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The Shadowy World of Russian Hackers Just Got Murkier

None of what is known about the murky world of Russian hackers is conclusive, let alone produces a smoking gun. But what role does the Gulf play?

The covert Qatari-Emirati cyberwar that helped spark the Qatar crisis may have just gotten murkier with the indictment of 12 Russian agents by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The indictment provided details on the website DCLeaks, which was allegedly registered by Russian intelligence officers. The website initially distributed illicitly-obtained documents associated with people connected to the Republican Party and later leaked hacked emails from individuals affiliated with the election campaign of Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. “Starting in or around June 2016 and continuing through the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Conspirators used DCLeaks to release emails stolen from individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign,” the indictment reads.

The indictment focuses exclusively on hacking related to the US election that brought Donald Trump to office. It makes no mention of hacking related to the Gulf crisis that pits an Emirati-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar. Yet the indictment’s repeated references to DCLeaks raises the question of whether there may also be a Russian link to the email hacking in 2017 of Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States.

Global Leaks

Otaiba’s revealing and potentially damaging emails, which seemed to help Qatar in its public diplomacy campaign, were distributed to major media outlets and analysts, including this author, by an entity known as Global Leaks. Questions about a potential link between Global Leaks, DCLeaks and Russia stem not only from Global Leaks’ use of a Russian provider that offers free email service, but also by the group’s own reference to DCLeaks. The group’s initial email had “DCLeaks” in its subject line.

It remains unclear whether the use of a Russian provider was coincidental and whether the reference to DCLeaks was meant to mislead or create a false impression.

Global Leaks initially identified itself in an email as “a new group which is bringing to limelight human right violations, terror funding, illegal lobbying in US/UK to limelight of people to help make USA and UK great again and bring justice to rich sponsors of crime and terror.” When pressed about its identity, the group said:

“[We] believe that [the] Gulf in general has been crippling the American policy by involving us in their regional objectives. Lately it’s been [the] UAE who has bought America and traditionally it was their bigger neighbor [Saudi Arabia]. If we had to hurt UAE, we have so much of documents given by source that it will not only hurt their image and economy but also legally and will for sure result in UN sanctions at the least. But that is not our goal.

Our goal is plain and simple, back off in playing with American interests and law, don’t manipulate our system, don’t use money as a tool to hurt our foreign policy…. It may be a coincidence that most things [we are leaking] do relate to UAE but in times to come if they continue and not stop these acts, we will release all the documents which may hurt all the countries including Bahrain and Qatar.”

Global Leaks’ allegation that the UAE was seeking to suck the US into Gulf affairs preceded reports that Mueller was, aside from Russia, also looking into whether George Nader had funneled funds to the Trump campaign. Nader is a highly-paid Lebanese-American advisor to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Mueller is further investigating a meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, that was brokered by the UAE. Prince and Dmitriev have denied that the meeting had anything to do with President Trump.

The US president has not publicly addressed reports that his election campaign may have received Gulf funding. But at a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, Trump failed to endorse his government’s assessment that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying he doesn’t “see any reason why Russia would be responsible.” He has since claimed he had misspoken.

Foreign Lobbying

A British public relations watchdog, Spinwatch Public Interest Investigations, said, in a report detailing UAE lobby efforts, that the Emirates had tasked public relations companies in the US and Britain with linking members of Qatar’s ruling family to terrorism. The lobbying also aimed to get the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood banned; involved UAE threats to withhold lucrative trade deals from Britain if allegedly pro-Brotherhood reporting by the BBC was not curtailed; and it targeted journalists and academics critical of the Gulf country, according to the report.

US intelligence officials said the UAE had last year orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The hacking provided the pretext for the Emirati-Saudi led economic and diplomatic boycott of Doha. The UAE has denied the assertion.

US and Qatari officials said earlier that Russian hackers for hire had executed the attack on the Qatari websites. Cybersecurity experts said at the time that the hackers worked for various Gulf states. They said the methods used in the hacking of the Qatari website and Ambassador Otaiba’s email were similar. “They seem to be hackers-for-hire, freelancing for all sorts of different clients, and adapting their skills as needed,” said security expert Collin Anderson.

Two cybersecurity firms, ThreatConnect and Fidelis Cybersecurity, said in 2016 that they had indications that the hackers who hit the Democratic National Committee were preparing a fake version of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs website that could be used in phishing attacks.

The Emirati-Qatari cyberwar was indeed likely enabled by Russian hackers working for their own account, rather than in coordination with the Russian government. It is, however, equally possible that the same hackers also put their services at the disposal of Russia.

None of what is known about the murky world of Russian hackers is conclusive, let alone produces a smoking gun. The various strands of Mueller’s investigation, however, suggest grounds to query not only Russian cyber efforts to influence the US election, but also the involvement of Russian nationals in the cyberwar in the Gulf and potential links between the two operations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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