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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Creating Frankenstein: Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative footprint in Africa

Creating Frankenstein: Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative footprint in Africa

By James M. Dorsey

Annotated remarks at Terrorism in Africa seminar, Singapore 18 January 2017

There is much debate about what spurs political violence. The explanations are multi-fold. There is one aspect that I’d like to discuss tonight as it relates to Africa and that is the role of Saudi Arabia. Let me be clear: With the exception of a handful of countries, none of which are in Africa, Saudi Arabia, that is to say the government, the religious establishment and members of the ruling family and business community, does not fund violence.

It has however over the last half century launched the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, pumping up to $100 billion dollars into ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.[1] That campaign has succeeded in making ultra-conservatism a force in Muslim religious communities across the globe. It involves the promotion of an intolerant, supremacist, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam that even where it rejects involvement in politics creates an environment that in given circumstances serves as a breeding ground, but more often fosters a mindset in which militancy and violence against the other is not beyond the pale.

What that campaign has done, certainly in Muslim majority countries in Africa, is to ensure that representatives of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism have influence in society as well as the highest circles of government. This is important because contrary to widespread beliefs, the Saudi campaign is not primarily about religion, it’s about geopolitics, it’s about a struggle with Iran for hegemony in the Muslim world. As a result, it’s about anti-Shiism and a ultra-conservative narrative that counters that of Shiism and what remains of Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary zeal.

The campaign also meant that at times resolving the question whether the kingdom maintains links to violent groups takes one into murky territory. Again, I want to be clear, certainly with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates in Africa and elsewhere, and even before with the emergence of Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia has made countering jihadism a cornerstone of its policy. That is however easier said than done.

What is evident in Africa is that the kingdom or at least prominent members of its clergy appear to have maintained wittingly or unwittingly some degree of contact with jihadist groups, including IS affiliates. What I want to do in the time I have is anecdotally illustrate the impact of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism on three African states – Nigeria, Niger and Mali – and how this at times relates to political violence in the region.

Let’s start with Nigeria. One of the earliest instances in which Saudi Arabia flexed its expanding soft power in West Africa was in 1999 when Zamfara, a region where Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram has been active, became the first Nigerian state to adopt Sharia. A Saudi official stood next to Governor Ahmed Sani when he made the announcement. Freedom of religion scholar Paul Marshall recalls seeing some years later hundreds of Saudi-funded motorbikes in the courtyard of the governor’s residence. They had been purchased to enforce gender segregation in public transport. Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the religious and cultural attaché at the Saudi embassy in Abuja declared in 2004 that the kingdom had been monitoring the application of Islamic law in Nigeria “with delight.”[2]

Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, local politicians in Zamfara were forging an opportunistic alliance with Saudi Arabia. If geopolitics was the Saudi driver, domestic politics was what motivated at least some of their local partners. Nonetheless, the lines between militant but peaceful politics and violence were often blurry. Political violence analyst Jacob Zenn asserts that Boko Haram even has some kind of representation in the kingdom.[3] A Boko Haram founder who was killed in 2009, Muhammad Yusuf, was granted refuge by the kingdom in 2004 to evade a Nigerian military crackdown. In Mecca, he forged links with like-minded Salafi clerics[4] that proved to be more decisive than his debates with Nigerian clerics who were critical of his interpretation of Islam.[5]

Once back in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, Yusuf built with their assistance a state within a state centred around the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque and a compound in the city centre on land bought with the help of his father-in-law. Yusuf’s group had its own institutions, including a Shura or advisory council, a religious police force that enforced Islamic law, and a rudimentary welfare, microfinance and job creation system.[6]

It operated under a deal struck in talks in Mecca brokered by a prominent Salafi cleric between a dissident Boko Haram factional leader identified as Aby Muhammed and a close aide to former Nigerian President Jonathan Goodwill.[7] Under the agreement Yusuf pledged not to preach violence and to distance himself from separatist groups, an understanding he later violated. Boko Haram has further suggested that before joining IS, it had met with Al Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia.[8]  Moreover, a Boko Haram operative responsible for attacking a church in Nigeria reportedly spent months in Saudi Arabia prior to the attack.[9]

Yusuf’s religious teacher, Sheikh Ja’afar Adam, a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina, presided over a popular mosque in the Nigerian city of Kano that helped him build a mass audience. Adam’s popularity allowed him to promote colleagues, many of whom were also graduates of the same university in Medina, who became influential preachers and government officials. Adam was liberally funded by Al-Muntada al-Islami Trust, a London-based charity with ties to Saudi Arabia[10] that has repeatedly been accused by Nigerian intelligence a British peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, of having links to Boko Haram and serving as a platform for militant Islamic scholars.[11] Al Muntada, which operates a mosque and a primary school in London, has denied the allegations while a UK Charity Commission investigation failed to substantiate the allegations. Kenyan and Somali intelligence nonetheless suspected Al-Muntada of also funding Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, Al Shabab.[12]

Among scholars hosted by Al Muntada are Mohammad Al Arifi, a Saudi preacher who argues that “the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honour for the believer.” He also reasons that the Muslim world would not have suffered humiliation had it followed “the Quranic verses that deal with fighting the infidels and conquering their countries say that they should convert to Islam, pay the jizya poll tax, or be killed.”[13]

Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, a Saudi academic, is another Al Muntada favourite. Al-Fawzan advises the faithful that “if (a) person is an infidel, even if this person is my mother or father, God forbid, or my son or daughter; I must hate him, his heresy, and his defiance of Allah and His prophet. I must hate his abominable deeds.”[14] Organizationally, the charity also maintained close ties to major Saudi funding organizations, including the Muslim World League (MWL), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation,[15] a Saudi governmental non-nongovernmental organization that was shut down in the wake of 9/11 because of its jihadist ties.

