Leaked documents shed light on the UAE’s dark record of engaging in espionage contracts and reputation-damaging campaigns through suspicious pressure groups.
The documents are part of the Abu Dhabi Secrets investigations, based on confidential documents obtained by Mediapart and shared with members of the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network, as well as Swiss media outlets Heidi News, RSI Television, Domani (Italy), and Daraj (Lebanon).
The investigations reveal the activities of the ALP company and its role in providing intelligence services to the UAE. The documents include thousands of photos, WhatsApp messages, audio recordings, and texts that a group of hackers obtained. Initially, these hackers attempted to sell the documents, but eventually, they were handed over to journalists without any financial compensation.
The UAE contracted the services of “The King of Private Investigators” to tarnish the reputation of its opponents. Mario Brero, a seventy-year-old Swiss national also known as the “Pope of Investigators,” runs a company called Mercenaries with Ethics.
For over three decades, he has been one of the prominent directors of private intelligence companies working for Russian oligarchs and French billionaires, including Bernard Arnaud and the deposed Kazakhstani president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Since 2017, Mario Brero has been travelling at the UAE’s expense, staying in luxury hotels and restaurants, flattering his employers and targeting anyone he perceives as aligned with Qatar or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a photo likely taken in Abu Dhabi, we see a man wearing traditional Gulf attire with a half-smile on his face that cannot be accurately interpreted, but it can be said that Mario Brero’s face carries a mocking expression.
It is akin to some form of disguise or sycophancy. Both possibilities suit Brero, the owner of the Swiss ALP company for intelligence services, which received millions of dollars from Abu Dhabi in exchange for information mostly gathered from open sources and some obtained through illegal means, including espionage and privacy breaches.
Regarding Brero, what enhances the feeling of mockery is what the documents reveal in terms of conversations between him and his Emirati clients. He appears as a flattering follower, addressing his clients with titles like “Your Excellency” and using phrases like “It is a great honour for us to provide our services to your country.”
Brero is a mysterious character. He seems calm and smiling on the surface, especially in the presence of financially powerful clients. However, behind the professional and healthy façade at the company’s headquarters in Geneva is an atmosphere of fear known to anyone who has closely worked with the investigator, who has accumulated experience in the intersecting worlds of espionage, banking, and journalism.
Those who work with Brero know that he has no respect for privacy. He records everything in his office, with his team of twenty people, and in meetings with his clients wherever they meet: every call, conversation, and correspondence. He keeps the recordings in an archive that may be needed if the nature of the relationship with any person changes.
Brero never considered that he would become a victim of his own recordings, which portray him as a man from another era, mocking everything without any sensitivity or regard for any belief. His sole concern is accumulating wealth, and he does not hide any of the aforementioned details in the recordings.
The majority of the projects undertaken by Mario Brero start with invitations to sunny areas, luxurious hotels with dinner invitations and oyster consumption, and meetings to discuss secret plans and counter campaigns worth millions of dollars, accompanied by secretly taken photos of his clients.
In 2017, during the height of the UAE-Qatar dispute, the Qatar boycott by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE presented a golden opportunity for Brero, who is always looking for new clients. After two months of initial contact, Brero travelled to Abu Dhabi in response to a fully-funded invitation from the UAE.
The story began on the morning of August 7, 2017, when Brero, then 71 years old, sent a phone message from his room at the Fairmont Hotel that said, “Dear Matar, we are in Abu Dhabi, in the magnificent Fairmont suites. Thank you again for this invitation. We are at your disposal.”
Brero was in Abu Dhabi to sign a contract based on a proposal his Geneva-based company had submitted two weeks earlier. During the meeting with the Emiratis, Brero explained an 11-page plan, openly stating how ALP could help the UAE discredit its enemies through the media using what is known as Black PR. Brero clearly stated, “We can undermine their reputation in a secretive yet widespread manner by disseminating embarrassing and derogatory information.”
Not much is known about Matar. The information reveals that he was the first to meet Brero in Abu Dhabi. After receiving the WhatsApp message, he drove to the Fairmont Hotel to pick up his guests before taking them to a Lebanese restaurant. During dinner, Brero secretly took a picture of Matar, a man who appeared to be in his forties, with a neatly trimmed beard matching the rest of his local attire.
