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UAE spied on leading Middle East journalists by hacking iPhones

The iPhone's of leading Arab media figures were hacked by the UAE [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 1 April, 2019

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The iPhones of multiple leading Arab journalists and media figures, including the founder and CEO of The New Arab, were hacked by American operatives enlisted by the UAE.
Middle East journalists were spied on by a group of American hackers enlisted by the UAE in the weeks after Abu Dhabi and its allies began a blockade on their Gulf neighbour, Qatar.

The group of American hackers, who had previously worked for US intelligence agencies including the NSA, hacked the phones of prominent media figures, including the CEO of The New Arab, as well as the chairman of Al-Jazeera and a BBC host, Reuters reported.

Its investigation discovered Project Raven, "a secret Emirati intelligence program that spied on dissidents, militants and political opponents of the UAE monarchy", in January. But it is now clear American operatives working for the UAE also surveilled several leading figures in Arab media.

Qatar has been under a blockade by land, sea and air since a bitter Gulf standoff erupted in June 2017, when a Saudi-led alliance severed ties with Doha.

The countries demanded Doha concede to a series of demands, including shutting down Al-Jazeera and The New Arab. The Saudi-led bloc accuses Doha of supporting extremist groups and being too close to Iran, charges Qatar strongly denies.

The Reuters investigation concluded that Project Raven was launched that week, attempting "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".

Reuters did not discover what data was obtained but it states the goal of the operation was to uncover supposed links between Qatar's royal family and various media outlets, as well as apparent connections between these outlets and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The hacked figures include the founder of al-Araby al-Jadeed and The New Arab, Azmi Bishara, and its CEO, Abdulrahman Elshayyal. They were hacked on 7 and 11 June respectively, days after the blockade was imposed.

"This is typical of the way some Arab regimes treat journalists, particularly after the Arab Spring," Elshayyal told The New Arab.

"Any individuals or organisations who are independent and covering events in the region are bound to be affected."

Elshayyal was not suprised to learn his phone had been hacked by the UAE. "What I was surprised by is that this was carried out in the UK," he said.

Giselle Khoury, the Beirut-based host of BBC Arabic's "The Scene" was also hacked. Raven documents obtained by Reuters show this was because of her contact with Bishara. 

The iPhones were hacked using a cyber weapon called Karma, the January Reuters report concluded. Raven operatives were able to remotely hack into iPhones "by inputting a target's phone number or associated email address into the attack software".

Project Raven was first created in 2009 with the help of American intelligence contractors and former officials from the George W. Bush administration.

Initially, it intended to monitor militants in the region and assist the UAE in cracking down on terrorism. It developed into something more sinister, monitoring the UAE's political opponents.

Positive coverage of the pro-democracy Arab Spring by Qatari news outlets increasingly turned the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Doha - fearing it would lead to protests in their own countries.  

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