Adam publicly condemned Yusuf after he took over Boko Haram. In response Yusuf in 2007 order the assassination of Adam, a protégé of the Saudi-funded Izala Society (formally known as the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah), which sprang up in northern Nigeria in the late 1970s to campaign against Sufi practices and has since gained ground in several West African states. Much like Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism’s relationship to jihadism, Izala after spawning Boko Haram became one of its main targets. The group has since the killing of Adam gunned down several other prominent Saudi-backed clerics.

Nigerian journalists and activists see a direct link between the influx of Saudi funds into Yusuf’s stomping ground in northern Nigeria and greater intolerance that rolled back the influence of Sufis that had dominated the region for centuries and sought to marginalize Shiites. “They built their own mosques with Saudi funds so that they will not follow ‘Kafirs’ in prayers & they erected their own madrasa schools where they indoctrinate people on the deviant teachings of Wahhabism. With Saudi petro-dollars, these Wahhabis quickly spread across towns & villages of Northern Nigeria… This resulted in countless senseless inter-religious conflicts that resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Nigerians on both sides.” said Shiite activist Hairun Elbinawi.[16]

Adam started his career as a young preacher in Izala, a Salafist movement founded in the late 1970s by prominent judge and charismatic orator Abubakr Gumi who was the prime facilitator of Saudi influence and the rise of Salafism in northern Nigeria. A close associate, Gumi represented northern Nigeria at gatherings of the Muslim World League starting in the 1960s, was a member of the consultative council of the Islamic University of Medina in the 1970s and was awarded for his efforts with the King Faisal Prize in 1987. All along, Gumi and Izala benefitted from generous Saudi financial support for its anti-Sufi and anti-Shiite campaigns.[17]

Adam and Gumi’s close ties to the kingdom did not mean that they uncritically adopted Saudi views. Their ultra-conservative views did not prevent them from at times adopting positions that took local circumstances in northern Nigeria into account at the expense of ultra-conservative rigidity. Adam’s questioning of the legitimacy of democracy, for example, did not stop him becoming for a period of time a government official in the state of Kano. In another example, Gumi at one point urged Muslim women to vote because “politics is more important than prayer,” a position that at the time would have been anathema to Saudi-backed ultra-conservative scholars. Similarly, Adam suggested that Salafists and Kano’s two major Sufi orders, viewed by Saudi puritans as heretics, should have equal shares of an annual, public Ramadan service.[18]

Peregrino Brimah, a trained medical doctor who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at colleges in New York never gave much thought while growing up in Nigeria to the fact that clerics increasingly were developing links to Saudi Arabia. “You could see the money, the big ones were leading the good life, they ran scholarship programs. In fact, I was offered a scholarship to study at King Fahd University in Riyadh. I never thought about it until December 2015 when up to a 1,000 Shiites were killed by the military in northern Nigeria,” Brimah said.[19] “Since I started looking at it, I’ve realized how successful, how extraordinarily successful the Wahhabis have been.”

Brimah decided to stand up for Shiite rights after the incident in which the military arrested prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky following a clash with members of Shiites in Kaduna state.[20] The Nigerian military confirmed that it had attacked sites in the ancient university town Zaria after hundreds of Shia demonstrators had blocked a convoy of Nigeria's army chief General Tukur Buratai in an alleged effort to kill him. Military police said Shiites had crawled through tall grass towards Buratai's vehicle "with the intent to attack the vehicle with [a] petrol bomb" while others "suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque.” Scores were killed in the incident.[21] A phone call to Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari in which King Salman expressed his support for the government’s fight against terrorist groups was widely seen as Saudi endorsement of the military’s crackdown on the country’s Shiite minority. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted Salman as saying that Islam condemned such “criminal acts” and that the kingdom in a reference to Iran opposed foreign interference in Nigeria.[22]

Brimah’s defense of the Shiites has cost him dearly and further illustrated the degree to which Saudi-funded Wahhabism and Salafism had altered the nature of Nigerian society. “I lost everything I had built on social media the minute I stood up for the Shiites. I had thousands of fans. Suddenly, I was losing 2-300 followers a day. My brother hasn’t spoken to me since. The last thing he said to me is: ‘how can you adopt Shiite ideology?’ I raised the issue in a Sunni chat forum. It became quickly clear that these attitudes were not accidental. They are the product of Saudi-sponsored teachings of serious hatred. People don’t understand what they are being taught. They rejoice when thousand Shiites are killed. Even worse is the fact that they hate people like me who stand up for the Shiites even more than they hate the Shiite themselves.”

