Statement by GCO Director in response to NBC News

18 July 2017

The hacking incident on the morning of 24 May was definitely a component of a well-coordinated smear campaign designed to damage the image and reputation of Qatar. And the smear campaign, in turn, set the stage for the blockade and the ultimatum that followed in June.

Prior to April of 2017, essays about Qatar – positive or negative – rarely appeared on the op-ed pages of America’s newspapers, and the few pieces that were published were invariably authored by Qatari officials. That changed in late April when a series of 13 anti-Qatar op-eds appeared over a 6-week period in a variety of mainstream and on-line print publications.

This smear campaign culminated in an anti-Qatar conference organized by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute that was held at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington on May 23. Many of the authors of the anti-Qatar op-eds were featured speakers. No one from Qatar was invited to attend or participate.

Then, in the early hours of May 24, the website of Qatar’s official news agency (QNA) was hacked and fabricated quotes attributed to His Highness the Emir and Qatar’s Foreign Minister were posted on QNA’s website and on the website’s twitter feed.

Logs of web traffic on the QNA website show a spike in visits from the UAE during the hour before the hacking incident occurred, which suggests that people in the UAE were clearly anticipating the appearance of the hacked material.

Once the fabricated quotes appeared, they immediately became big news in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Within 45 minutes, the Qatari government sent notices to all regional broadcasters and media outlets alerting them to the hacking incident and disavowing the fake quotes. These corrections were promptly acknowledged everywhere except the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where media outlets continued to cite the fake quotes. Sky News Arabia and Al Arabiya, located in the UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively, were also (suspiciously) quick to produce in-studio “analysts” to offer criticism of Qatar.

The fake quotes and tweets were then used as a pretext for the launching of an economic, political and social blockade of Qatar on June 5, and the contents of the fabricated quotes provided the source material for the 13 “non-negotiable” demands that were lodged against Qatar on June 23.

So yes, the hacking incident was clearly part of an overall plan to lay the PR foundation for hostile and aggressive action against Qatar. But Qatar has resisted the pressure and intimidation, and is defending its sovereignty and independence.

As regards the Iraq kidnapping incident, the UAE and Saudi Arabia continue to maintain that Qatar “paid money to terrorists” in Iran to secure the release of the 26 Qatari hostages. This is false. Qatar did pay money to help facilitate the hostages’ release, which we acknowledged. But the payments were made to the government of Iraq, not to Iran or to any terrorist organizations. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on June 21, “Not one dollar, or euro… was spent; they are still in their crates, supervised by a committee, and two representatives of the Qatari government came to check when they were deposited under the trusteeship of the central bank.”

Once again, the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have ignored this clarification and have continued to report “fake news” about the hostages’ release. And regrettably, some legitimate, mainstream news organizations have continued to do the same. I hope this information is useful, Mr. Windrem.

We appreciate your interest in covering this story, and we especially appreciate your reaching out to us in advance of your broadcast.