World Cup host Qatar used ex-CIA officer to spy on FIFA

Mohamed bin Hamad Al-Thani, left, Chairman of the 2022 bid committee, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, hold the World Cup trophy in front of FIFA Secretary General. (File/AP)
Mohamed bin Hamad Al-Thani, left, Chairman of the 2022 bid committee, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, hold the World Cup trophy in front of FIFA Secretary General. (File/AP)
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Updated 24 November 2021

World Cup host Qatar used ex-CIA officer to spy on FIFA

Mohamed bin Hamad Al-Thani, left, Chairman of the 2022 bid committee, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, hold the World Cup trophy in front of FIFA Secretary General. (File/AP)
  • A former CIA officer has spied on top soccer officials for years while working for Qatar, an AP investigation found
  • The surveillance work included having someone pose as a photojournalist to keep tabs on a rival nation’s bid and deploying a Facebook honeypot

WASHINGTON: A former CIA officer has spied on top soccer officials for years while working for Qatar, the tiny Arab country hosting next year’s World Cup tournament, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

Qatar sought an edge in securing hosting rights from rivals like the United States and Australia by hiring former CIA officer turned private contractor Kevin Chalker to spy on other bid teams and key soccer officials who picked the winner in 2010, the AP’s investigation found.

Chalker also worked for Qatar in the years that followed to keep tabs on Qatar’s critics in the soccer world, according to interviews with Chalker’s former associates as well as contracts, invoices, emails, and a review of business documents.

It’s part of a trend of former US intelligence officers going to work for foreign governments with questionable human rights records that is worrying officials in Washington.

“There’s so much Gulf money flowing through Washington D.C.,” said Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey. “The amount of temptation there is immense, and it invariably entangles Americans in stuff we should not be entangled.”

The World Cup is the planet’s most popular sports tournament. It’s also a chance for Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, to have a coming-out party on the world stage.

The AP’s investigation shows Qatar left little to chance. The surveillance work included having someone pose as a photojournalist to keep tabs on a rival nation’s bid and deploying a Facebook honeypot, in which someone posed online as an attractive woman, to get close to a target, a review of the records show. Operatives working for Chalker and the Persian Gulf sheikhdom also sought cell phone call logs of at least one top FIFA official ahead of the 2010 vote, the records show.

“The greatest achievement to date of Project MERCILESS ... have come from successful penetration operations targeting vocal critics inside the FIFA organization,” Chalker’s company, Global Risk Advisors, said in one 2014 document describing a project whose minimum proposed budget was listed at $387 million over nine years. It’s unclear how much the Qataris ultimately paid the company.

Company documents also highlight the company’s efforts to win over Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a key figure in the soccer world and who ran unsuccessfully to be FIFA’s president in 2015 and 2016. In a 2013 document, Global Risk Advisors recommended the Qataris give money to one a soccer development organization run by Ali, saying it would “help solidify Qatar’s reputation as a benevolent presence in world football.”

A representative for Ali said the prince “has always had a direct good personal relationship with Qatar’s rulers. He certainly wouldn’t need consultants to assist with that relationship.”

The full scope of Chalker’s work for Qatar is unclear but the AP reviewed a variety of projects Global Risk Advisors proposed between 2014 and 2017 show proposals not just directly related to the World Cup.

They included “Pickaxe,” which promised to capture “personal information and biometrics” of migrants working in Qatar. A project called “Falconeye” was described as a plan to use drones to provide surveillance of ports and borders operations, as well as “controlling migrant worker populations centers.”

“By implementing background investigations and vetting program, Qatar will maintain dominance of migrant workers,” one GRA document said.

Another project, “Viper” promised on-site or remote “mobile device exploitation,” which Global Risk Advisors said would deliver “critical intelligence” and enhance national security. The use of such technology provided by private firms is well documented by autocratic countries around the world, including the Gulf.

The private surveillance business has flourished in the last decade in the Persian Gulf as the region saw the rise of an information war using state-sponsored hacking operations that have coincided with the run-up to the World Cup.

