Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that the United States was “satisfied” with Qatar’s counterterrorism efforts under a new bilateral agreement, and called on a four-country bloc led by Saudi Arabia to lift its “land blockade” of Qatar as “a sign of good faith.”
“I think it would be a good sign if the four countries would do that,” Tillerson said before a meeting here with Oman’s foreign minister. “I hope they will begin to take some positive action.”
Tillerson’s remarks came after he spent last week in the Persian Gulf region, shuttling among capitals to press for a negotiated settlement of the ongoing conflict among key U.S. counterterrorism partners. During that visit, he signed a new agreement with Qatar outlining cooperation to stem what the Saudis and others have said is Qatari funding of terrorist groups.
Four nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — severed relations and imposed a land, air and sea blockade of Qatar in early June, accusing its government of supporting terrorists and providing safe harbor to dissidents intent on destabilizing their governments.
The crisis was sparked when comments appeared on Qatari news sites in late May quoting that country’s leader, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, as calling for improved regional relations with Iran and defending groups that others in the region consider terrorists.
Qatar, which said the statements were false and charged its sites had been hacked, said Thursday that the cyberinterference had begun more than a month earlier, when hackers first infiltrated its network.
Lt. Col. Ali Mohammed al-Mohannadi, the head of an internal Qatari investigation of the events, stopped short of claiming proof of who was responsible for the hacking campaign. “The only thing we are sure of is that . . . the anticipation and the benefit from this hacking was in the UAE,” Mohannadi said of the investigation’s results at a news conference in Doha, the Qatari capital.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt had broadcasted the false story, which first appeared just after midnight on May 24 on the Qatari government’s news agency site and was then repeated on its social-media sites, within hours, ignoring official Qatari denials.
This week, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had confirmed that senior UAE officials were involved in planning and orchestrating the cyberattack, although the hacking itself may have been carried out by a contracted third party.
Mohannadi said that other “friendly” states had helped investigate the hacking, but he did not name them. Earlier, the government said it had requested FBI assistance. The FBI has declined to comment.
In a timeline of events, Mohannadi and other officials said that the first infiltration of the Qatar News Agency network took place on April 19 and that malware was installed in the system on April 22. Later that month, they said, addresses, passwords and emails of all employees on the system were collected, copied and “shared with another person via Skype.”
The officials showed graphs indicating that immediately after the false articles were posted, traffic on the site from browsers in “one of the countries imposing siege on Qatar” — sharply increased in an apparent attempt to verify that the hacking was successful.
Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed early concern about the crisis. Qatar hosts a major U.S. air base that is the regional headquarters for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, and other countries in the region play significant roles in the fight against the Islamic State and overall U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Although President Trump has said the Saudi-led diplomatic and trade boycott of Qatar was necessary to stem financial support for terrorist groups, Tillerson has repeatedly called the measures too harsh and has urged the group to temper its demands on Qatar.
Other than the new U.S.-Qatar counterterrorism agreement, Tillerson’s shuttle diplomacy showed no early success. Oman and Kuwait, who share the Arabian Peninsula with Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have also tried to mediate the dispute.
This week, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Nations said the four countries’ list of 13 demands basically came down to six “principles.” Among them, while they were calling for Al Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite television network, to temper what they say is its Arabic-language destabilization of neighboring countries, they were no longer insisting that the network be shut down.
Qatar said it had received no official information concerning the new proposals.