On 6 June 2017, President Donald Trump posted a series of tweets that targeted the Gulf nation of Qatar amid an ongoing diplomatic crisis with neighboring countries — including Saudi Arabia, which Trump had recently visited:


The crisis started in late May 2017, when Qatar’s state-run news agency QNA posted remarks attributed to emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that praised Iran and Israel and disparaged Trump. Shortly afterward, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with the country. The government of Qatar released a statement saying that QNA had been hacked, and that the statement by Al Thani wasn’t authentic:

The Qatar News Agency (QNA) website has been hacked by an unknown entity. A false statement attributed to His Highness has been published.

CNN reported on 6 June 2017 that Russian hackers attacked Qatar’s state news agency and produced the artificial statement:

US investigators believe Russian hackers breached Qatar’s state news agency and planted a fake news report that contributed to a crisis among the US’ closest Gulf allies, according to US officials briefed on the investigation.

The FBI recently sent a team of investigators to Doha to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hacking incident, Qatari and US government officials say.

Although Russian hackers have been accused of interfering with the 2016 U.S. election and the French election in 2017, Malcolm Nance, an intelligence expert and former counterterrorism officer with the United States government, told us the current Gulf crisis appears to have roots that stretch back beyond the “fake news” that appeared on QNA’s web site, pointing to hacked e-mails between officials from conservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Emirates ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al-Otaiba. Nance told us:

I don’t believe this came from [fake news] and if anyone’s saying that, it’s a convenient way to say, “now we have a reason to defuse this crisis.” I think Donald Trump gave away the game with his two tweets where he said he was part of the planning at this Saudi conference.

The hacked e-mails show a campaign to isolate Qatar by Al-Otaiba, an influential figure in Washington, D.C. Some of the e-mails were obtained by the Huffington Post, which reported:

Otaiba, one of the most powerful diplomats in Washington, figures in an unfolding regional crisis centered on U.S. partner nation Qatar, which hosts America’s largest military base in the region. The UAE and three other U.S.-aligned Middle East governments ratcheted up a simmering dispute with Qatar on Sunday night when they cut diplomatic and transportation ties to the Gulf nation over its support of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood and alleged assistance to Iran-backed militants around the region. …

The leaked emails, which show Otaiba’s comments during a yearlong campaign to discredit Qatar in the U.S., threaten the UAE’s hope to win official American blessing for its pressure campaign against the Qataris. Trump is notoriously thin-skinned: He has banned people who publicly criticized him from his team (including GOP consigliere Elliott Abrams, a fellow Qatar skeptic who is friends with Otaiba) and seems unable to get over slights even years after they occur. And his administration already seems disinclined to pick a side. Top officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have emphasized the importance of resolving the dispute.

Amid the tensions and maneuvering, the Financial Times reported it was a $1 billion ransom payment by the Qatari government in April 2017 to militant groups to free members of the royal family who had been apprehended on a hunting trip in Iraq, which ended up being the catalyst to the current falling out:

The deal, which was concluded in April, heightened concerns among Qatar’s neighbours about the small gas-rich state’s role in a region plagued by conflict and bitter rivalries. And on Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took the extraordinary step of cutting off diplomatic ties and transport links to Qatar, alleging the country fuels extremism and terrorism.

Nance said the risk of Trump’s decision to pick sides in the fight is that Qatar could potentially ask the U.S. — which has Al Udeid Air Base and 11,000 military personnel in the country — to leave.

Sources:

Perez, Evan, and Prokupecz, Shimon. “FIRST ON CNN: US Suspects Russian Hackers Planted Fake News Behind Qatar Crisis.”
  CNN. 6 June 2017.

Ahmed, Akbar Shahid. “Ambassador Slammed Donald Trump Amid UAE Campaign To Isolate Qatar.”
  Huffington Post. 5 June 2017.

Solomon, Erika. “The $1bn Hostage Deal That Enraged Qatar’s Gulf Rivals.”
  Financial Times. 5 June 2017.