Three former US intelligence and military officials recently admitted to providing hacking services for a UAE-based company, which was called DarkMatter, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department. A Reuters investigation from 2019 reported that DarkMatter hacked phones and computers of Qatar’s Emir, his brother, and FIFA officials.

Chalker, who opened an office in Doha and had a Qatari government email account, said in a statement provided by a representative that he and his companies would not “ever engage in illegal surveillance.”

Former Chalker associates say his companies have provided a variety of services to Qatar in addition to intelligence work. Global Risk Advisors bills itself as “an international strategic consultancy specializing in cybersecurity, military and law enforcement training, and intelligence-based advisory services” and its affiliates have won small contracts with the FBI for a rope-training course and tech consulting work for the Democratic National Committee.

Chalker declined requests for an interview or to answer detailed questions about his work for the Qatari government. Chalker also claimed that some of the documents reviewed by the AP were forgeries.

The AP reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from Chalker’s companies, including a 2013 project update report that had several photos of Chalker’s staff meeting with various soccer officials. Multiple sources with authorized access provided documents to the AP. The sources said they were troubled by Chalker’s work for Qatar and requested anonymity because they feared retaliation.

The AP took several steps to verify the documents’ authenticity. That includes confirming details of various documents with different sources, including former Chalker associates and soccer officials; cross-checking contents of documents with contemporaneous news accounts and publicly available business records; and examining electronic documents’ metadata, or digital history, where available, to confirm who made the documents and when. Chalker did not provide to the AP any evidence to support his position that some of the documents in question had been forged.

Qatari government officials did not respond to requests for comment. FIFA also declined to comment.

Many of the documents reviewed by the AP outlining work undertaken by Chalker and his companies on behalf of Qatar are also described in a lawsuit filed by Elliott Broidy, a one-time fundraiser for former US President Donald Trump. Broidy is suing Chalker and has accused him of mounting a widespread hacking and spying campaign at Qatar’s direction that includes using former western intelligence officers to surveil FIFA officials. Broidy’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. Chalker’s legal team has argued the lawsuit is meritless.

Chalker worked at the CIA as an operations officer for about five years before going to work for Qatar, according to former associates. Operations officers typically work undercover trying to recruit assets to spy on behalf of the United States. The CIA declined to comment and does not usually discuss its former officers.

But the agency sent a letter to former employees earlier this year warning of a “detrimental trend” of foreign governments hiring former intelligence officers “to build up their spying capabilities,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by the AP and first reported by the New York Times.

Congress is currently advancing legislation that would put new reporting requirements on former US intelligence officers working overseas.


Rights watchdog condemns assault of Afghan journalist

Afghan journalist Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi was recently attacked while walking to his home in Kabul. (CPJ/Social Media)
Afghan journalist Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi was recently attacked while walking to his home in Kabul. (CPJ/Social Media)
Updated 26 November 2021

Rights watchdog condemns assault of Afghan journalist

Afghan journalist Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi was recently attacked while walking to his home in Kabul. (CPJ/Social Media)
  • Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi, a presenter at privately owned broadcaster Ayna TV, was walking to his house when two unidentified men assaulted him
  • In October, unidentified gunmen injured journalists Abdul Khaliq Hussaini and Alireza Sharifi in separate attacks in Kabul

LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the violent attack on Afghani journalist Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi, who was assaulted in Kabul while on his way home. 

Ahmadi, a presenter at the privately owned broadcaster Ayna TV, was walking to his house when two unidentified men assaulted him and attempted to shoot him. 

The men, whose faces were covered by black handkerchiefs, reportedly shouted, “Reporter! Stop,” demanded to see his identification card and asked him where he worked. 

“The Taliban has repeatedly failed to uphold its stated commitment to press freedom, as violent attacks against journalists continue and proper investigations or accountability are nowhere to be found,” said CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, Steven Butler.

“The Taliban should reverse this trend by thoroughly investigating the attack on Ahmad Baseer Ahmadi, and holding the perpetrators accountable.”