In response to Brimah’s writing about the clash, Buratai, the Nigerian army chief, invited him to for a chat. Brimah politely declined. After again, accusing the military of having massacred Shiites, Buratai’s spokesman, Col. SK Usman, adopting the Saudi line of Shiites being Iranian stooges, accused Brimah of being on the Islamic republic’s payroll. “Several of us hold you in high esteem based on perceived honesty, intellectual prowess and ability to speak your mind. That was before, but the recent incident of attempted assassination of the Chief of Army Staff by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and subsequent events and actions by some groups and individuals such as you made one to have a rethink. I was quite aware of your concerted effort to smear the good name and reputation of the Chief of Army Staff to the extent of calling for his resignation. He went out of his way to write to you and even invited you for constructive engagement. But because you have dubious intents, you cleverly refused…. God indeed is very merciful for exposing you. Let me make it abundantly clear to you that your acts are not directed to the person of the Chief of Army Staff, they have far reaching implication on our national security. Please think about it and mend your ways and refund whatever funds you coveted for the campaign of calumny,” Usman wrote in the mail.[23] Brimah’s inbox has since then been inundated with anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian writings in what he believes is a military-inspired campaign.

Brimah was not the only one to voice opposition to Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism. Murtada Muhammad Gusau, Chief Imam of Nagazi-Uvete Jumu’at Mosque and Alhaji Abdurrahman Okene’ s Mosque in Nigeria’s Okene Kogi State took exception to the kingdom’s global effort to criminalize blasphemy, legitimize in the process curbs on free speech, and reinforce growing Muslim intolerance towards any unfettered discussion of the faith.  In a lengthy article in a Nigerian newspaper, Gusau debunked the Saudi-inspired crackdown on alleged blasphemists citing multiple verses from the Qur’an that advocate patience and tolerance and reject the killing of those that curse or berate the Prophet Mohammed.[24]

Brimah and Gusau were among the relatively few willing to invoke the wrath of spreading ultra-conservative, sectarian forms of Islam across a swath of Africa at an often dizzying pace. In the process, African politicians and ultraconservatives in cooperation with Saudi Arabia have let a genie of intolerance, discrimination, supremacy and bigotry out of the bottle.  In the Sahel state of Niger, Issoufou Yahaya recalls his student days in the 1980s when there wasn’t a single mosque on his campus. “Today, we have more mosques here than we have lecture rooms. So much has changed in such a short time,” he said.[25]

One cannot avoid noticing Saudi Arabia’s role in this development. The flags of Niger and Saudi Arabia feature on a monument close to the office tower from which Yahaya administers the history of department of Université Abdou Moumouni in the Niger capital of Niamey. Sheikh Boureima Abdou Daouda, an Internet-savvy graduate of the Islamic University of Medina and the Niamey university’s medical faculty as well as an author and translator of numerous books, attracts tens of thousands of worshippers to the Grand Mosque where he insists that “We must adopt Islam, we cannot adapt it.”[26] Daouda serves as an advisor to Niger president Mahamadou Issoufou and chairs the League of Islamic Scholars and Preachers of the Countries of the Sahel. “Before, people here turned to religion when they reached middle age, and particularly after they retired. But now, it is above all the young ones. What we see is a flourishing of Islam.” Daouda said.[27]

What Daouda did not mention was that with Africa, the battleground where Iran put up its toughest cultural and religious resistance to Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism, was witnessing the world’s highest rates of conversion to Shi’a Islam since many Sunni tribes in southern Iraq adopted Shiism in the 19th century. Shiites were until recently virtually non-existent in Africa with the exception of migrants from Lebanon and the Indian subcontinent. A Pew Research survey suggests that that has changed dramatically. The number of Shiites has jumped from 0 in 1980 to 12 percent of Nigeria’s 90-million strong Shia community in 2012. Shiites account today for 21 percent of Chad’s Muslims, 20 percent in Tanzania and eight percent in Gaza, according to the survey.[28]

Source: Pew Research Center

Ironically, Mali a nation where Shiism has not made inroads and where only two percent of the populations identifies itself as Ahmadis, an Islamic sect widely viewed by conservative Muslims as heretics, is the only country outside of Pakistan that Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a militant anti-Ahmadi, Pakistan-based group with a history of Saudi backing, identifies by name as a place where it operates overseas.[29] The fact that AMTKN, which says that it operates in 12 countries, identified Mali is indicative of the sway of often Saud-educated imams and religious leaders that reaches from the presidential palace in the capital Bamako into the country’s poorest villages. The government at times relies on Salafis rather than its own officials to mediate with jihadists in the north or enlist badly needed European support in the struggle against them. Moreover, cash-rich Salafi leaders and organizations provide social services in parts of Mali where the government is absent. In 2009, the Saudi-backed High Islamic Council of Mali (HICM) proved powerful enough to prevent the president from signing into law a parliamentary bill that would have enhanced women’s rights. Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita reportedly phones HICM chief Mahmoud Dicko twice a week. Malians no longer simply identify each other as Muslims and instead employ terms such as Wahhabi, Sufi and Shia that carry with them either derogatory meanings or assertions of foreign associations.[30]

Dicko condemned the November 2015 jihadist attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako in which 20 people were killed but argued that world powers cannot enjoy peace by fighting God through promotion of homosexuality. Dicko said the perpetrators were not Muslims but mostly rappers with drug-related charge sheets. “They rebel and take arms against their society. This is a message from God that the masters of the world, the major powers, which are trying to promote homosexuality, must understand. These powers are trying to force the world to move towards homosexuality. These world powers have attacked the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) into his grave... These masters of this world, who think that the world belongs to them, must understand that we will not attack God and escape safely. They cannot provoke God and get his clemency, his mercy. They cannot have peace and peace with such provocations towards the Creator of the world down here. They will not have peace. God will not leave them alone.”[31]

