On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and three other Arab states abruptly cut off all diplomatic ties with Qatar, virtually isolating the small gas-rich country and setting off a major diplomatic crisis in the Middle East.
Tensions between these Arab states and Qatar have been brewing for years because of Qatar's alleged sympathy for islamist terrorist organizations. But the straw that broke the camel's back, believe it or not, may have been provided by hackers and fake news.
On May 23, the state-owned Qatar News Agency (QNA) broadcast a report about the country's leader, the Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, making a speech at a military graduation ceremony. In a ticker, the TV news story showed a series of alleged remarks by Sheikh Tamim, calling Qatar's relations with Iran and Israel as "strong" and "good," according to the Washington Post. Around the same time, QNA started posting similar quotes on Twitter.
Here you can see two different tweets. The one on the left is a real QNA tweet, sent from what appears to be a custom app called QNAnewstweets, while the one on the right is a fake one posted by the alleged hackers, according to a security researcher from the region as well as a DC-based analyst John Arterbury.
Qatar being cozy with Israel, and praising Iran—both historical enemies of the Saudis—could have been seen as Qatar breaking the ranks and siding against its allies in the Gulf.
Qatari government authorities denied the veracity of those quotes, calling the reports "fake videos" and saying the QNA was "hacked by an unknown entity." The Saudis didn't buy Qatar's explanation. The state-owned Al Arabya, for example, ran a story that promised to provide "proof" that QNA "was not hacked," but actually only offered questionable arguments such as the fact that Google is supposedly "very difficult to hack."
The hacks "were the start of something much bigger."
In retrospect, the alleged hack and disinformation campaign might have been done to escalate a conflict that was already simmering, and and perhaps force the hand or provide an excuse for Saudi Arabia and others to punish Qatar publicly, according to Arterbury.
"One of the reasons the hack probably occurred was to stir the pot very publicly," Arterbury told Motherboard in a phone call. "It was probably part of a larger coordinated campaign between these countries as part of a greater strategic plan to bring Qatar to heel. The hacks were the first public way of doing this. They were the start of something much bigger than what we witnessed before."
Read more: The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack
Some security researchers called for QNA to release evidence or data backing up its claims in an effort to clarify what happened and perhaps figure out who is responsible.
"If we find a smoking gun in the hands of one of Qatar's neighbors, then there are interesting questions to be asked as to whether the current crisis was deliberately precipitated for some end," said Bill Marczak, a security researcher and co-founder of Bahrain Watch, a research group that studies Bahrain. "Or if it turns out to be a foreign power meddling in [Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional political organization that includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar], that would also raise interesting questions."
For Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a well-known UAE-based writer and commentator, at this point figuring out who was responsible for the hack or how it happened doesn't even matter.
"It's no longer about the hack," he tweeted on Monday. "It's like in The Great War, by day two no one cared who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand."
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