DOHA: Qatar launched an investigation and went into damage control mode on Wednesday after accusing hackers of putting what it called false remarks by the emir on state media.
The four-hour cyber attack, which hit the Qatar News Agency’s website and Twitter account, caused ripples in the Gulf state and across the Middle East because of the content of the stories.
Among the topics supposedly addressed by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani were the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, strategic relations with Iran, and comments about Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
There were also remarks about alleged “tensions” between Qatar and the administration of US President Donald Trump.
The Twitter account carried a statement from Foreign Mnister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani about Qatar withdrawing its ambassadors from several nearby countries.
His ministry denied the story.
Qatar said what occurred was a “shameful cybercrime” and that the reports were completely untrue.
It added an investigation had been launched and the hackers would be “traced and prosecuted”.
“QNA’s website was hacked at 12:14am on Wednesday morning, with hackers publishing false statements attributed to HH the Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani,” said the foreign ministry.
“The official further said that it is clear this shameful cybercrime was instigated and perpetrated with malicious intent,” it said in a statement.
But it was unable to contain the fallout, with media outlets taking seriously the remarks attributed to the emir and attacks on social media accounts continuing.
The “false statement” was still being widely reported by broadcasters and newspapers across the region, including in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, many hours after Doha’s denial.
– ‘Anti-Qatar organisations’ –
One analyst on the Saudi state news channel, Al-Akhbariya, called Tamim’s alleged remarks “political adolescence”.
Twitter users swapped insults and accusations.
Saudi media slammed the alleged statement describing Shiite-dominated Iran as a “stability guarantor” in the region.
A page on the Al-Arabiya English website had an article entitled: “Proof that Qatar News Agency was not hacked.”
At the same time, Doha-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera was unavailable for some time in the UAE, though it was unclear if it was blocked on purpose.
The Al-Jazeera Arabic website was also inaccessible in Saudi Arabia during Wednesday.
Qatar said it was “surprised by the stance of some media outlets and TV channels” in continuing to report the comments attributed to the emir.
Some in Qatar compared those responsible for reporting the contents of the hack to Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.
The alleged cyber attack comes just days after Doha claimed it had been the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign over its alleged “support” for terrorism, and said it was being targeted by anti-Qatar organisations.
Doha has faced criticism for its support of rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and in recent weeks has been accused outright of funding terror in US media articles.
Qatar is also home to the former leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, who this month used his Doha base, where he has lived in exile for several years, to launch a new policy document.
One analyst, Durham University’s Dr Christopher Davidson, said the incident emphasised long-standing divisions between Qatar and other Gulf powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, over issues including Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“This is still part of the serious fracture between the two different camps in the Gulf, the divisions remain about the vision for the region,” he said.