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Former Cambridge Analytica staff launch Middle East-focused consultancy

Founders of Auspex International say consultancy will use data-driven communications to 'tackle the spread of extremist ideology'
Cambridge Analytica's London office was searched by information commission investigators in March (AFP)

Former staff at scandal-tainted political consultancy Cambridge Analytica have launched a new Middle East-focused company to run counter-extremism and public health communications campaigns in the region.

Launched on Wednesday in London, Auspex International describes itself as a “geopolitical communications consultancy focusing on political, social and developmental campaigns”.

Auspex’s managing director is Mark Turnbull, a former managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s international political division, SCL Elections.

Turnbull also previously worked for British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which ran an infamous counter-insurgency campaign for the US army in Iraq which included the production of fake al-Qaeda videos.

Between 2004 and 2012 Turnbull headed Bell Pottinger's Specialist Unit in Conflict Transformation, according to his LinkedIn profile.

His work included "a three-year campaign of popular resistance to violent extremism through an indigenous 'grassroots' social movement, deploying multimedia and activist networks," and a "four-year multimedia regional counter-radicalisation campaign across 22 countries addressing the psycho-social drivers of violent extremism", the profile said.

In a press release, Ahmad al-Khatib, Auspex’s chairman and another former Cambridge Analytica employee, said the collapse of Cambridge Analytica in May had presented an opportunity to build an “ethically based, data-driven communications company” and said the firm would focus on health and counter-extremism campaigns.

Khatib is a 29-year-old Egyptian based in the UK, although British business records list him as a resident of the Seychelles.

According to the press release, Khatib joined Cambridge Analytica in January "focusing on social and healthcare communication initiatives in the Middle East".

“Aside from health campaigning, we also need to tackle the spread of extremist ideology which has poisoned my generation, preying on the minds of disenfranchised youth. We need to counter these messages of hate and violence. I am a firm believer in the power of communications to move people and bind them together,” Khatib said.

'Talked towards their own death'

In a video promoting Auspex, Khatib cited his grandmother's death from breast cancer as one of his motivations for creating the company, suggesting that targeted health messaging could save lives.

But he added: “I am an Arab, Muslim, Egyptian, Middle Easterner. For my part of the world at the moment you have issues where young kids are being talked towards their own death. They are being recruited by terrorist organisations.

"A little girl is being told it is okay to get raped by a 50-year-old because that is what God wants her to do. You get people who actually get voted into government because that party tells them you’re going to go to hell if you don’t. So that’s an issue for me, that’s something that doesn’t sit well with me.”

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Middle East Eye has previously revealed details of counter-extremism work previously undertaken by the SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, on behalf of the US and UK governments.

SCL Insight, another SCL Group subsidiary, held a contract with the UK’s defence ministry for data analytics work which ended only in February.

In March, Cambridge Analyica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the British parliament's digital, culture, media and sport committee that SCL's work for the British government "centred around research on Middle Eastern countries to understand attitudes and behaviours of groups who could pose a risk to British society".

The US State Department also told MEE that it had contracted SCL in 2017 to conduct research into “ISIS [the Islamic State group] recruitment and radicalisation to violence”.

Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, the SCL Group, were shut down in May amid controversy over allegations that the firm had harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without permission.

The firm, which worked on US President Donald Trump’s election campaign, and its affiliates are accused of using the data to influence voters in the US, and in the UK during the Brexit referendum in 2016, and are the subject of investigations in both London and Washington.

'Skilful journalist'

Turnbull also attended meetings alongside Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix with undercover Channel 4 journalists in which Nix suggested that the company could use prostitutes, bribes and other underhand methods to help clients to smear and discredit political opponents.

Addressing the UK parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee last month, Nix said he and Turnbull had been drawn into the discussion by a “skilful journalist” who had coaxed them into “saying things that neither represent what we do nor the values and ethics that the company holds”.

“In our overzealousness to secure a contract, Mark Turnbull and I were guilty of hyperbole and agreeing with the client on matters that not only have we never involved ourselves in before but we had no understanding of. We were just telling the client what we thought he wanted to hear in order to find out exactly what his intentions were and to move the contract forward,” Nix said.

In comments to the Financial Times, Turnbull said he had been “mortified” by the discussion and had “melted into the background as much as I could”.

Prior to its collapse, Cambridge Analytica was also working for Saudi Arabia’s ministry of economy and planning on research and strategy projects “focused on developing the national reform initiative for the country’s drive to diversify its economy away from its oil dependency”, according to a former employee’s LinkedIn page.

The SCL Group also had business connections to the UAE. Last year, a subsidiary company, SCL Social, was hired by the UAE's National Media Council to run a social media campaign targeting Qatar, which is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies.

Documents submitted by SCL Social to the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Unit, to which organisations working for foreign powers are required to report, show that campaign material included a Boycott Qatar Twitter account, display ads and targeted Facebook and YouTube videos.

Auspex’s website, which features images of the Cairo corniche and Qatar's Sheikh Abdulla bin Zaid al-Mahmoud Islamic Cultural Centre, states that the company is “politically neutral”.

“It does not knowingly engage with corrupt or repressive regimes,” it says.