Abu Dhabi Secrets: The Emirati 'smear campaign' explained
A new report has revealed that the United Arab Emirates was involved in a smear campaign that targeted over a thousand people and hundreds of organisations, alleging that they had links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Based on 78,000 confidential documents obtained by the French online newspaper Mediapart, the Abu Dhabi Secrets case reportedly involved people from 18 different European countries being spied on by Alp Services, a company hired by the Emirati government.
The campaign was linked to around 1,000 individuals in Europe, all of whom were portrayed as having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is described as a terrorist organisation by the UAE.
Some of those targeted have since come out to distance themselves from the allegations, while others have expressed fear over being targeted again or losing everything.
The investigations, which have been published across 13 different publications, found that Emirati authorities paid at least 5.7m euros for the campaign.
The Emirati embassy in Paris did not respond to Mediapart's request for comment. Mario Brero, founder of Alp Services, did not respond to questions sent to him by the French investigative site.
Brero's lawyers, Christian Luscher and Yoann Lambert, told Mediapart that the documents used for the investigation had been "obtained unlawfully" and "are the result of one or more criminal offences".
The lawyers said that criminal complaints had been filed and that the case is now under investigation. They further claimed that Mediapart had ignored their formal notices "ordering it to destroy all data concerning our principals".
The Swiss publication RTS, which has published the investigations, said it was doing so in the public interest despite the fact that the documents were most likely stolen by hackers.
The UAE has previously denied being involved in similar campaigns. The Belgian government has summoned the UAE's ambassador over the campaign.
What is Abu Dhabi Secrets?
Now dubbed “the Abu Dhabi Secrets”, the investigations claim that Alp Services, a Swiss private intelligence firm, was hired by the UAE government to spy on citizens of 18 different European countries.
Between 2017 and 2020, Alp Services gave the details of over 1,000 people and 400 companies and organisations to the Emirati intelligence services, who claimed that they all were members of - or sympathisers with - the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE considers the group a terrorist organisation and Qatar's support for it was a source of tension between the Gulf states and a reason for the blockade imposed on Qatar between 2017 and 2021.
European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) published maps created by Alp Services that showed the locations of those targeted. Some references on the map included "other terrorists", "Qatari charities" and "other radical preachers".
The maps had hundreds of names and arrows, in a purported attempt to link individuals with extremism.
How did it work?
Alp Services - and Brero - were paid tens of thousands of euros per individual targeted, according to Le Soir. The Swiss group then produced reports on the identified individuals.
Information sent to Emirati intelligence services included phone numbers and personal details. Alp Services said this accusation was based on "stolen data" and claimed the line of questioning from journalists suggested the documents were "partly falsified".
Once the information was sent over to Emirati intelligence services, agents were able to target the individuals further through press campaigns, forums published about them, the creation of fake profiles and the modification of Wikipedia pages.
In some cases, work was done to ensure that the bank accounts of targeted individuals and organisations were closed.
Who was targeted?
Among those targeted were politicians, representatives of Islamic organisations, activists and prominent feminist figures.
An investigation carried out by the EIC media network and Spanish news site infoLibre, found that over 160 people from Spain were targeted in the smear campaign, all of whom deny having a relationship or affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of those targeted in Spain was Riay Tatary, the founder and general secretary of the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain. Tatary, who died of Covid-19 in April 2020, was also the imam of Madrid's Tetuan mosque.
According to infoLibre, the criteria that the detectives used to single out Spanish sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood were "very vague and their methods unprofessional".
Hanan Serroukh, an immigration expert and the district coordinator, was also targeted. She said it was “incoherent, serious and even insulting” that her name would be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Pedro Rojo Perez, co-director of the Observatory of Islamophobia in the Media and founder of al-Fanar Foundation, also denied having any affiliation to the group.
“I have no relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, other than my speciality, which is the Arab world,” he told infoLibre.
'I have no relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, other than my speciality, which is the Arab world'
- Pedro Rojo Perez, co-director of the Observatory of Islamophobia in the Media
Perez said he thought he had been included on the Alp Services maps because he had helped facilitate meetings between Spanish politicians and a democratically elected Egyptian minister aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We brought them together with former Spanish parliamentarians so that they could explain to them what the Spanish transition to democracy was like and so that they would understand that it is a very complex process,” he said.
According to Mediapart, a French investigative news site, around 200 individuals and 120 organisations were also targeted in France.
Among them are former socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, the deputy mayor of Marseille Samia Ghali and journalist and activist Rokhaya Diallo.
Zakia Khattabi, a climate minister in Belgium, decried the list of people targeted as "clearly so absurd and ridiculous that they deserve neither comment nor attention".
In the UK, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was also singled out in some reports.
Many of those who appeared on Alp’s maps and reports have asked for their names not to be made public, out of fear of being harassed or targeted again.
How did the campaign change lives?
Victims of the files have been left shocked, angry and paranoid.
Some have been forced to flee their home country, while others have lost their businesses and suffered huge financial losses as well as reputational damage.
The singer Mennel Ibtissem was included in one of Alp’s reports because of a controversy that erupted during her participation in the television show The Voice in 2018, where she sang while wearing a turban.
Ibtissem was forced to leave the show 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, and that the tweets were written during a moment of anger to criticise "amalgams between terrorism and religion".
Ibtissem has since distanced herself from any Muslim Brotherhood affiliation.
“It’s nonsense, I’ve never said anything or done anything that could suggest that I have a political or religious commitment,” she said.
Others have also decried the accusations, which have had an impact on their careers.
Benoit Hamon said that being included on the list was "appalling" and called for investigations into the issue.
“I’m not going to let myself go, injustice and the French authorities must investigate and explain to us,” he said.
“I’m going to ask myself the question before going to the Emirates,” said Samia Ghali.
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.