and the UAE on their joint efforts to sully the image and importance of Qatar as a regional and global power, to include collaboration with journalists who have published articles accusing Qatar and Kuwait of supporting “terrorism”. Other agendas included influencing Iran’s internal situation using various political, economic, military and cyber tools.
These hacked emails came after Qatar had reported that they had been targeted by a well-coordinated smear campaign, which accused them of supporting terrorist groups. Analysis shows that there may be some logic to Qatar’s claims. Just four days before Qatar’s hacking claims, an Arabic hashtag translated as Qatar is the treasury of terrorism was trending. On the hashtag, there were multiple social media accounts( many of them bots) with similar sounding themes of criticizing Qatar for its relationship with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
After the alleged pro terrorism statements of the Emir came out, there was a resurgence of the bot armies on Twitter, majority of them criticized Qatar and anybody else having similar thought processes. Security analysts have found the presence of propaganda bots on numerous hashtags. One of these Twitter trends was #AlJazeeraInsultsKingSalman, and the study by analysts have shown that 20 percent of the Twitter accounts were anti-Qatar-bots. The general thought process was to condemn Qatar’s relations with Hamas, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Other tweets in the Twitter campaign singled out Qatar’s media channels as sources of misinformation and enemy agents. Almost all of the bot accounts tweeted support to King Salman and Saudi’s new relationship with Trump. During the Riyadh summit, these same bots posted thousands of tweets welcoming Trump to Saudi Arabia.
The huge bot armies do not indicate a genuine groundswell of public anger at Qatar or Thani, in fact it appears to be a well thought out, planned, coordinated and precisely executed twitter campaign to lend credence and originality to the favored idea. The favored idea in the case of these bot armies is to legitimize the fact that Qatar supports and perpetuates Islamic terrorism throughout the world, and of course to make it appear like popular public opinion. The interesting fact is that these bot armies were created well before the hacking claims of Qatar and more importantly they were quickly reorganized after the alleged hacks to discredit Qatar. All this points to the fact that a group or a nation state with huge resources is trying to popularize the narrative of discrediting Qatar. There could also be a possibility that this influence operation is being done to ensure that Qatar does not have any thought of sorting out its differences with any country or organization.
As a result of this crisis Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, followed by Egypt, Yemen, and Maldives, all accusing Qatar of sponsoring violent extremism and causing regional instability. The Arab countries, also ordered their diplomats and citizens to leave Qatar as soon as possible while also cutting all air traffic, virtually isolating Qatar — a country that shares its only border with Saudi Arabia and largely depends on food imports — by land, air, and sea. The abrupt decision has thrown the region into its greatest diplomatic crisis in decades.
On Thursday08 Jun 2017, Al-Jazeera(Doha based state funded broadcaster) said it had been targeted in a sustained cyber-attack. Al-Jazeera’s offices have been shut down by authorities in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The FBI recently sent a team of investigators to Doha to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hacking incident. Intelligence gathered by the FBI indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago. US officials say the Russian goal appears to be to cause rifts among the US and its allies. After all Qatar hosts one of the largest US military bases in the region. It’s not yet clear whether the US has tracked the hackers in the Qatar incident to Russian criminal organizations or to the Russian security services blamed for the US election hacks. It is a commonly known fact that nothing happens in Russia without the blessing of the government. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismisses these reports as fake news.
Another theory propounds that the hacking could very well be the outcome of a homegrown cyber battle, among the Gulf states themselves. These states already use many kinds of surveillance and propaganda techniques on their own people, they could very well be using these techniques now between themselves. If that be so then the hack could have been the work of freelance Russian hackers who were paid to undertake the work on behalf of some other state or individual. Some observers have claimed privately that Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates may have commissioned the hackers.
[i] Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Vienna: Austria, 1963)
[ii] Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes (Vienna: Austria, 1963)
[iii] International Court of Justice, Jadhav Case (India v. Pakistan), (Hague : Netherlands, 17 July 2019)