Brero wasted no time, and during dinner, he laid the groundwork for his plan, which he knew would be his golden opportunity. He passionately spoke about the power of Dark PR, saying, “Experts say Hillary Clinton lost the elections because of the fake news that spread through traditional and social media, and that’s what we will do with our opponents.”
Matar expressed great satisfaction upon hearing this, and the next day, they had another meeting, this time at a seafood restaurant. After that, Periro returned to Switzerland and sent Matar a text message that said: “To obtain actionable intelligence that can change the rules of the game based on factual information, our activities will be extremely complex, costly, and risky. We are committed to this cause. It is our first collaboration, an opportunity to support a noble cause in service to your country.”
The Map, the Plan, and the Millions
Executing Brero’s strategy and selecting the individuals involved were done through a literal “map” and a 161-page dossier called “Arnica,” named after a flower in Switzerland. It included the names of over 1,000 individuals from 18 countries, and dozens of research and charitable organizations, all of whom ALP claimed were either members of or affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. A vast network of connections was drawn, making it seem as if they were all following a single person or institution, with their efforts coordinated.
The appearance of the map and the dossier stained with blood creates a certain aura, but closer scrutiny reveals that 80 per cent of the information in it is publicly available and obtained from open sources, meaning it does not involve any intelligence or espionage efforts.
Moreover, some of the information is based on rumours and personal opinions. For example, it accuses Belgian Minister Zakia Khattabi, Fatima Zibou (a political science professor), and others who have no connection to the organization. Yet, their names appear associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and with individuals accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda, terrorists, and murderers without any evidence or justification.
Brero’s trips to the UAE, luxurious banquets, and presentations bore fruit. The first contract was signed in October 2017, and according to documents, ALP received at least 5.7 million euros between 2017 and 2020, paid through the Emirati-affiliated Rural Research Centre.
The plan involved deceiving journalists and buying others to publish articles that serve the interests of the UAE in European media, particularly in tarnishing Qatar’s reputation.
ALP proposed a multidimensional strategy based on real information to avoid arousing suspicion, launching a campaign against the World Cup and promoting the hashtag #BoycottQatar2022, with a monthly budget of 95,000 dollars.
This also included promoting the book “InQarcéré”, written by a French businessman who claimed to have been wrongly imprisoned in Qatar for 1,744 days. The cost of the campaign was 55,000 dollars per month, with a one-time payment of 35,000 dollars for creating a website dedicated to promoting the book. The documents also mention the publication of Qatar Papers,” exposing Qatar’s funding of Islamic associations in Europe.
The UAE’s animosity towards Qatar cannot be purely explained as an ideological conflict. It is part of the Gulf countries’ struggle for interests worldwide, especially in Europe, where Qatar took the lead after winning the bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
This animosity is evident in the timeline. The Gulf boycott of Qatar began on June 5, 2017, and a month and two days later, Brero arrived at the Fairmont Hotel in Abu Dhabi, marking the start of Operation “Arnica.”
ALP collaborated with journalists in France, such as Othman Tazghart, who wrote articles criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar in Marianne magazine. When Mediapart requested a comment, he replied that he did not want to comment on any details or information related to “this” piracy.
These forms of collaboration extended to using a network of journalists, some of whom were unaware that they were being used in this way, while others received financial compensation. ALP published articles favourable to the UAE in several European newspapers.
Regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, ALP promised that its plan would involve “seriously tarnishing the organization’s reputation, with the possibility of completely destroying it, thus affecting its continuity.” The crucial part is that the strategy proposed by ALP and accepted by Abu Dhabi led to illegal surveillance of individuals in 18 European countries. Additionally, ALP Services provided the names of over a thousand individuals and 400 associations it claimed were affiliated with or close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
ALP’s strategy was implemented gradually, publishing derogatory articles through a “network of trusted journalists” manipulation of Wikipedia pages by adding embarrassing and derogatory information.
Finally, they communicated with compliance departments in banks and media and engaged with European decision-makers and influencers.