Ahmadi’s assailants reportedly demanded he unlock his phone and open his WhatsApp and Facebook accounts. When Ahmadi refused, the men beat him with pistols and proceeded to shoot at him when he asked for help. 

The shots missed Ahmadi, but the men continued kicking him while he was on the ground, breaking his jaw. 

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August, the CPJ has voiced concerns about the safety of Afghan journalists, reporters and media workers. 

In October, unidentified gunmen injured journalists Abdul Khaliq Hussaini and Alireza Sharifi in separate attacks in Kabul, and Taliban members beat and detained Zahidullah Husainkhil.


Award winners revealed at prestigious Middle East PR industry gongs ceremony

Award winners revealed at prestigious Middle East PR industry gongs ceremony
Updated 26 November 2021

Award winners revealed at prestigious Middle East PR industry gongs ceremony

Award winners revealed at prestigious Middle East PR industry gongs ceremony
  • 88 entries shortlisted in 56 categories for 2021 Middle East Public Relations Association awards

DUBAI: This year’s winners of a prestigious Middle Eastern public relations awards scheme were revealed at a recent presentation ceremony in the UAE.

More than 88 entries were shortlisted across 56 categories in the 2021 edition of the Middle East Public Relations Association awards.

The communications industry has been seriously impacted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic with many companies and organizations cutting their advertising and marketing budgets.

And the latest MEPRA awards took into account the damage caused to the sector by the global health crisis through categories such as best creative approach and best internal communications response during COVID-19, and best social impact campaign in response to the virus outbreak.

The classes saw gold trophies awarded to APCO Worldwide for its campaign “Adapting UOWD’s Education Model in the Age of the Pandemic,” Mastercard MEA for its “Priceless Together” project, and Action Global Communications for “ADEK Back to School,” respectively.

During the awards ceremony held in Dubai on Wednesday, Red Havas bagged gold for best campaign in the Middle East with Adidas’ “Beyond the Surface,” and Hill+Knowlton Strategies took silver and bronze for its PUBG Mobile “Game on Henedy,” and Facebook Inc. “#MonthofGood” campaigns, respectively.

To mark MEPRA’s 20th anniversary this year, the awards featured a new category of people’s choice for the best Middle East campaign over the last two decades, won by Weber Shandwick MENAT and Environment Agency Abu Dhabi for the “Vote Bu Tinah!” campaign.

Special gongs on the night included the chairman’s lifetime achievement award that went to Jack Pearce of Matrix Public Relations, the small in-house team of the year accolade handed to Mastercard MENA, and the large in-house team of the year prize given to the UAE government’s media office.

Agency titles were awarded to Gambit Communications for best home-grown operation as well as small agency of the year, with Acorn Strategy being crowned large agency of the year.


New Zealand PM says Facebook, others must do more against online hate

Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019. (File/AFP)
Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 November 2021

New Zealand PM says Facebook, others must do more against online hate

Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019. (File/AFP)
  • New Zealand PM said tech giants and world leaders needed to do “much more” to stamp out violent extremism and radicalization online

LONDON: Tech giants like Meta’s Facebook and world leaders needed to do “much more” to stamp out violent extremism and radicalization online, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday.
Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019 after a white supremacist killed 51 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch while live-streaming his rampage on Facebook.
This Christchurch Call initiative has been supported by more than 50 countries, international organizations and tech firms, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft.
Ardern said on Friday the initiative had been successful in its first aim of establishing a crisis protocol, including a 24/7 network between platforms to quickly remove content, in response to events like those in Christchurch.
“We have had real world stress-testing of those systems and they have worked very effectively,” Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.
“I am confident that we are operating more effectively than we have before,” she added. “The next challenge though, is to go further again.”
Asked what tech companies should be doing, Ardern replied: “much more.”
Ardern said the next step was to focus on prevention, looking at how people are finding or coming across hateful or terror-motivating content online and perhaps becoming radicalized.
“That’s where we are really interested in the ongoing work around algorithms and the role that we can all play to ensure that online platforms don’t become a place of radicalization,” she said.
A Christchurch Call conference earlier this year was attended by the United States and Britain.


