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What is Project Raven? Here's how Michelle Obama's emails to Qatar's Sheikha Moza were monitored by UAE spies

A new book penned by an NYT reporter has claimed that the intercepted communications between former first lady and wife of former emir included personal reflections and security details
Qatari royal Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and former first lady Michelle Obama (Getty Images)
Qatari royal Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and former first lady Michelle Obama (Getty Images)

Spies from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the US allies in the Middle East, hacked devices of Qatar’s royal family besides intercepting private communications between former first lady Michelle Obama and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, a bombshell new book has claimed.

A story (‘How the United States Lost to Hackers’) carried by The New York Times on Saturday, February 6, with excerpts from the book ‘This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race’ written by NYT cybersecurity journalist Nicole Perlroth reported on the surveillance of the email communications that took place between Michelle and Moza, wife of former Qatar emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The communications intercepted reportedly included personal reflections, security details and a change in itinerary after the former first lady was scheduled to speak at the royal highness’s annual education summit in Doha. 


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It is not that such intelligence operations carried out by the UAE have come to the fore for the first time. “Previous news reports have highlighted the sophisticated intelligence operation carried out by the UAE (United Arab Emirates) with the assistance of former US operatives. Targets included government officials, United Nations offices in New York, and FIFA executives,” a report in Al Jazeera said on Sunday, February 7. The UAE went after people at FIFA after Qatar gained prominence by securing the rights to host the 2022 football World Cup in 2010. The FIFA-hacking mission was codenamed ‘Brutal Challenge’ and aimed at embarrassing Qatar.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (C) and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef before a group photo following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. (Getty Images)

But the report on the interception of private communications between two high-profile individuals has been found to have a wide impact. Reports said the spying effort saw one American operative resigning from the spying program and exit the UAE. “That was the moment I said, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this. We should not be targeting these people,” the former US National Security Agency analyst was quoted as saying.

Project Raven

Project Raven is a secret team featuring over a dozen former intelligence operatives from the US recruited to help the UAE carry out surveillance of other governments, militants and human rights activists not having a favorable vision about the monarchy. According to a report in Reuters from January 2019, the operatives worked from a converted mansion in Abu Dhabi called internally as “the Villa” and would employ methods that they learned while serving in the American intelligence community over time to help the UAE penetrate its enemies’ devices. Reuters also reported that the operatives used cyber tools, including a cutting-edge espionage platform called Karma, in which the operatives hacked into the iPhones of scores of activists, political leaders and people suspected as terrorists.

Reuters added that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating the allegations since the American law bars hacking of its networks or stealing the communications of its people. It was also learnt from the Reuters report that to ensure that the laws were not breached, the American staff did not go overboard but stand over the shoulders of the Emiratis. Between 2012 and 2015, teams were asked to hack into the rival governments as the program started eyeing espionage against geopolitical forces instead of counterterrorism, as per documents. Among the prime targets are Qatar, Iran, Turkey and the rebels in Yemen. 

Former president Donald Trump (Getty Images)

The UAE’s mission continued even after the Obamas left office. The Intercept reported in June 2019 that three days before Donald Trump was sworn in as the successor to Barack Obama, a businessman from the UAE named Rashid al-Malik was invited to dinner planned by Trump’s long-time friend Thomas J Barrack Jr. who was also the chair of the then president’s inaugural committee. The name of al-Malik, who was among several high-profile guests at the lavish dinner, later surfaced in connection with a federal investigation into potential illegal donations that were made to Trump’s inaugural fund and a pro-Trump Super PAC by the donors in the Middle East.

The US intelligence community said that al-Malik worked as a paid intelligence source for the UAE throughout 2017, the Intercept report said. 

The blockade that countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt imposed on trade and travel with Qatar in 2017 was lifted at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia last month.