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The Gulf Crisis Threatening Anti-ISIS Operations May Have Been An Inside Job

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The United Arab Emirates likely carried out a cyberattack against the Qatari government and news websites in May, setting off a diplomatic crisis among key Persian Gulf allies that could threaten U.S. counter-terror operations in the Middle East.

U.S. intelligence recently obtained information confirming that UAE government officials orchestrated a plan to post false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, on Qatari websites, the Washington Post reported Sunday. The fake reports, which said the emir had called Iran an “Islamic power” and praised Hamas, were cited by four Arab countries as justification for banning all Qatari media.

Shortly after the hack, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic relations with Qatar and implemented an economic and travel blockade, citing Qatar’s continued support of Islamist insurgent groups and close ties to Iran. The ensuring diplomatic crisis has poisoned already tense relations between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors and forced the U.S., which counts both sides as key military allies, to take an active role in mediating the dispute.

The attacks took place May 24, two days after President Donald Trump met with dozens of Arab leaders in Riyadh and proclaimed the countries unified in the fight against terrorism. It remains unclear whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or hired an outside contractor, U.S. intelligence officials told WaPo.

The UAE denied responsibility for the hacks late Sunday, calling the WaPo story “false.”

After six weeks, Qatar and its adversaries are no closer to bridging their differences than when the crisis began. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met last week with leaders from both sides but was unable to make much progress beyond signing an anti-terrorist financing agreement with the Qatari government.

The Saudi-led coalition issued a joint statement following Tillerson’s visit, saying the anti-terrorism deal is “not enough” and that the group will continue sanctions on Qatar until the “just and full demands that will ensure that terrorism is addressed and stability and security are established in the region.” UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash suggested the Gulf states might further isolate Qatar by expelling it from the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional trade and security group.

“You cannot be part of a regional organisation dedicated to strengthening mutual security and furthering mutual interests, and at the same time undermine that security and harm those interests,” Gargash said in a speech Monday, according to the Guardian. “You cannot be both our friend and the friend of al-Qaida.”

The hacking operation has re-ignited a longstanding feud between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have previously accused Qatar of providing refuge for those countries’ political dissidents and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The group has also blamed the Qatari government for funding Hamas and Hezbollah and using its state-funded media outlets to destabilize its neighbors

U.S. and European governments have warned that the ongoing diplomatic crisis threatens to upset stability in the Persian Gulf, a strategically vital region for both energy supply and military operations by the U.S.-led colation to defeat ISIS. Qatar, one of the world’s largest exporters of natural gas, hosts a major U.S. air base from which coalition forces conduct airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

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