MENA Effie Awards announces 2021 winners

This year’s Most Effective Agency Network title was awarded to FP7 McCann, which bagged the highest number of awards. (Supplied)
This year’s Most Effective Agency Network title was awarded to FP7 McCann, which bagged the highest number of awards. (Supplied)
Updated 25 November 2021

MENA Effie Awards announces 2021 winners

This year’s Most Effective Agency Network title was awarded to FP7 McCann, which bagged the highest number of awards. (Supplied)
  • The 13th edition of the awards program celebrates marketing effectiveness

DUBAI: The MENA Effie Awards, the regional edition of the globally renowned marketing industry honours, announced its 2021 winners at an awards ceremony in Dubai on Nov. 24.

After a brief hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, the awards made a comeback this year, recording a 40 percent increase in entries from 2019.

This year’s grand prix went to FP7 McCann Dubai for the “The Bread Exam” campaign for the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation. The Most Effective Advertising Agency Office of the Year title was awarded to FP7 McCann Dubai, while Omnicom Group’s PHD Dubai was named Most Effective Media Agency Office of the Year.

This year’s Most Effective Agency Network title was awarded to FP7 McCann, which bagged the highest number of awards by far across its network of agencies, including McCann Health and Momentum.

“Firstly, it was so good to see the industry come together for the first time since the pandemic started. Secondly, this being the pandemic Effies, every piece of work deserved double the applause as it was made amidst terrific stresses and restrictions,” Tahaab Rais, president of SLC and regional head of strategy and truth central at FP7 McCann MENAT, told Arab News.

He added that the record number of awards at this year’s event, as well as securing Most Effective Advertising Agency and Network of the Year for the 8th consecutive year, is “a testament to how if we, collectively and consistently, outthink, outwork and outcare as brands, agencies, and people, you do end up coming out on top all things being equal.”

Luca Allam, CEO of PHD MENA, said: “Delivering marketing effectiveness for our clients is PHD’s priority. For the last few years, PHD has held a proud track record at the Effies. We are courageous enough to make leaps, we are not afraid to creatively push the boundaries, and this award validates this effort. We are thrilled to be consistently delivering growth for our clients through great and innovative work.”

Other winners on the night included Wunderman Thompson, which bagged 13 awards, TBWA\RAAD shone after picking up 11 trophies, and Havas Middle East and the BBDO network both won five awards each.

The full list of winners can be viewed here.


Tunisia court frees TV host held over comments on president

Tunisia court frees TV host held over comments on president
Updated 25 November 2021

Tunisia court frees TV host held over comments on president

Tunisia court frees TV host held over comments on president
  • Zitouna TV presenter Amer Ayad had been arrested in October along with MP Abdellatif al-Alaoui, who appeared on his show
  • Both criticised the president's Sept. 29 appointment of Najla Bouden as Tunisia's first female prime minister

TUNIS: A Tunisian military court on Thursday ordered the release of a television journalist arrested last month after strongly criticizing President Kais Saied, his lawyer said.
Zitouna TV presenter Amer Ayad had been arrested in October along with MP Abdellatif Al-Alaoui, who appeared on his show.
The pair were held on charges of “plotting against state security,” Ayad’s lawyer Samir Ben Omar said at the time.
In the show, they both criticized the president’s Sept. 29 appointment of Najla Bouden as Tunisia’s first female prime minister.
Ayad was released on parole Thursday, Ben Omar said.
His trial continues, however, and the next hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 20, the lawyer added.
Alaoui, a MP for the Al-Karama party, had been released a few days after his arrest.
Al-Karama is an ally of the Ennahdha movement which had the largest number of seats in the parliament that Saied suspended in July.
On July 25, citing an “imminent threat,” Saied also sacked the government and put himself in charge of the prosecution.
On Sept. 22, he suspended parts of the constitution and installed rule by decree.
Alaoui had branded Saied’s measures a “coup” in the show hosted by Ayad.
Zitouna TV is considered close to Ennahdha and its ally Al-Karama.