Like elsewhere, ultra-conservatism as a cornerstone of Saudi soft power has proven in Mali to be a double-edged sword for the kingdom and its beneficiaries. Iyad Ag Ghaly nicknamed The Strategist, a Malian Tuareg militant who led tribal protests in the 1990s and emerged in 2012 at the head of Ansar Eddine, one of the jihadist groups that overran the north of Mali, found ultra-conservative religion while serving as a Malian diplomat in Jeddah. A Sufi and a singer who occasionally worked with Tinariwen, the Grammy Award winning band formed by veterans of Tuareg armed resistance in the 1980s and 1990s, co-organized an internationally acclaimed annual music festival outside of Timbuktu that attracted the likes of Robert Plant, Bono and Jimmy Buffett, and hedonistically enjoyed parties, booze and tobacco, Ag Ghaly grew a beard while in Saudi Arabia. His meetings with Saudi-based jihadists persuaded the Malian government to cut short his stint in the kingdom and call him home.[32] Pakistani missionaries of Tablighi Ja’amat, an ultra-conservative global movement that has at times enjoyed Saudi backing despite theological differences with Wahhabism and Salafism, helped convince Ag Ghaly to abandon his music and hedonistic lifestyle. He opted for an austere interpretation of Islam and ultimately jihadism.[33]

This pattern is not uniquely African even if Africa is the continent where Iranian responses to Saudi promotion of Sunni ultra-conservatism have primarily been cultural and religious in nature rather than through the use of militant and armed proxies as in the Middle East. It is nonetheless a battle that fundamentally alters the fabric of those African societies in which it is fought; a battle that potentially threatens the carefully constructed post-colonial cohesion of those societies. The potential threat is significantly enhanced by poor governance and the rise of jihadist groups like Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Al Shabab in Somalia, whose ideological roots can be traced back to ultra-conservatism but whose political philosophy views Saudi Arabia as an equally legitimate target because its rulers have deviated from the true path. At the bottom line, both Africans and Saudis are struggling to come to grips with a phenomenon they opportunistically harnessed to further their political interests; one that they no longer control and that has become as much a liability as it was an asset.

Thank you.

[1] Sohail Nakhoda, Keynote: Workshop on Islamic Developments in Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 15 November 2015; Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad Bin Talal, “What Has Broken? Political, Sociological, Cultural and Religious Changes in the Middle East over the Last 25 Years”, S R Nathan Distinguished Lecture, Middle East Institute, 17 November 2015,,_As_Given_14.11.15.pdf  / David Aufhauser, An Assessment of Current Efforts to Combat Terrorism Financing, Testimony of Hon. David D Aufhauser, Washington DC: Government Printing Office, June 15, 2004, p. 46.
[2] Email exchange with the author, 11 January 2016 / Pew Research Center, The Global Spread of Wahhabi Islam: How Great a Threat? 3 May 2005,
[3] Jacob Zenn, Boko Haram’s International Connections, Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 14 January 2013,
[4] Andrew Walker, Join us or die: the birth of Boko Haram, The Guardian, 4 February 2015,
[5] Ahmad Salkida, Muhammad Yusuf: Teaching and preaching controversies,, 28 February 2009,
[6] Ibid. Walker
[7] Agence France Press, Nigeria not talking to Boko Haram Islamists, president says, 18 November 2012, / Ibid. Walker
[8] Monica Mark, Boko Haram vows to fight until Nigeria establishes sharia law, The Guardian, 27 January 2012,
[9] Ibid. Zenn
[10] Alex Thurston, How far does Saudi Arabia’s influence go? Look at Nigeria, The Washington Post, 31 October 2016,
[11] Jamie Doward, Peer raises fears over UK charity's alleged links to Boko Haram, The Observer, 8 September 2012,
[12] Interview with Islam scholar, 04 November 2016
[13] The Middle East Media Research Institute, Saudi Cleric Muhammad Al-Arifi: 'The Desire to Shed Blood, to Smash Skulls, and to Sever Limbs for the Sake of Allah Is an Honor for the Believer,' 12 August 2010,
[14] Stand for Peace, Briefing document: Month of Mercy Conference, 2012,
[15] Samuel Westrop, Grooming Jihadists, Gatestone Institute, 28 July 2014,  
[16] Hairun Elbinawi, How Wahhabism Made The North Lethally Intolerant: Gratitude To Nigerian Christians,, 7 February 2016,
[17] Ousmane Kane, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria, Leiden: Brill, 2003
[18] Ibid. Thurston
[19] Interview with the author, 8 February 2016
[20] Hadassah Egbedi, The Arrest of Sheikh Ibrahim Zazaky Revealed these Four Things, Ventures, 17 December 2015,
[21] Al Jazeera, Nigeria accused of killing hundreds of Shia Muslims, 16 December 2015,
[22] Arab News, King Salman vows support to Nigeria’s fight against terror, 19 December 2015,
[23] Email dated 9 January 2016 from Col. SK Usman to Peregrino Brimah, provided by Brimah to the author.
[24] Murtada Muhammad Gusau, Kano Killing: What Islam says about blasphemy and killings, The Premium Times, 5 June 2016,
[25] Ibid. Trofimov, Jihad Comes to Africa
[26] Abdourahmane Idrissa, The Invention of Order: Republican Codes and Islamic Law in Niger, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Florida, 2009,
[27] Ibid. Trofimov
[28] Pew Research Center, The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, 9 August 2012, / Yaroslav Trofimov, With Iran-Backed Conversions, Shiites Gain Ground in Africa, The Wall Street Journal, 10 May 2016,
[29] Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat,
[30] Jack Watling and Paul Raymond, The Struggle for Mali, The Guardian, 25 November 2015,
[31] Kassim Traore, Mali : L’Imam Mahamoud Dicko à propos des actes terroristes dans le monde : «Les maîtres du monde doivent cesser de faire la promotion de l’homosexualité. Ceux qui posent des actes terroristes sont des anciens rappeurs, ceux qu’on appelle la racaille…,, 29 November 2015,
[32] Julius Cavendish, The Fearsome Tuareg Uprising in Mali: Less Monolithic than Meets the Eye, Time, 30 March 2012,,8599,2110673,00.html?xid=gonewsedit
[33] Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts, New York: Simon & Shuster, Kindle edition

