The Gulf crisis, which resulted in sanctions being imposed by several countries on Qatar, had started with the publication of a controversial story by the Qatar News Agency. The website falsely attributed anti-American and pro-Iran comments to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – which a number of governments used as an excuse to sever their diplomatic ties with Doha and impose not only economic but also humanitarian sanctions on the people of Qatar.Over the past three months, the countries led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have hardly accomplished their goals. None of the conditions that the anti-Qatar bloc listed among their demands at the outset of the crisis have been met by Qatar. Unable to convince Doha, the Gulf nations were compelled to backtrack on their original demands. But the crisis remains to be resolved. To be clear, today's column isn't about efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis but how the whole episode started. After all, the issue remains extremely important for Turkey.
As mentioned above, the crisis had started with a QNA story which was denied by the State of Qatar on May 24. The QNA website had been attacked by hackers, Doha stated, who published a story with false comments by the Sheikh. As a matter of fact, the Qataris openly accused the United Arab Emirates of having orchestrated the cyberattack against its official news agency – only to start the Gulf crisis. Every passing day further strengthens Qatar's hand in the dispute. At this point, the claim that the QNA website had been hacked before the controversial story was published is widely accepted as fact. Even U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have confirmed to reporters that the UAE government was behind the attack.
If UAE officials were behind the cyber attack, it would mean that Qatar was faced with a conspiracy. To make matters worse, it would be possible to conclude that the Emirates had deceived Saudi Arabia with false evidence to pull Riyadh into an unpredictable and ultimately useless crisis.
So who set a new fire in the Middle East by hacking the QNA website? On Friday evening, one of my sources from the Turkish Ministry of Justice was late to our appointment. When asked why he was late, he said that several officials from Qatar were in town regarding the QNA hack so he was held back at the office. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find out more about the meeting with the Qataris. The following day, though, I saw a statement issued by the office of Qatar's chief prosecutor.
According to Chief Prosecutor Ali bin Fetais Al-Marri, the United Arab Emirates was behind the QNA cyber attack last May. Five individuals linked to the attack, he stated, had been arrested in Turkey – at which point I contacted the Ministry of Justice again, but my request for information was turned down due to the sensitivity of the investigation.
All of this means that at least five people are currently under arrest in Turkey due to their ties to the cyber attack that kicked off the Gulf crisis. If I were present in their interrogation, I would ask them the following questions: Were they really complicit in the cyber attack? If so, what was their objective? Did they receive any form of payment from any foreign government in return for hacking the QNA website and falsely attributing certain comments to the Sheikh? With which individuals or foreign governments were they in contact?
There is no doubt that the above questions are among many others posed by the Turkish police to the suspects. Although their answers remain unknown at this time, one thing is clear: The outcome of the investigation can cause new tensions in the Middle East.