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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Targets of ‘Qatar hack’ threaten new wave of legal action

Lawyers for US Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy say more victims are coming forward

US Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, centre, launched legal action earlier this year after claiming his email account was hacked by agents linked to the Qatar government. Flickr
US Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, centre, launched legal action earlier this year after claiming his email account was hacked by agents linked to the Qatar government. Flickr

First came the hack, then the menacing telephone calls. The fifth anonymous caller threatened to report a Britain-based commentator for fabricated sex crimes in Switzerland, where he was heading to meet critics of the Qatari regime.

“They literally say, ‘We have private pictures of you’,” said journalist Amjad Taha, of the telephone calls in 2017. “‘We’re going to expose that if you carry on raising war against us.'”

The so-called “war” was a reference to his trenchant criticisms of Qatar in Arab media, which he said made him the target of a dirty tricks campaign.

That campaign has seen Mr Taha drawn into a mounting legal battle set to be contested on both sides of the Atlantic, as one of hundreds of potential victims of a state-sponsored hacking campaign allegedly carried out on the orders of Qatar.

Mr Taha only discovered in mid-August – after strange activity on his social media accounts – that one of his email accounts appeared to have been hacked.

He blames agents linked to Qatar for the intrusion and says he has consulted lawyers about suing its ambassador in London. He declined to name his legal team on grounds of safety.

Mr Taha says he has also contacted United States lawyers for prominent Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who launched legal action earlier this year against lobbyists and public relations experts allegedly working on the campaign.

“We have been contacted ... by a number of people who believe they were hacked by Qatar in the US, the UK and elsewhere, and who demand justice,” Mr Broidy’s lawyer Lee Wolosky said.

Mr Broidy claims that at least 19 UAE-based officials were targets of the attack, including Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and the ambassadors to the UK and France, according to a list compiled by Mr Broidy’s lawyers and obtained by The National.

Lawyers in the US claim the hacking operation was aimed at those who threatened a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to clean up the reputation of Qatar.

“If I was advising them [Qatar] I would say, ‘save your money because there’s no interest in this issue’,” Mr Gargash told an event in New York on Thursday.

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Others among the estimated 1,200 targeted – a figure that could rise to thousands according to Mr Broidy’s lawyers – include other senior UAE officials, business leaders and Dubai-based fashion designer Manal Ajaj. She said she was hacked five years ago.

Dozens more are from Egypt and the wider Middle East, according to the legal team.

Some of the purported targets, including Mr Taha, were named for the first time in September by the New York Times, prompting more victims to contact lawyers in the US about the case.

They included US-based Dutch intelligence expert Ronald Sandee who was initially unaware that he had been a potential target of a Qatari campaign.

“I can see why they might think I am of interest to them,” said Mr Sandee. “I’m pretty critical of Qatar. I’m openly critical of the fact that they are sponsoring groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He contacted lawyers for Mr Broidy last week and is considering joining his legal action. “They have done it to the wrong guy because it gives me enough reason to drop more bombs on them,” he said.

A US judge ruled in August that Mr Broidy could not sue Qatar on the grounds of sovereign immunity. But the businessman continues to pursue legal action against a group of US-based agents operating on its behalf.

The legal team is chasing legal action against a former UN special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, along with a New York-based lobbying and PR firm, Stonington Strategies, and its head Nicolas Muzin. Mr Broidy is considering action against further unnamed lobbyists.

Lawyers claim that hackers targeted Mr Broidy's wife’s personal email account with targeted phishing emails and used it as a gateway to the businessman, who has been an outspoken critic of Qatar and has $200 million (Dh734.6m) counter-terrorism and defence contracts with the UAE.

The motive was to denigrate people who jeopardised Qatar’s public relations campaign to “obfuscate its ties to, and financial and logistical support of, some of the world’s worst extremist and terrorist organisations,” according to his claim in the US courts.

According to legal papers filed by Mr Broidy back in March, agents acting on behalf of Qatar hacked him and at least one other US-based citizen.

Since then details supplied by TinyURL – the online service that was allegedly used by the hackers to disguise the hacking code – has been analysed by experts for Mr Broidy. This has led to the identification of 1,200 potential further targets of the hack in a single year.

The hackers had sent messages purporting to be Gmail security alerts but which were used to snare the user into supplying their details.

Mr Taha – who is cooperating with a group of eight other alleged victims – said security researchers had traced the intrusion of his account to a message designed to look like a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news alert system.

“Our view, and that of technical experts we have consulted, is that it would have to be a state-sponsored organisation behind these attacks,” said Mr Wolosky.

Qatar’s embassy in London did not respond to an emailed request for comment in relation to the alleged campaign against Mr Taha. The embassy in Washington told the New York Times last month that Mr Broidy’s claims were based on “weak supposition and conjecture”.