Monday, January 16, 2017

Qatari backtracking on labour rights and cooperation with Russia reflects new world order

Vladimir Putin gives Sheikh Tamim a falcon

By James M. Dorsey

A Qatari decision to backtrack on minimal improvements of the terms of employment of migrant workers, who account for a majority of the Gulf state’s population, and a Qatari investment in Russian oil company Rosneft PJSC, symbolize the emergence of a new global power structure with the rise of populists in the United States and Europe, and Russia projecting itself as a key player on the world stage.

The message is that countries like Qatar that has been under pressure to clean up its human rights act in the wake of winning hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup no longer feel the need to at least pay lip service to human rights and trade union activists clamouring for an end to kafala, the labour sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Similarly, the Qatar Investment Authority’s decision to invest $5 billion in Rosneft as part of a $10.6 billion deal that also involved Glencore Plc had as much to do with geopolitics as with economics. Qatar saw the investment as a way to strengthen political links with Russia as well as develop new business opportunities.

The deal was remarkable for a country that uses investment as a tool to forge relations. Russia and Qatar have not been the closest of friends. Russia suspects Qatar of supporting militant Islamist and jihadist groups in Syria and of having done so earlier in Chechnya when Russia was battling Chechen Islamists there. Russian agents in 2004 assassinated Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital of Doha.

A statement after a recent phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as Russian warplanes bombarded Aleppo said the two leaders had discussed ways to “further promote political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation.” The statement made no mention of Syria.

All of this is not to say that Qatar is switching allegiances. Dealing with Russia is hedging its bets in recognition of the bear’s rise and the rise of populists in the West willing to deal with Russia. At the same time, Qatar has said it is committed to investing more than $35 billion in the US over the next five years, including $10 billion in infrastructure. “A significant part of Qatar’s economic portfolio is its robust relationship with the United States,” said Qatari businessman Muhammad Al Misned in a Forbes magazine op-ed.

Qatar’s hedging of its bets comes as it together with other backers of Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad suffered severe setbacks because of Russian backing for the Syrian leader and the fall of Aleppo, the rebels’ last urban stronghold. The Russian-backed Syrian advances have left Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with few good options to shape the battlefield by funding and arming the rebels.

The rise of Russia and the populists appears to have emboldened Qatar to backtrack on pledges it made to reform, if not eliminate the kafala system in response to pressure from human rights and trade union activists using the Guf state’s World Cup hosting rights as leverage. In a move that has undermined whatever confidence existed in Qatar’s sincerity and willingness to work with its critics, Tamim backtracked on the easing of exit visa restrictions for migrant workers two weeks after a long-heralded law was enacted making changes to the controversial system.

The law introduced an automated system operated by the interior ministry to streamline exit visas and remove the power of employers by taking away from them the right to decide whether a worker could leave the country or not. Tamim overruled the law in early January by stipulating that workers would have to inform their recruiter.

In response, Human Rights Watch charged that “changes to the labour law that took effect in 2016 will not protect migrant workers from the serious abuses that characterize Qatar’s construction industry and other low-paid sectors of its economy… Migrant workers will not be able to switch employers, even if the workers experience abuse, and will still need their employer’s permission to leave the country.”

Qatar’s backtracking followed a victory in a Swiss court by world soccer body FIFA that has direct impact on the debate over the Gulf state’s labour regime. The court rejected a request by the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) and two Bangladeshi unions that it rule against FIFA’s awarding of the World Cup to Qatar without first demanding assurances about “fundamental human and labour rights of migrant construction workers, including the abolition of the kafala system.”

The court decision coupled with the rise of populists who have less concern for human rights is likely to diminish FIFA’s already weak resolve to pressure Qatar to fundamentally reform if not abolish kafala. FIFA president Gianni Infantino nonetheless insisted last month that "we will put pressure, we will continue to do that."

The turning tide could prompt activists to attempt to step up pressure on Qatar with calls for boycotts. The Washington-based Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE) said last month that it was stepping up efforts to persuade travellers from Boston and other US cities to avoid flying on Qatar's state-owned airline because of what it alleges are human rights violations by Qatar as well as Qatar Airways. AWARE has used billboard ads in US cities serviced by Qatar Airways, op-ed pieces and social media to urge travellers to boycott the airline.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Qatar and the 'Voiceless Victims' mystery (Reposted by

