The two-faced scourge of cyberwarfare

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last week, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani promised that his country would soon hold an international conference on the scourge of hacking and cyberwarfare.

That’s excellent. Qatar is the perfect country to host such a confab. The regime’s officials could give speeches about how they recruit hackers and select their targets; the cyber mercenaries on Qatar’s payroll could discuss their career paths in hacking the citizens of foreign countries; and the American media consultants who work for Qatar could hold a panel discussion on how to successfully pitch and place hacked emails to and in the American media. This conference is a great idea — Qatar has much to teach the world about hacking and cyberwarfare. After all, they’re at the forefront of state-sponsored hacking of foreign nationals and other individuals.

Qatar has mainly used Al Jazeera, its Arabic and English-language media arm, as a front for the emirate’s foreign policy. While Al Jazeera masquerades as an independent news agency offering alternative takes on world events, I and others who worked there know personally it actuality functions as a beard for how the Gulf state views the other nations of the world.

The emirate’s fingerprints come out clearly in much of the network’s reporting. Al Jazeera has routinely soft-pedaled terror organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and al Nusra in Syria. It has offered favorable coverage of Iran in countless articles and news items. It has even used its “investigative journalists” to undertake elaborate snares and smears of pro-Israel activists in the United States and United Kingdom, presumably in an attempt to advance the emirate’s vendetta against the Jewish state.

The two-faced scourge of cyberwarfareThese efforts have relied heavily on surreptitious recording and filming. But sting reporting is not the only tactic that Qatar has used in its espionage efforts. Qatar also hacked more than 1,000 email accounts.

Qatar’s hacking and state-run media attacks are merely the start of its nefarious activities at home and abroad. Even as Al Jazeera, and especially its millennial-themed brand AJ+, produce videos and “news stories” blasting racism and sexism in Western countries, the network’s and news site’s masters practice the most brutal forms of oppression in Qatar itself.

The emirate is governed in top-down style by the ruling family and its clique, with the democratic opposition shut out of the process and in some cases driven into exile altogether. While the emirate rakes in natural-gas billions, it has also imported millions of guest workers from around the broader region, many of whom have arrived on contracts that offer them no labor protections. According to a recent report from Amnesty International, one construction company withheld wages from its employees, leaving them stuck in Qatar with no pay. Some have even likened Qatar’s foreign labor practices to a form of modern slavery.

That picture becomes even uglier when we extend our view past the borders of the small emirate. Qatar has perfected a double game in the geopolitics of the Middle East. While it presents itself as a fierce opponent of terrorism and benefited mightily in public relations terms for its contributions in fighting the Islamic State, it at the same time fuels terror in the region through its associations with Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and others.

That has included both financial support and permission for prominent terrorist leaders to find refuge and plot their next steps in Doha. Qatar has also used its wealth to corrupt foreign officials, notably in the case of the World Cup. It has been widely documented that Qatar bribed FIFA decision makers in order to bring the next World Cup soccer/football finals to Doha in 2022. While this might seem trivial, it raises questions about other instances in which Qatar might have tried to improperly sway the decisions of international bodies. It’s also a multi-billion-dollar business by itself.

Not that Qatar wants Americans to know all this. After the United States stood behind other Gulf nations’ decision to sanction the emirate, Qatar struck back by spending millions to lobby Washington, D.C., powerbrokers. This was a sophisticated campaign, one targeted at specific constituencies seen as affecting Middle East policy, including America’s Jewish leaders.

But no amount of public relations can distract from the truth: Qatar spreads undue propaganda, funds thousands of terrorists and mistreats its own workers, all while presenting a benign face to the world. As the international community gathers in New York, it must not ignore Qatar’s despicable record. We need not hack Emir Al-Thani personally in order to learn these truths, and then leak them to the press. It’s plain as day.

Mohamed Fahmy is the former bureau chief of Al Jazeera English in Egypt and the author of The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom.

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