Qatar uses ex-spies to deflect German world cup criticism
Theo Zwanziger, the chairman of the German soccer association attacked the Gulf nation's human rights record and questioned the decision to hold the game in scorching desert heat.
Theo Zwanziger, the chairman of the German soccer association, has been a prominent challenger of the decision to host the 2022 world cup in Qatar.
Zwanziger made a public attack on Qatar's human rights record and questioned the decision to hold the event in the scorching heat of the desert.
As a member of FIFA's executive committee, he urged the body to reconsider the decision, saying " the infinite wealth of this small country of Qatar spreads almost like a cancer through football and sport."
According to AP, Qatar was so worried by the remarks that it spent more than $10 million to a company headed by former CIA officers for a multi-year covert influence effort nicknamed "Project Riverbed."
The goal? Silence Zwanziger.
It failed to do so, however. In an interview with AP, Zwanziger said that to be involved in sport and committed to its values, “It’s a very, very strange feeling...to be followed and influenced."
The World Cup in Qatar, scheduled for November, is the result of more than a decade of effort and billions of dollars.
Accusations of corruption and misconduct have haunted the project for years. Bribes were given to FIFA executive committee members to secure their votes, according to US prosecutors in 2020. Qatar has categorically rejected any wrongdoing.
In November, AP’s investigation found that Qatar secured hosting rights by hiring former CIA officer turned private contractor Kevin Chalker to spy on rival teams and key soccer officials who chose the winner in 2010.
Documents obtained by AP provide fresh information about Qatar's attempts to win and retain the tournament, including through the country's collaboration with former CIA officer Kevin Chalker and his firm, Global Risk Advisors. AP has previously reported on Chalker's work for Qatar.
Qatari officials have not responded to comment requests.
A smear campaign
Chalker called AP's reporting "biased" and based on "false information," responded that the GRA did indeed work on Project Riverbed, but defended the stance claiming that it was “a media monitoring project staffed by interns and supervised by one full-time employee, who were responsible for reading and summarizing news articles.”
According to Chalker's attorney, Brian Ascher, Zwanziger was never the target of a GRA smear campaign. According to the documents examined by AP, this is not the case.
Documents acquired by AP revealed that the true goal was to “neutralize the effectiveness of Theo Zwanziger’s criticism of the 2022 Qatar World Cup and his attempts to compel FIFA to take the World Cup from Qatar."
Chalker is being sued by Elliott Broidy, a prominent fundraiser for former US President Donald Trump, who accuses him of conducting a global hacking and surveillance effort on Qatar's behalf. In court papers, Broidy claims that Chalker and GRA used a clandestine influence campaign against Zwanziger, similar to the one outlined in the materials seen by AP. Chalker's legal team claimed that the action is without merit, and a court rejected Broidy's overarching complaint while allowing the case to proceed.
According to one document outlining the Riverbed operation acquired by AP the project "effectively leveraged complicated conventional intelligence tradecraft to target persons inside Zwanziger's circle of influence and change sentiment linked with the Qatar World Cup."
In actuality, this amounted to the establishment of an "influencer network" comprised of persons close to the German soccer official who would convey to him views favorable to Qatar hosting the World Cup. According to internal papers, GRA would send a "source" or "throwaway" to talk to the influencers in a way that they would not guess was part of a coordinated messaging effort.
The biggest mistakes ever made in sports
When it came to the World Cup being held in Qatar, Zwanziger had strong feelings and didn't hold back in expressing them, even questioning the integrity of FIFA executives amid suspicions of vote-buying and corruption.
"I could never understand this decision. It’s one of the biggest mistakes ever made in sport," Zwanziger said in 2013.
The surveillance on Zwanziger was not the only high-ranking FIFA official paid by Qatar.
According to AP, Chalker also assisted in the surveillance on former FIFA executive committee member Amos Adamu during the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg. According to the new documents, various surveillance teams followed and discreetly photographed Adamu and the persons he met for several days.
The endeavor also involved getting Adamu's mobile phone data and enlisting the help of a hotel security officer and a local journalist as sources.
Chalker denied ever being a part of a plot to spy on Adamu.
GRA believed the operation was successful. However, they were wrong as Zwanziger reiterated in a German radio interview that Qatar is “a cancer of world football.”
The Qatar Football Association responded by filing a legal case against Zwanziger in order to prevent him from making such statements in the future. Düsseldorf's regional court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Zwanziger was exercising his right to free expression.