ABU DHABI (Dispatches) – The United Arab Emirates established an electronic spy network that included "former members of the U.S. National Security Agency, with the aim of spying on Qatar”, The New York Times reported.
The U.S. daily said the aim of the hacking network was to prove Qatar’s terrorism financing allegations and Qatar’s funding to the Muslim Brotherhood group.
According to the newspaper, the Abu Dhabi government offered high salaries to members of the spy network, often double or even quadruple their previous salaries.
"We were misled by double financial offers under the cover of working for an allied government of Washington,” a former member of the network told The New York Times.
UAE spies hacked devices belonging to Qatar’s royal family and intercepted private communications between then-U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, according to a new book by a New York Times reporter.
Previous news reports have highlighted the sophisticated intelligence operation carried out by the UAE with the assistance of former U.S. operatives. Targets included governments officials, United Nations offices in New York, and FIFA executives.
But a Times story on Saturday with excerpts of the book – This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends by Times’ cybersecurity journalist Nicole Perlroth – is the first to report on the surveillance of email communications in late 2015 between Obama and Sheikha Moza, wife of Qatar’s former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
The communications intercepted included personal reflections, security details, and an itinerary change after Obama was scheduled to speak in Qatar at her annual education summit in Doha.
"That was the moment I said, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this. We should not be targeting these people,” a former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) analyst was quoted as saying.
Known as Project Raven, hackers employed state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools to help the UAE engage in surveillance of other governments, armed groups, and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.
Interviews by Reuters news agency in 2019 with former Raven operatives, along with a review of thousands of pages of project documents and emails, showed spying techniques taught by the NSA were central to the UAE’s efforts to monitor opponents.
Operatives used an arsenal of cyber tools including a cutting-edge espionage platform known as Karma, with which Raven operatives say they hacked into the iPhones of hundreds of activists and political leaders.
The FBI is now investigating because U.S. laws prohibit the hacking of U.S. networks or stealing the communications of Americans.