By Brian Whitaker

The 2022 World Cup has turned into a mixed blessing for Qatar. What at first seemed like a brilliant opportunity to showcase the small Gulf state has instead brought a torrent of bad publicity – some because of the way Qatar was chosen by football's corrupt governing body, Fifa, to host the contest and some because of the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers, thousands of whom are employed in the construction of Qatar's new stadiums.
Over the last few years numerous rights organisations have focused attention on the migrant workers' plight and those efforts, along with critical media reporting, have stirred the Qatari government into making some reforms – though not as many as campaigners would like.
In the midst of that activity a new "human rights" group emerged. Known as "Voiceless Victims" and ostensibly located in France, it had a website and a network of social media accounts ... but a false office address.
The identity of its five named staff was also puzzling. Biographical information about them was scanty and contradictory, and it seemed they had also chosen to become invisible. The organisations that Voiceless Victims approached with a view to cooperating had contact by email and on a few rare occasions by phone but never saw or met any of its workers.
Last month, following investigations by Amnesty International (one of the organisations that received emails), Voiceless Victims was exposed as a fake

Previous posts on this topic:

But who was behind this fakery, and what was its purpose? As yet, there are theories but no clear answers. In the hope of shedding more light on this mystery I have pieced together an account of Voiceless Victims' known activities. In compiling it, I am grateful to Amnesty for providing help with chronology and copies of material that has been deleted from the internet.
Constructing a network
The first recorded social media activity by Voiceless Victims came on 3 September 2015, with a crudely Islamophobic post on the Playbuzz website. It posed a question in Spanish – "What will life be like in Seville in five years?" – and invited viewers to click on a series of pictures contrasting life today with life in the future. The pictures suggested that within five years pork would be banned in Seville, that Spaniards would be forced to convert to Islam and "romance" would be stifled. 
The Voiceless Victims account on Playbuzz had been registered two days earlier using the name "Luz Bardem" – who was later described on the organisation's website as its "social media manager" and "campaigns coordinator".
Like everyone else allegedly working for Voiceless Victims, Luz Bardem is surrounded in mystery. This is her profile picture as it appeared on the website:

Luz Bardem, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
According to the now-deleted website, she previously "worked in public affairs for a Spanish PR agency" but it didn't name the agency. Aside from her work for Voiceless Victims, Google searches reveal no further trace of Luz Bardem. She did once have a Facebook page where the profile picture showed two people in dark glasses, but that too is now deleted:

Luz Bardem, as seen on her deleted Facebook page
September and October 2015 brought a flurry of other activity from Voiceless Victims on social media. In September it set up a Twitter account (@vlvictims) and another called "I Support Qatar Workers" (@ISQW2022) which was also given a Facebook page. 
Other accounts created around the same time were @HR_AreNotOption ("HR" meaning "human rights"), "Free MigrantWorkers" (@wilsonjane4911) and @AndrewSven69 on Twitter, plus Bloody Football 2022 (@bloody_football) on both Twitter and Facebook. It's unclear whether these other accounts were set up by Voiceless Victims but subsequent online activity strongly suggests a connection.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page in the name of Daniel Faulkner – another member of Voiceless Victims' enigmatic workforce – was suddenly updated after apparently being dormant for more than two years. 
On 13 October, Faulkner announced: "Started studying at UAL: University of the Arts London" and added a generic male face as his profile picture. 
But Faulkner's university course seems to have lasted only a week because on 21 October he posted again: "Started working at London, United Kingdom". He has not posted on Facebook since.
Although there are dozens of Facebook accounts with the name "Daniel Faulkner", there's no doubt that this was the one connected with Voiceless Victims. His "likes" included Voiceless Victims itself, as well as "I Support Qatar Workers" and Bloody Football 2022.
Bizarrely, though, the Voiceless Victims website gave a completely different account of Faulkner's background, describing him as an "expert in international development research":
"Daniel joined Voiceless Victims in 2015 after completing a MPA [Master of Public Administration degree] in International Development at UCL [University College London]. Prior to this, Daniel spent two years in Angola where he worked as a field project manager for a humanitarian organisation."
As with Luz Bardem and the anonymous PR agency, Voiceless Victims didn't name Faulkner's previous "humanitarian" employer.

