Qatar suggests cyberattack emanated from a Gulf neighbor

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Qatari officials investigating a cyberattack that sparked a diplomatic crisis with four Arab countries said on Thursday their findings indicate the attack was coordinated with one of the countries, and that the United Arab Emirates had benefited the most from it.

Qatar’s state news agency and its affiliated social media accounts were hacked in May amid a spike in traffic from one of the three neighboring Gulf states that cut ties with Qatar after the incident, the officials said.

According to the officials, hackers took over the Qatar News Agency early on May 24 and posted fabricated comments attributed to Qatar’s ruler, in which Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani calls Iran an “Islamic power” and says Qatar’s relations with Israel are “good.”

The comments were quickly disavowed by Qatar, but state-owned and semi-official media in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain continued to report the remarks for days — without mentioning the disclaimer.

On June 5, the three Gulf states and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of backing terror groups and extremists.

Qatar denies the allegations and says the moves are politically motivated. The small, gas-rich nation’s support of Islamist opposition groups in the region has angered Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which view these groups as a threat to political stability and security.

The quartet has also barred Qatar from using the four countries’ airspace, stopped direct flights to Doha, blocked access within their countries to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network and affiliated websites. Saudi Arabia also closed Qatar’s only land border.

The crisis has now dragged on for more than a month with neither side showing signs of backing down.

The Washington Post, quoting unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, reported on Sunday that the UAE orchestrated the hacking and planted a false story that was used as a pretext for the crisis. The UAE has denied it had any role in the hacking.

On Thursday, Lt. Ali Mohammed al-Mohannadi, head of the Qatari investigation team, said the UAE had the most to gain from the attack — but stopped short of directly accusing officials there of orchestrating the cyberattack. He said the media in the UAE appeared ready and prepared to report the fabricated comments once the site was hacked.

Due to ties being cut, Qatar has not been able to confirm more details about the nationality and identity of the attackers in the neighboring Gulf states, he said.

“The only thing we are sure of is that... the anticipation and the benefit from this hacking was in the United Arab Emirates,” al-Mohannadi said during a rare press conference in Doha, broadcast live on Qatari news channels.

He said some countries have assisted Qatar in the investigation, but declined to elaborate.