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The dark, Islamophobic world of a UAE ‘dirty smear campaign’

March 29, 2023 at 10:34 am

Stop the War Coalition placards that say ‘No to Islamophobia. No to war.’ [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

A “smear campaign” alleged to be orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and executed through a Geneva-based private intelligence firm has apparently been peddling hateful misinformation associated with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, an article in New Yorker Magazine has revealed. In “The dirty secrets of a smear campaign”, which is as sensational as it is disturbing, David D Kirkpatrick has exposed details of the campaign targeting a Swiss businessman of Egyptian origin, Hazim Nada. Kirkpatrick is an international correspondent for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The article exposes the desperate and often criminal lengths to which the UAE, an absolutist tribal Gulf monarchy, has gone to crackdown on political opponents. It not only sheds light on the dark and murky world of this particular smear campaign and the trail of shattered lives left in its wake; Kirkpatrick’s investigation also serves as a warning to democracies about the threat from authoritarian regimes which appear to have no qualms whatsoever about targeting the citizens of another country.

The victim of the campaign is Nada, the founder of commodities-trading business Lord Energy. He is the son of a successful Egyptian businessman, Youssef Nada. As a teenager in Alexandria, Nada Senior joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1947 during the group’s early decades. However, he spent most of his life outside the country of his birth as a highly successful businessman making millions in Libya, Austria, the United States and then Switzerland. Despite never advocating violence, Youssef Nadar’s membership of the Muslim Brotherhood has cast a long shadow over his life and that of his son Hazim.

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Now in his 90s, Youssef Nada is best known for winning a legal case against the US involving allegations of terrorism. His connection to the Brotherhood made him a target of the Egyptian regime. The US, a key ally of the Egyptian dictator and former President Hosni Mubarak, put him on a terrorist list. Nada fought to clear his name and won a libel suit against a journalist at an Italian newspaper who had accused him of supporting Hamas financially. “A former Swiss senator and prosecutor who investigated the sanctions against Youssef Nada,” said Kirkpatrick, “concluded that the blacklisting had been ‘totally arbitrary’ and ‘Kafkaesque’.” The Swiss restrictions on him, it was ruled by a European court in 2012, had “violated his human rights baselessly”. It wasn’t until 2015, though, that the US Treasury took him off its list of “Global Terrorists”. That should have been the end of the matter, but the UAE had other ideas as it launched a vicious smear campaign against his son.

With a very definite Western outlook, Hazim Nada had a completely different upbringing. According to Kirkpatrick, “he was bored by politics, casual about religion and proud of his American identity, and a fan of nineties hip-hop.” With a Master’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and a doctorate in applied maths from Imperial College London, and no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood at all, his life, one would have assumed, was a million miles away from the grip of a Gulf autocrat. Not so, as it turned out. As early as 2008 Nada Junior was forced to prove to each banker he met that his venture had no connection to his father. Despite the challenges, he became a successful businessman. Living in a mansion overlooking Lake Como in Italy, home to the likes of movie star George Clooney, Nada seemed as far removed as one could possibly be from a UAE-led smear campaign.

Hazim Nada’s troubles started in 2017 when he began to receive suspicious automated text messages from his mobile phone service provider and deceptive calls were made to his bank by someone asking for financial details. Around the same time, anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists were on his back. Journalist Sylvain Besson, who had written a book in which Nada’s father was said to be linked to an “Islamist conspiracy”, published an article in a Geneva newspaper claiming that Lord Energy was a Muslim Brotherhood cover. One by one, more articles followed with allegations of links to terrorism.

Around the middle of 2018, World-Check, a database that banks use for their due diligence checks on customers, listed Nada and his company under the “Terrorism” risk category. Five financial institutions decided that they could not do business with him and his company. “UBS cancelled his personal cheque account,” said Kirkpatrick, “and his mother’s too.” It seemed as if history was repeating itself. Unproven allegations had ruined Nada’s father, “and now the same thing was happening to him.”

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Desperate for answers, Hazim Nada approached the police and other authorities. He found out that a Geneva-based private intelligence firm, Alp Services, had been asking for information about him and a mosque. The discovery was the beginning of the unravelling of the mystery over who was behind the smear campaign that was destroying his business. With the help of “vigilante hackers”, Nada found that the UAE’s fingerprints were all over the smear campaign. The Gulf state employed the founder of Alp Services, Mario Brero, in 2017, around the same time that Abu Dhabi, with the support of Saudi Arabia, imposed a blockade on Qatar. “[Brero] agreed to an initial four-to-six-month budget of a million and a half euros ‘to obtain “concrete evidence” about Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe,” wrote Kirkpatrick.

It is a violation of Swiss law to gather political or business intelligence for a foreign state, and anyone convicted of the crime can be sentenced to three years in prison. But that didn’t seem to deter Brero. Kirkpatrick said that the idea of targeting Nada appears to have originated in conversations with Swiss journalist Besson, the author of The Conquest of the West: The Secret Project of the Islamists. “Most scholars now consider Besson’s book to be an Islamophobic conspiracy theory, but it continues to influence the [far]right.” Mass murderer Anders Breivik was a fan.

The view peddled by Besson in his book was basically what is often referred to as the “great replacement” theory. Echoing a conspiracy about Jews taking over the world, the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, growing sections of the far right believe that there is a worldwide Muslim conspiracy to destroy Western civilisation and replace the “white race”. The way to deal with the threat posed by Muslims, the argument goes, is through the mass mobilisation of the “indigenous” white population and acts of terror against Muslims and anyone aiding their cause. Did the UAE knowingly recruit individuals who believe and circulate hateful conspiracy theories about Muslims?

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In Brero’s first official report to the UAE, dated 6 October 2017, he spent forty-eight pages answering the question, “Why Hazim Nada?” His explanation “was predicated on the presumption that the son was an extension of his father.” He gave page after page of second-hand associations, apparently linking Nada to a global Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy. With his first pay cheque from the UAE, the journalist recruited a so-called expert known for producing anti-Muslim research as much as he is venerated by far-right Islamophobes, Lorenzo Vidino. He is the director of the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University and a consultant for several European governments. Vidino is known for dressing up bigotry towards Muslims in academic language. Alongside Vidino, Brero also recruited a mainstream journalist in the London Times newspaper for his smear campaign on behalf of the UAE.

In 2018, Brero asked for more money to expand his operation against Nada. He “proposed to alert compliance databases and watchdogs used by banks and multinationals” and connect Nada’s firm to terrorism. The objective was to paralyse Lord Energy and put pressure on others to shun the company. For this, the UAE was paying Brero €200,000 a month ($216,849). Brero persuaded the UAE to go after many more people on Vidino’s roster of suspected Islamists and, by November 2019, he is said to have proposed to the Emiratis more than fifty potential European targets. One of those targeted — unjustly, it must be said — was the charity Islamic Relief Worldwide.

An internal Alp Services account indicates that, between 21 August 2017 and 30 June 2020, the UAE paid Brero at least €5.7 million ($6.1m). Hazim Nada, meanwhile, said that he had lost more than a hundred million dollars by early 2019. This does not take into account “the millions that he might have made during the boom years for the oil business in 2020 and 2021.” He is now said to be talking to lawyers in the US about a class-action suit.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.