Daniel Faulkner, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
A non-viral video
Activation of these various accounts paved the way for the release of a short video and its promotion through social media. Entitled "Qatar World Cup 2022 – First Official Footage", the 73-second video was presented in the style of an imaginary report from a football commentator at the end of the 2022 final. It included subtitles which said: "By the time the World Cup is actually held in 2022 more than 4,000 workers will die in Qatar" and "More than 62 workers will die for each game played during the 2022 World Cup". 
(These claims, extrapolated from figures about mortality rates which had been circulating for a couple of years, were somewhat misleading. There was little doubt that mortality rates among migrant workers were high but the Qatari government didn't keep records. Figures quoted by some of the media reports and 2022-related campaigns had thus relied on other sources, such as foreign embassies. However, these were estimates which included deaths from all causes – not just work-related – and included migrants who were working in Qatar but not building football stadiums. For workers of some nationalities no figures were available.)
The World Cup video looked slick and professionally made but there was no indication of who had produced it or paid for it. It first surfaced on 19 October, in three locations on the internet. "Bloody Football 2022" posted it to YouTube, as did someone using the name Kelly Brennan. It also appeared on Vimeo, posted in the name of Alisha Owen. All three postings acompanied the video with identical text. The "Kelly Brennan" and "Alisha Owen" accounts seem to have been created specifically for this purpose and have not been used since.
On 20 October, a copy of the video was uploaded to YouTube by an account called "Lisa Loza" whose other postings are mainly videos advertising products and services.
Also on 20 October, the video appeared on Bloody Football's Facebook page, where it was "liked" by Voiceless Victims' "expert in international development research", Daniel Faulkner. On the same day @HR_AreNotOption, @ISQW2022, @AndrewSven69 and @wilsonjane4911 began promoting the video on Twitter – as did @bloody_football and @vlvictims a day later.
Meanwhile, a dormant Twitter account registered the previous July in the name of "Zak Williamson" suddenly woke up. Over the next week it posted more than 120 tweets promoting the video. With one exception, all the tweets posted by this account before it fell silent again in December 2015 were about Qatar, Fifa and the World Cup.
On October 22, the video was uploaded to CNN iReport by a newly-registered account called "VlessVictims" and to Vimeo by Voiceless Victims.
Voiceless Victims later claimed in a press release that its campaign promoting the video "was a viral success and spread like wildfire on social media". It said the video itself had "reached millions of people all over Europe and the Middle East". This was an overstatement, to say the least. More than a year after the video appeared, viewing figures recorded at the various locations where it is known to have been posted are as follows:
YouTube: Lisa Loza7,901
YouTube: Voiceless Victims1,406
YouTube: Bloody Football 2022681
Vimeo: Voiceless Victims602
YouTube: Qatar World Cup 2022151
CNN: VlessVictims34
Vimeo: Alisha Owen27
YouTube: Kelly Brennan21
Although Voiceless Victims and those associated with it tried to attract attention by tagging popular accounts in their tweets, they were basically tweeting into a vacuum: they had very few followers of their own, sometimes not even reaching double figures.
Making contact
The video may have been a flop but Voiceless Victims had achieved something else. It had created the appearance – or rather, the illusion – of an active campaigning group which, with a bit of luck, could gain recognition and trust from the human rights community ... so long as nobody looked at it too closely.
On 20 October, as the social media campaign got under way, Voiceless Victims' alleged founder and director, "Luke Hann", sent an email to Anti-Slavery International, introducing himself, sharing a link to the "provocative viral video", and requesting them to help "spread the word". 
The email address used for this message was "". The ".in" part of the address is interesting because Voiceless Victims' website was ".org". There is no trace of a website at "", and the domain name is currently registered in Moscow.
Enter Amélie
Early in 2016 Voiceless Victims' spokesperson, "Amélie Lefebvre", entered the picture. On 11 January she posted for the first time on Twitter and Facebook, simultaneously announcing that she had become a "PR professional" and "started school" at the European Communication School in Paris.

Amélie Lefebvre, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
It wasn't long before Amelie showed interest in Amnesty International's activities regarding migrant workers in Qatar. Amnesty had been compiling a report, "The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game", which was due to be published on 31 March. The day before publication Amélie began posting a series of tweets which publicised Voiceless Victims but also tagged one of Amnesty's Twitter accounts and included a hashtag that Amnesty had created – #worldcupshame. Voiceless Victims' Facebook page hailed the Amnesty report as "important" and Amelie retweeted tweets by several of Amnesty's staff.
While this may have been perfectly innocent, with hindsight it looks as if Voiceless Victims were trying to get themselves noticed – in Amnesty's words, "to insert themselves into social media conversation on the topic and to promote their profile".
Besides the tweeting, it transpired that "Amelie" had also been seeking to establish direct contact with Amnesty. Starting in late March and continuing until August, she sent a series of emails – seven in all – to various people working at Amnesty. Basically, they were all very similar, introducing herself and Voiceless Victims and expressing a desire to cooperate with Amnesty "in our next move".
Oddly, though, she seemed in no hurry to take the disussions with Amnesty further. Early in April, when Amnesty's press office offered to put her in touch by phone with the relevant staff, Amélie replied that she was on a "mission" until 1 May and contactable only be email.
On 2 May, in apparent confirmation of this, Amélie posted a tweet in French saying she had just returned from a month-long trip to India which she described as "une mission humanitaire". The purpose of this trip – if it took place at all – is a complete mystery and when invited by another Twitter user to share her experiences of India, Amelie declined. Considering that Amélie was supposed to be Voiceless Victims' spokesperson and "a PR professional" she might have been expected to be more eager to talk about it. 

The back of Amélie Lefebvre, as seen on her deleted Facebook page
Soon after that, Amélie was off on her travels again, or so she claimed. On 29 May she tweeted that she was returning from another "mission" which Voiceless Victims described as "a meaningful field trip to Africa". This time she was slightly more talkative about it, but only slightly. Her 100-word "report", posted on the organisation's Facebook page, stated a few very obvious facts in extremely general terms:
"As human rights activist, I've always wanted to visit Africa. Unfortunately, human rights abuses are occurring on a daily basis in that area and child abuse is one of the more common violations. While other kids in the world are playing with toys, African children usually have to work. These poor children have a tough life; they sometimes live in areas afflicted by violence and insecurity and they are less like to get proper education than their counterparts in Asia, America and Europe. When I saw these children in Africa, it made me even more certain that we must fight ferociously for the rights.”
Amélie also seems to have forgotten to take a camera on her mission, because the only photo accompanying her account had already appeared many times on the internet.
Lengthy periods of foreign travel seem to have been a regular feature of life at Voiceless Victims, especially when others were trying to contact its staff. Its founder and director, "Luke Hann", also claimed to be travelling – and thus unable to speak on the phone – when journalists started asking questions about the organisation and its activities. 

