Al Jazeera’s ‘Distance Zero’ investigative documentary has revealed that the 2017 illegal blockade against Qatar was premeditated, with a sophisticated plan of execution including spreading fake news about Doha’s alleged support for terrorism, hacking Qatar news Agency’s (QNA) platforms, and announcing the blockade in a manner that would appear to show increasing opposition to Qatar among Arab countries.
‘Distance Zero’ disclosed a leaked document from Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the code name “SETA”, which showed that Egypt’s ambassador to the US, Yasser Reda, reassured the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, that former US representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was paying close attention to Qatar’s ‘pro-terrorism’ position during a congress hearing held over a month after the blockade.
The blockading countries knew that the hacking of QNA was going to take place on the 23rd of May 2017 and were prepared to announce the blockade on June 5th. All of this was to occur in time for a congressional hearing on July 26th, which the blockading countries used as an opportunity to incite against Qatar.
According to the Al Jazeera investigation, Ros-Lehtinen had close ties with research institutions—funded by the UAE and Saudi Arabia—which were her main source for information during the hearing.
In exchange for funding such institutions, the anti-Qatar quartet were able to influence US policy significantly.
“For example, the institutions can hold conferences in support of the funding countries or publish research documents that serve their interests,” Ben Freeman, director at the Center for International Policy, told Al Jazeera.
Moreover, The New York Times (NYT) published an article in June, 2017 stating that the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) held a conference in Washington, three days after the Trump meeting in Riyadh, under the title “Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Affiliates”. According to the NYT, the event was held to support criticism against Qatar and its government.
“That conference cost over a million dollars,” said Freeman. “I work at a research institute in Washington and not a single conference cost seven figures.”
Premeditated online campaign
The war of misinformation was not limited to think-tanks and research institutes, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt created 80,000 fake Twitter accounts used to promote the hashtag “Qatar Supports Terrorism”. According to the investigation, the hashtag was traced back to 2013, four years before the blockade (just months before the 2014 gulf crisis which saw the same countries withdraw their ambassadors from Doha), and was ready to be activated a month earlier.
The media and digital campaigns against Qatar also coincided with the congressional session in Washington, where blockading countries used it to incite against Qatar.
Most prominently, a suspicious ‘Qatarileaks’ account was used to spread false information. The account was also traced back to an apartment in Ahmed Abdulaziz Street in Cairo. ‘Distance Zero’ managed to speak to a former ‘QatariLeaks’ employee who said that Emirati company Dot_Dev began preparing the platform at the end of 2016.
Attempt to withdraw US Air Base
During exchanges between former US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, there was a plan to withdraw the Al Udeid Air Base from Qatar.
Commenting on this, Qatar’s Minister of State for Defense, Khalid Al Attiyah, said,“Qatar’s relations with the US is beyond moving the state’s air base. Rather it is built on mutual respect and cooperation.”
Al Attiyah also added that US officials continue to praise Qatar’s role in combating terrorism.
‘Distance Zero’ also revealed that a UAE network was established in Cairo specialised in attacking Doha and its ally, Turkey, which had deployed forces to Qatar following the blockade in order to deter the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from invading.
“Turkey is an ally of us and it is a Muslim country and a member of NATO, so why are the blockading countries bothered about the presence of Turkish forces in Qatar even though the Al Udeid base includes American, British and French forces and they are not bothered by their presence?” said Al Attiyah in the programme.
Turkey’s move came at a time where Qatar’s security was under threat. According to Al Attiyah, the blockading countries had prepared a plan for invading the Gulf peninsula ahead of the blockade.
Qatar’s role in the fight against terrorism
Recently, the US hailed Qatar’s role in combating terrorim, by playing a prominent role in the Afghan peace talks held in its capital. The Gulf state played a key role in February’s deal between Washington and the Taliban that saw the start of US troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.