Qatar's news agency was hacked, sparking diplomatic crisis, preliminary report says

A preliminary investigation has confirmed that Qatar's state news agency was hacked, and false statements attributed to the country's ruler were posted that helped ignite a rift with other Persian Gulf states, the Qatari Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

Statements attributed to the country's ruler helped ignite a rift with other Persian Gulf nations

In this image provided by the Saudi Royal Court, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, left, holds hands with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are two of the nations that have diplomatically isolated Qatar this week. (Bandar Algaloud/Reuters)

A preliminary investigation has confirmed that Qatar's state news agency was hacked, and false statements attributed to the country's ruler were posted that helped ignite a rift with other Persian Gulf states, the Qatari Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday in part because of comments posted briefly on the Qatar News Agency's website on May 23.

The article quoted Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as cautioning against confrontation with Iran, as well as defending the Palestinian group Hamas and Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia movement allied with Tehran.

The four countries also cut transport links to tiny, gas-rich Qatar, disrupting food and other supplies and deepening uncertainty about the future of trade and investment ties.

"The ministry said the investigation team confirmed that the piracy process had used high techniques and innovative methods by exploiting an electronic gap on the website of the Qatar News Agency," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It did not say who might have carried out the hack.

U.S. and European officials said that while United States government agencies and experts were convinced that the news agency and the Qatari government's Twitter feed were hacked, they have not yet determined who did the hacking.

A CNN report quoted unidentified U.S. officials briefed on the investigation as saying that Russian hackers were suspected. Moscow said the report was false.

One U.S. intelligence official said that while Russia has the expertise and an incentive to sow division among Arab states allied with the United States, Russian hackers were available for hire to other countries and criminal groups.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month. Trump has offered to host a meeting at the White House to help resolve the conflict. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In a sign of economic damage from the dispute, Standard & Poor's downgraded Qatar's debt on Wednesday as the country's riyal currency fell to an 11-year low amid signs that portfolio investment funds were flowing out because of the rift.

S&P cut its long-term rating of Qatar by one notch to AA- from AA and put the rating on CreditWatch with negative implications, meaning there was a significant chance of a further downgrade.

U.S. President Donald Trump offered on Wednesday to help resolve the worsening diplomatic crisis.

In his second intervention in the crisis in as many days, Trump urged action against terrorism in a call with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, a White House statement said.

"The president offered to help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary," the statement said.

Regional tensions

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Reuters there would be more economic curbs on Qatar if necessary and said Doha needed to make ironclad commitments to change what critics say is a policy on funding Islamist militants. He later told France 24 television that any further steps could take the form of "a sort of embargo on Qatar."

Reiterating comments by Gulf officials, Gargash told Reuters there was no plan to seek a change in Qatar's leadership, only a change in its policies. Regional tensions, already high following the diplomatic dispute, ratcheted up further after militants attacked targets in Tehran on Wednesday, killing at least 12 people.

Iran blamed arch-foe Saudi Arabia for the attack, which was claimed by the militant group ISIS. Riyadh denied any involvement.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Gulf states could resolve a row with Qatar among themselves without outside help. "We have not asked for mediation, we believe this issue can be dealt with among the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council," he told a news conference with his German counterpart during a visit to Berlin that was broadcast on Saudi state television.

(Natalie Holdway/CBC)

Jubeir declined to confirm a list of 10 demands published by Al-Jazeera, which included shutting down the Doha-based news channel, but added that Qatar knew what it needed to do to restore normal relations.

Meanwhile, Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah continued a regional effort to mediate the crisis, shuttling from the UAE en route to Qatar on Wednesday evening, a Kuwaiti diplomat told Reuters.

But efforts to defuse the worst crisis among Gulf Arabs for two decades showed no immediate progress. The UAE threatened anyone publishing expressions of sympathy toward Doha with up to 15 years in prison and barring entry to Qataris.

Turkish support

Qatar has backed Islamist movements but vehemently denies supporting terrorism. It drew some support on Wednesday when Turkey's parliament approved a draft bill allowing its troops to be deployed to a military base in Qatar.

A woman shops in a supermarket in Qatar's capital, Doha, Wednesday. Four nations have cut off transportation links to the tiny country, disrupting supply links and raising concerns that food and other essentials will soon run short. (Reuters)

Turkish exporters have also pledged to provide food and water to Qatar if needed.

U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis spoke to his Qatari counterpart to express commitment to the Gulf region's security. Qatar hosts 8,000 U.S. military personnel at al Udeid, the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East and a launchpad for U.S.-led strikes on ISIS.

The sudden isolation has spurred Qatar to hold talks with Turkey, Iran and others to secure food and water supplies, said a Qatari official. He said there were enough grain supplies for four weeks and that Qatar also had large strategic food reserves.

Abu Dhabi port authorities in the UAE have eased curbs on non-Qatari oil tankers going to and from Qatar, according to industry sources and shipping circulars seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Staff speak with passengers at Hamad International Airport in Doha Wednesday. The crisis has created complications for people travelling in and out of Qatar. (Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters)

Travel implications

UAE airlines Etihad and Emirates said all travellers holding Qatari passports were currently prohibited from travelling to or transiting through the Emirates. They announced details of the restrictions after Australian carrier and Emirates partner Qantas Airways said it would not fly Qataris to Dubai because of the bans.

Foreigners residing in Qatar in possession of a Qatari residence visa would also not be eligible for visas on arrival in the UAE, an Etihad spokesman said in an email.

Gargash, the UAE minister, told Reuters in an interview it would be very complex to disentangle the "very diverse" business ties between Qatar and its neighbours but suggested this might be necessary.

"You cannot rule out further measures. We hope that cooler heads will prevail, that wiser heads will prevail and we will not get to that."