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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The boycott, the office block, and a shadowy campaign against the UAE

A series of shadowy online campaigns are part of the upsurge in clandestine activism that has emerged in London and across Europe since the Arab Quartet started the boycott of Qatar

Kemp House in London.
Kemp House in London.

The telephone number on the website’s registration page is used by another person. The office address is a temporary work station provider. And enquires about the outfit’s name drew a blank. An anomaly? No, this is just one of many shadowy online campaigns against the UAE with uncertain bona fides which have been identified in an investigation by The National.

These same outfits have succeeded in publishing propaganda on the internet, bombarded the British parliament with letters and used social media accounts to propagate their messages. They are part of an upsurge in clandestine activism that has emerged in London and across Europe since the Arab Quartet launched the boycott of Qatar in response to its support for terrorism and promotion of extremism in June.

Kemp House near Old St station is a prime address in the city of London. It would offer a prestigious location for the outfit uaeboycott.org. Yet it is a building largely used by National Health Service’s Moorfields Eye Hospital for consulting rooms.

Also in Kemp House is Capital Office which rents office space and other business services. In response to enquiries by The National the Capital Office manager could not find any record of the operation or its principal manager named in its internet registration as Alison Anderson.

The name Alison Anderson was discovered on the form used to register the website with Mesh Digital Ltd, the domain registrar.

Likewise the phone number logged alongside her name was assumed from a unrelated individual. Its owner Andy Kendrick, a British manager, said he had never heard of the website and would not have given his permission to set up a site using his details. “I have no idea what this is about,” he said. “I will look it up and take action if necessary.”

The website is the home of the International Campaign to Boycott UAE, Despite a strong British focus in its published material, the website operators claim to be based in Paris.

This is a trait also seen in the untraceable origins of another highly charged website which has made similar criticism of the UAE. Independent United Nations Watch (IUNW) claims to be an international initiative launched by a number of former UN experts, figures and diplomats to monitor the UN.

Yet its domain is registered to a Toby Aguillard, who appears to be a police chief in Lafayette, Louisiana. Its address is given as the Haussmann Opera Lafayette, which is the name of an office space rental in Paris, France.

The domain registration links iunwatch to another campaign platform with uncertain origins, the London Centre for Public Affairs (LCPA), through a shared email link to the Centre for Communications and Public Affairs.

The LCPA was in the spotlight in September. It tried to scupper the London conference of the Qatari opposition, organised by the exiled dissident Khalid Al-Hail. LCPA was exposed as bogus after it used the prominent public relations service PR Newswire to distribute its criticisms of the conference.

A prominent British-based Palestinian activist Sameh Habeeb told The National that an agency that he founded and runs under the name Palestinian Telegraph had placed the LCPA release on PR Newswire. He said client had placed two transactions with his firm and the payment came from an Australian bank account.

“They asked my staff to use our service by email and we did provide this service. We acted on behaif of the client but we don’t provide content services so we didn’t have anything to do with what it said,” he said. “As soon as PR Newswire got in touch we removed it. The LCPA paid us. It was a transfer from Australia.”

An email from PR Newswire seen by The National said the releases were removed after its researchers were unable to verify the origins of the LCPA. “After investigation, we decided to remove the releases that were distributed, we were unable to contact the source client, as the phone number was unavailable and the address was incorrect,” wrote Neil Smith, the director of client services for EMEA, at PR Newswire.

A leading public affairs body said the activities of organisations like LCPA that sought to influence public opinion and lawmakers should be better regulated.

Francis Ingham, Director General, Public Relations and Communications Association, called for serious reforms that improved transparency and accountability. “This proves the importance of a regulated public affairs industry that subscribes to a serious code of conduct,” he said. “Such questionable, perhaps non-existent, public affairs firms are among the unregulated elements of the industry – elements that have free reign to behave unethically.”

The LCPA release also ran on its own website publicaffairs.org.uk, which has not been undated since September. The site has also targeted with UAE embassy in London.

While investigating the LCPA, The National traced a half-formed addresses given on Nominet, the body that manages the United Kingdom’s internet domain registry. It’s registered office was in fact located in a block of flats in northwest London.

The porter and residents of the block had not heard of the principal of the firm, John A Baker. Neither had the residents of flat 49, which was given as the address.

Alison White, the registrar of consultant lobbyists at the government’s Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, confirmed in a letter that there was no truth to the LCPA’s claims - made to the Conservative MP Daniel Robert Kawczynski - that it had been officially registered for the previous five years. “I have checked the Register and there is no trace of “The London Centre for Public Affairs,” she wrote.

The pattern was repeated when looking at the online presence of the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE), a body that recently held a sparsely attended event in the House of Commons earlier this month. A search on Nominet returned the response that its apparent is “not able to [be] match[ed to] the registrant's name and/or address against a 3rd party source”.

In fact, when The National went to the address for the ICFUAE given on Nominet – ‘London 102, London, NW1 1WN’ – it did exist – it was a postal box in a Royal Mail collection centre behind Euston station.

There is one further link to the ICFUAE. Its original telephone number, now defunct, has been preserved on an archive version of its website. That number was also used by a firm founded in 2015 by Anas Mekdad, another British-based Palestinian activist, named Meeting Point. Mr Mekdad, who was not available for contact by The National, has frequently tweeted from ICFUAE events and is director of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Emirates Centre for Human Rights.