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Abu Dhabi Secrets: The people affected by the widespread 'smear campaign'

From ruined music careers to destroyed businesses, Middle East Eye examines the impact of the UAE campaign on European Muslims
Mennel Ibtissem, a French-Syrian singer, was one of the people targeted by the Emirati campaign (Screengrab/Instagram)

More than a thousand people and hundreds of organisations were targeted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in a smear campaign that suggested that various authors, politicians, trustees and others were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

A new investigation has revealed that people from 18 different European countries were spied on by Alp Services, a Swiss company hired by the Emirati government as part of the large-scale effort. 

The smear campaign included targeting people in press campaigns, forums published about them, resurfacing their old social media posts, creating fake profiles, and modifying their Wikipedia pages. 

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The report, which is based on 78,000 confidential documents obtained by the French online newspaper Mediapart, shows some of the far-reaching impact the smear campaign has had on individuals. 

The Emirati embassy in Paris did not respond to Mediapart's request for comment. The UAE has previously denied being involved in similar campaigns. 

‘My career has been ruined’

One of the thousands of individuals targeted by the campaign is French-Syrian singer Mennel Ibtissem.

The singer made headlines in 2018 while participating in the French edition of the TV talent show, The Voice. After appearing on the show, she was quickly attacked in a high-profile social media campaign, where she was criticised for her hijab. 

Shortly after, old tweets of hers relating to terrorist attacks in Nice and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray resurfaced. She later denounced the tweets, saying that she loved France and condemned violence, that the tweets were taken out of context, and that they were written during a moment of anger to criticise "amalgams between terrorism and religion".

However, the damage was done and Ibtissem was forced to leave the show.

In an email sent to Middle East Eye, the singer said that she no longer wants to talk about religion or politics, and that her “career had been ruined because of that”. 

“I just want to talk about arts and music now,” she added.

More of the singer’s tweets also appeared at the time, where she declared her support for Palestine and called on the UK to stop arming Israel.

The tweets were published in 2014 during Israel’s assault on Gaza which caused the death of around 2,200 Palestinians. Ibtissem later deleted the tweets. 

'I just want to talk about arts and music now'

- Mennel Ibtissem, French-Syrian singer

With most of the abuse against her focused on her hijab, Ibtissem later took it off, citing the pressure put on her from online comments, despite previously saying her hijab was “inseparable from my look, you will never see me without it”. 

The singer told the media previously that she almost quit music altogether, with the smear campaign having a heavy toll on her mental health. 

It has now been revealed that Ibtissem’s name was on a "target list" prepared by Alp Services on behalf of the UAE. 

“It’s nonsense, I’ve never said anything or done anything that could suggest that I have a political or religious commitment,” Ibtissem told Daraj media platform about her alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

While Ibtissem has made a slow return to the music industry, she no longer engages in any politics and has distanced herself from any religious affiliations. 

'Financially destroyed' 

Among those who bore the brunt of being targeted by the Emirates is Hazim Nada, the founder of Lord Energy, a Swiss-based oil trading company.

Nada, the son of the prominent banker and Muslim Brotherhood member Youssef Nada, had no relation to politics or financial links to the group, but soon found his bank accounts closed.

Abu Dhabi Secrets: The Emirati 'smear campaign' explained
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Hazim was forced to constantly prove to bankers that his company had no connection to his father, but the accusations against him did not stop. The company was soon unable to finance its shipments and was forced to lay off employees. 

Many banks also stopped financing it, resulting in it going bankrupt in 2019. 

Hazim would also receive suspicious text messages from his mobile phone provider as well as calls made to his bank, from someone asking for his financial details. 

The US also named Youssef’s bank as one of the main financiers of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, which left him shocked and surprised. 

“This public accusation was worse for me than all the other problems that emerged afterwards,” he previously said.

Youssef had his home and bank raided, and was placed on a United Nations terror blacklist and said that “one day to the next, I had no access to my money…I was financially destroyed”.

Hazim later contacted the authorities and found that Alp Services had been asking for information about him at the request of the UAE. 

The businessman suffered from repeated panic attacks and insomnia as a result of the allegations made against him. 

Forced resignations

The UK-based charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide, was among the many organisations targeted, with claims that it had links to the Muslim Brotherhood and violent extremists. 

The New Yorker reported that Alp Services, headed by Mario Brero, pitched a campaign to the UAE to smear the humanitarian organisation. 

One of the people targeted in the process was Heshmat Khalifa, a member of the organisation’s board of trustees. 

UAE financed smear campaign against Islamic Relief charity, report says
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In 2019, Brero launched a campaign that alleged links between Islamic Relief and violent extremists, and suggested that Khalifa was a “terrorist at the top” of the company. The case study was based on the fact that in the 1990s, Khalifa had worked with an Egyptian humanitarian organisation in Bosnia, at the same time foreign fighters were going to war there. 

The accusations didn’t stick, so Alp Services proceeded to resurface old antisemitic posts by Khalifa that were published during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2014. 

It was later revealed in a report to the Emiratis that Brero said he had leaked the quotes and tweets “piece by piece” to journalists, most notably Andrew Norfolk from The Times. The investigative reporter has a history of writing about British Muslims.

Khalifa was forced to resign from his position as trustee, and British and Swedish authorities opened inquiries into the charity. The German government ceased working with them, while many banks also threatened to stop transferring the charity’s funds to crisis zones around the world. 

Waseem Ahmad, IRW's chief executive, told The New Yorker that the reputational harm done to the charity affected millions of needy people around the world reliant on the charity.

"It just hurt and delayed our humanitarian work," he said. "Why had the UAE undermined Islamic Relief? That is a multimillion-dollar question ... It's a very unjust world - let's put it that way."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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