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Belgium summons UAE ambassador over 'Muslim Brotherhood smear campaign'

Emirati intelligence paid millions to Swiss company to create files on over 1,000 people in Europe, according to data leak
A file photo take in Brussels, Belgium on 2 September 2019 (AFP)
A file photo of Brussels, Belgium on 2 September 2019 (AFP)

Belgium summoned the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador in Brussels on Friday, following reports of the Gulf state's alleged involvement in a smear campaign that sought to link at least 1,000 individuals in Europe to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) said in a report on Friday that the UAE targeted individuals across Europe as part of its anti-Qatar smear campaign during the Gulf crisis.

Between 2017 and 2020, Alp Services, a Swiss private intelligence company, created files on people from 18 European countries and 400 organisations on behalf of Emirati intelligence services, it said.

The report was based on 78,000 confidential documents obtained by French online newspaper Mediapart and shared with EIC.

Among the documents was an infographic with hundreds of names and various arrows, in a purported attempt to link individuals with extremism. 

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Eighty organisations and 160 individuals listed were from Belgium. Among them was Zakia Khattabi, the country's federal minister for environment and sustainability. 

Khattabi told French publisher Le Soir that she hoped the research "did not cost much because everything is false". She said she had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood "neither near nor far". 

Her party, Ecolo, which was also listed, strongly condemned the UAE over its alleged involvement. 

"The approach of the United Arab Emirates, through the intermediary of this Swiss company, is scandalous. It is emblematic of the antidemocratic practices of this regime," it said. 

"The results are obviously so absurd and ridiculous that they deserve neither comment nor attention."

Another Belgian on the list, political scientist Fouad Gandoul, said he had no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Le Soir, he was added to the list because of his membership of a now defunct organisation supporting progressive Muslim voices. 

"It's as if I had landed in a James Bond film," Gandoul said. "Swiss spies and the Emirates, what a story."

On Friday, the foreign affairs ministry summoned the UAE ambassador in Brussels for "full explanations and clarifications", the ministry told Middle East Eye.

"We regret and condemn unjustified allegations, such as those against Minister Khattabi," it added.

UAE paid 5.7m euros

Emirati authorities placed orders in exchange for sums of between 20,000 and 50,000 euros ($22,000 to $55,000) per individual target, according to Le Soir. The UAE paid at least 5.7m euros to Alp and its boss, Mario Brero, it added.

Alp launched media campaigns, modified Wikipedia pages and attempted to induce banks to close down certain accounts.

More than 200 people and 120 organisations from France had files created by Alp, according to Mediapart. Among them was former leftist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon. 

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"Since my presidential candidacy, I cannot publish a single message on my social networks without being attacked for absurd fantasies and accusations of connivance with Islamism," he told Mediapart. 

UAE officials did not respond to requests for comment by the EIC. 

Alp Services said the information was based on "stolen data", and claimed the line of questioning from the network suggested the documents were "partly falsified". 

In March, the New Yorker reported that the UAE financed a campaign by Alp to smear the UK-based charity Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), and sought to link officials with the organisation to the Muslim Brotherhood and violent extremists. 

According to the report, Alp attempted to link Heshmat Khalifa, a former member of the charity’s board of trustees, to terrorism, following his work with an Egyptian humanitarian organisation in Bosnia during the 1990s.

In 2014, the UAE placed IRW on a list of 86 outlawed "terror" groups, alongside several prominent Muslim organisations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It accused the IRW of being a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a charge it denies.

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