A state investment body owned by Ras Al Khaimah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, is alleged to have hacked the email accounts of US-Iranian aviation magnate Farhad Azima and attempted to blackmail him with threats of “collateral damage”, according to court documents seen by Al Jazeera.
The alleged hacking took place in late 2015 as a business relationship between 75-year-old Azima and the Ras al Khaimah Investment Authority (Rakia) turned sour.
It is also alleged that the UAE fund then leaked embarrassing material about Kansas-based Azima on the “dark web”, a part of the internet that cannot be visited by using traditional browsers.
Third-party technology experts are said to have concluded that the hacking was “so sophisticated they believed a state actor had to have been involved”, prompting suspicions of state-sponsored hacking.
The case predates the June 2017 blockade of Qatar by four Arab states, which was announced following the hacking of Qatari government social media and news sites.
US intelligence officials cited by the Washington Post say that senior UAE government officials discussed the planned hacks on May 23, the day before they took place. Since then, Qatar and the UAE have been accused of leaking information to journalists as they jockey for position in Washington, DC.
The new documents obtained by Al Jazeera relate to a US Federal District Court hearing in Washington, DC in April, and offer a rare glimpse into how the UAE (in this instance in the form of the state-backed Rakia) is accused of using data leaks.
They also detail the court’s finding that a plausible case exists that Rakia had hacked Azima’s email account to harm his character.
“Azima has plausibly alleged that Rakia’s engagement in certain commercial activity – using Azima as a mediator and partnering with him in foreign business ventures – caused Rakia to commit the hacking for the purpose of influencing the ongoing mediation, punishing Azima if anything went wrong with those negotiations and ultimately ‘gaining leverage and coercive influence’ over Azima,” the judgement said.
The US judgement accepting Azima’s complaint will now see the case move forward to pre-trial discovery and litigation and detailed investigation of his claims concerning the role of Rakia, its London law firm Dechert and the now bankrupt PR company Bell Pottinger in handling hacked material.
A failed hotel deal and slanderous websites
The court documents trace the case back to a hotel sale in Georgia, a planned anti-Iran surveillance project and a dispute between Rakia and its former chairman, Khater Massaad.
Rakia’s claims against Azima, a chief executive of an aircraft leasing company and donor to former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary, centre on a failed deal to sell the Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel in Tbilisi in 2011.
Rakia is seeking more than $2.6m in damages at the High Court in London for Azima’s alleged role in brokering the deal for three would-be Iranian buyers, amid claims of kickbacks for making the introductions.
Azima denies this, and in court documents filed in Washington, DC, his legal team argues he has been unfairly blamed for the collapse of “settlement discussions” between Massaad and Rakia.
As the talks broke down in in July 2016, Rakia’s lawyers “ominously” threatened that Azima would become “collateral damage”, his complaint alleges.
Azima’s lawyers, who are seeking $20m in damages in US courts, say that shortly after this meeting, the Kansas businessman learnt that his computers had been hacked and that a “massive volume of emails and other electronic data” had been stolen.
They claim that from August 2016 sites appeared online, including webpages with names such as “Farhad Azima Scammer” and “Farhad Azima Scams”, using hacked information to attack Azima.
The pages had links to BitTorrent sites on the “dark web”.
Rakia denies all the charges and told Al Jazeera that Azima’s claims are “complete fiction”.
A spokesperson said the company has launched an appeal.
Rakia also accused Azima of filing the complaint in an effort to frustrate the London legal case, in which the Emirati company accuses him of bribery, misrepresentation and forgery.
But the latest US judgement in the legal battle found that it was “beyond dispute” that hackers had targeted Azima.
US Federal District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson also found there was a “plausible theory” linking the hacking and Azima’s efforts to mediate a disagreement between Rakia and Massaad, the former head of Rakia.
She added that it was plausible the hacking was carried out to punish Azima “if anything went wrong” with those negotiations, and noted that it was allegedly designed to give Rakia “leverage and coercive influence” over the magnate.
London lawyer accused
Earlier court documents presented by Azima’s legal team allege the “threat” against the US-Iranian businessman was made by London lawyer Neil Gerrard, the global co-head of Dechert’s white collar practice, and the senior partner representing Rakia.
At a meeting in July 2016, Gerrard told Azima he would be made “collateral damage” in the “war” against Massaad, the complaint document said.
Within a week of the threat, Rakia “commenced a negative public relationship campaign” against Azima, the complaint added, based on hacked information from iCloud data, voice recordings and WhatsApp messages.
“Dechert emphatically denies that partner Neil Gerrard made the threat alleged by Farhad Azima in his amended complaint,” a spokesperson for Dechert told Al Jazeera.
“The allegations about the purported threat are as baseless as the allegations that the Government of Ras al Khaimah hacked Azima’s computer.”
Rakia itself denied the substance of the claims in a Declaration filed with the court by its CEO.
Who is Farhad Azima?
Previous reports have linked Azima to arms dealing and the CIA’s Iran-Contra scandal, in which US President Ronald Reagan’s administration secretly sold weapons to Iran in return for the release of American hostages, though this has never been confirmed.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press news agency has reported that he has flown weapons to the Balkans and navigated Washington’s power circles.
The hacked data included messages between Azima and Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal’s former chief foreign affairs correspondent, detailing meetings on Azima’s luxury yacht – the Conquistador.
In an April 2015 email that was subsequently leaked, Azima wrote to Solomon about a plan for a $725m surveillance and reconnaissance contract with the UAE.
Under the plan, which Azima apparently wanted Solomon to present to contacts within the UAE government, Azima’s companies would manage specially equipped surveillance planes to spy on Iran and other countries.
Solomon, who was fired by the Wall Street Journal in June 2017, denies he acted on Azima’s business offers.
Around this time, Bell Pottinger became involved at the request of Rakia to “promote its narrative”.
The PR company went into administration last year after an exodus of clients and mounting losses in the wake of a scandal over a campaign it which it played on racial tensions in South Africa.
But, in August 2016, it worked for Rakia and had set up a war room in London to send out releases attacking Azima and Massaad.
The case in Washington, DC, which is expected to move forward in the coming weeks, is expected to expose further details about the information wars raging in the Middle East.