Luke Hann, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
Qatar renews sponsorship of Barcelona football club
In July 2016, Barcelona football club's sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways came up for renewal, prompting a further burst of activity from Voiceless Victims. Between the end of June and the beginning of August, Amelie contacted various organisations, mostly by email but occasionally by phone: Anti-Slavery International, Amnesty International, Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the International Transport Workers Federation.
Voiceless Victims was inviting these organisations to collaborate with it in campaigning against renewal of Barcelona's Qatari sponsorship and it sent them copies of a draft petition. On 19 July, however, FC Barcelona announced a one-year extension of the sponsorship deal. Voiceless Victims was aware of this but didn't seem deterred and for a couple of weeks Amelie continued sending out emails about the petition. Oddly, though, the conversation in these emails never seemed to move very far forward. Amnesty noted that emails received by three of its staff on 3 August consisted of "template text as if Amelie had never emailed us before or called Amnesty International".
Becoming voiceless
Despite these semi-robotic emails from Amelie, Voiceless Victims was gradually losing its voice. Its Facebook page and the @vlvictims Twitter account both fell silent on 6 June. A month later the same thing happened to "I Support Qatar Workers" on both Twitter and Facebook. Since October there have been no further posts from "Bloody Football 2022" on either Facebook or Twitter.
In September, Voiceless Victims' website stopped functioning for a while but later returned – only to be deleted in December. By that stage, with Amnesty International and journalists from Le Monde and Forbes magazine pursuing Voiceless Victims with questions, it looked as if the people behind it were trying to cover their tracks, if in a rather piecemeal fashion. The "campaigns coordinator", Luz Bardem, deleted her Facebook page but not the Playbuzz account she had set up. Amelie Lefebvre deleted her Facebook page and her Twitter account while leaving her LinkedIn profile intact.
What was it all about?
There's a lot in the story of Voiceless Victims that simply doesn't add up. A key question is whether it was really trying to support Qatar's migrant workers or just pretending to do so. Either way, its online campaigning was plainly ineffective and contributed nothing very new or significant.
But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it was what it claimed to be: "a group a volunteers – principally composed of graduate students in the field of social sciences and professionals who are devoted to humanitarian causes". 
We might also picture them as sincere but disorganised, which could help to explain their lack of response to emails and phone calls. Conceivably their dissimulation – the false office address and staff profiles that were impossible to corroborate – might have been intended to protect them from any reprisals. But if they were so concerned about security why did they invite migrant workers in Qatar (who faced a far greater risk of reprisals if identified) to send them stories about ill-treatment by insecure email?
If there are innocent explanations for all this, Voiceless Victims has so far failed to provide them despite having had plenty of opportunity to do so. Not only that; the subsequent deletion of web pages and social media accounts when people started asking questions suggests a desire to frustrate investigations.
This points to the conclusion that Voiceless Victims was just an empty shell and that the purpose of its fakery was to create the impression of an active human rights organisation without actually being one. 
The very limited amount of public campaigning that it did consisted almost entirely of postings on social media. Voiceless Victims boasted of using "unconventional and creative" methods to campaign but there was nothing very creative about its social media posts. Many were just vague exhortations such as "Have a heart", "Lend a hand", "Stand out and make a difference". The graphics accompanying some of its posts looked slightly more creative but they were not original. Google image searches on a random sample showed they had all been copied (sometimes with adaptations) from elsewhere. The graphic used here, for example, had appeared earlier on an Italian website. Another, showing a row of light bulbs, had previously been used in Britain by the National Health Service.
Apart from the draft petition against Qatari sponsorship of Barcelona football club – circulated to activists but never implemented – Voiceless Victims' only contribution of substance was the 73-second video about the 2022 World Cup which actually said nothing that hadn't been said previously by others.
The suspicion is that Voiceless Victims was some kind of covert operation to identify individual activists, to find out who was doing what in connection with Qatar's migrant workers, and perhaps discover more about their plans.
There are several reasons for that suspicion. One is that at least two organisations received emails from Voiceless Victims containing links to a website that has been associated with cyberattacks in the past. This appeared to be a first step towards gathering information about the workings of their computer system. One of the recipients was Amnesty International where the email triggered a security alert but others may have received it without being aware of the threat it posed.
Besides proposing cooperation with Amnesty and other organisations, Voiceless Victims also asked Amnesty to keep them informed about campaign plans.
The soliciting of abuse stories from workers in Qatar was another worrying aspect: though possibly innocent but ill-conceived, it could potentially be used to entrap activists inside the country.
Nor was the Voiceless Victims affair an isolated case. There is a history of mischief-making in connection with the World Cup and Qatar's construction workers and in January 2016 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) issued the following statement:
"The ITUC has for some time been facing a disinformation campaign by unidentified persons, in connection with our campaign to defend the rights of migrant workers in Qatar including those preparing infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
"This campaign has included the dissemination of fake videos and other materials, setting up of fake social media accounts and various other techniques aimed at the ITUC and at individual people.
"This week the ITUC received confirmation that ITUC email accounts have been hacked, and falsified material inserted into emails. We anticipate that this campaign may intensify in the coming weeks with the election of a new FIFA President due on February 26 and important discussions in UN institutions ... in the first quarter of this year."
This is not to suggest Voiceless Victims was responsible for those attacks but there was clearly someone, somewhere, seeking to disrupt the work of activists.
Voiceless Victims is of course welcome to respond to any points in this article. though it has had opportunities before and has not taken them up. In the meantime there is one person who may be able to shed some light on the affair: the man who did the voiceover for the video below. He sounds like a professional sports commentator and perhaps someone, somewhere, may recognise his voice.