For more than a year, Qatar has been locked in a diplomatic feud with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern nations, which blockaded their Persian Gulf neighbor over its close ties to Iran and alleged support for terrorism. This fight has spilled over into Washington, where the small but gas-rich country has mounted an aggressive influence campaign to counter its regional rivals—one that has involved not just an army of high-paid lobbyists but also allegations that Qatar hacked and leaked the emails of a top Republican fundraiser and Emirati ally viewed as an impediment to Qatar’s charm offensive. Newly revealed documents illuminate the shadowy lobbying effort, including the mysterious role of a veteran UN diplomat in Qatar’s secretive campaign to win over American political figures with access to Donald Trump.
Early this year, news organizations began to receive troves of emails hacked from the account of Elliott Broidy, then the deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. A venture capitalist who heads a defense contracting firm, Broidy is a staunch supporter of Israel and an ardent critic of Qatar, which he has accused of funding terrorist groups. A series of damaging news stories resulted from Broidy’s leaked emails, revealing how he had sought eye-popping payouts from foreign governments while helping the leaders of those nations gain coveted access to Trump and other US officials. Broidy worked in particular with the UAE and assisted Emirati efforts to advance its interests in Washington, including by funding two conferences focused on Qatar’s links to international terrorism. Broidy’s defense firm, Circinus, subsequently won a lucrative contract worth hundreds of millions from the UAE. Broidy says all his efforts were legal.
Last March, Broidy sued Qatar, Nick Muzin, a lobbyist who worked on its behalf, and others alleging they conspired to hack his emails and distribute them to the media to harm his reputation. The lawsuit mostly failed in court. A California judge threw out the complaint against Qatar in August, citing a law that bars US lawsuits against sovereign states, and later tossed the suit against Muzin and other defendants on jurisdictional grounds. But Broidy’s legal campaign also targeted an unlikely figure—Jamal Benomar, a Moroccan-born British citizen who had recently left a high-level United Nations post following a 25-year career in which he served as a special envoy to Yemen and as a top adviser to then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Benomar’s appearance in the drama was curious because he had no previously known ties to international lobbying. But Broidy’s July lawsuit against the diplomat, who currently advises Morocco’s UN mission, alleged that Benomar was at the center of Qatar’s shadowy lobbying offensive. The case is ongoing, and as it continues the litigation is exposing parts of a shadowy geopolitical caper stretching from Doha to DC.
A cybersecurity firm hired by Broidy said in April that it had traced the breach of his email account to a location in Qatar. And last month Broidy’s lawyers outlined findings that Broidy was just one target in a broader campaign to illegally access the emails of people of potential interest to Qatar. They allege, based on records subpoenaed from a popular URL-shortening service, that the same user who sent phishing emails to Broidy and people close to him, seeking to dupe them into divulging their password information, blasted similar messages to more than 1,200 others. The recipients included government officials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria; journalists in several countries; and ex-employees of Washington public relations firms that had worked for the UAE. These alleged efforts seem to be part of a cyberwar between Gulf neighbors; the UAE and Qatar have repeatedly accused each other of hacking the accounts of their top officials.
Based partly on information gathered by Broidy’s investigators, the FBI is investigating the hack of his email, according to people who have spoken with FBI agents probing the breach. Those sources said the investigation seems to be run out of the bureau’s Los Angeles office; Broidy lives and works in Beverly Hills. Benomar has not been contacted by the FBI, a source familiar with the matter said.
Broidy’s lawsuit against Benomar alleges the career diplomat acted as one of an unspecified number of “illegal, unregistered agents” working for Doha in the United States and wielded “significant responsibility for coordinating Qatari influence in the United States.” Benomar served as a sort of middle man for the Qataris, sources familiar with the lobbying effort tell Mother Jones. According to these sources, he helped to arrange the country’s hiring of US lobbyists including Muzin and his partner, Joey Allaham, who previously ran a series of New York City-based kosher restaurants.
Benomar’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, a prominent criminal defense attorney who also represents Jared Kushner, defends his client with a surprising claim. Benomar, Lowell says in a court filing, indeed “advised Qatar on foreign policy issues,” but Lowell says he did so at the direction of the Moroccan government. Lowell declined to answer questions from Mother Jones about why Morocco asked Benomar to advise Qatar, what kind of advice he provided, or whether he was paid for his work. Broidy’s lawyers contend that Benomar was compensated and point to his appointment last month to the board of Lagardère, a French media company partly owned by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.)
Broidy’s complaint against Benomar alleges the diplomat had extensive phone contact with both Qatari government officials and US lobbyists for Qatar between October 2017 and June 2018. That included 47 calls and texts in February and March 2018 with Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, a Qatari official involved in the country’s US influence efforts. The complaint, based on phone and other records gathered by Broidy’s lawyers, also notes that Benomar spoke to Muzin the day before Muzin’s firm reported receiving a $500,000 payment from Qatar.
Broidy’s lawsuit alleges that Benomar helped distribute the hacked emails. He “personally participated in reviewing, categorizing, and preparing for dissemination unlawfully hacked documents,” Lee Wolosky, one of Broidy’s lawyers, wrote in an October 4 letter to US District Judge Cathy Seibel, who is overseeing the case.
Subpoenas issued in the California case against Qatar and Muzin turned up a March 13 exchange of WhatsApp messages between Muzin and Allaham. In the messages, reviewed by Mother Jones, the lobbyists discussed a visit by Benomar to Doha; Allaham noted that he believed Benomar was there perusing Broidy’s hacked emails. “That’s what I think he was doing there,” Allaham wrote. “Reviewing them.”
“Why would they need Jamal to review emails?” Muzin responded. “He doesn’t know anything about Broidy or the groups that are mentioned, other than what I told him.” The exchange is among evidence that Broidy’s lawyers hope to cite in their suit against Benomar. It shows that Benomar “personally was reviewing the emails and trying to claim credit for the attack,” Wolosky told Seibel during a status conference in the case last week.
Lowell declined to comment on whether Benomar was in Doha. A person familiar with Allaham and Muzin’s arguments said their WhatsApp exchange shows the lobbyists had no involvement in the hack, did not know who was responsible, and were speculating about emails that were already public. By March 13, news organizations had already published articles citing the hacked emails. So Muzin, Allaham, and Benomar did not necessarily have advance knowledge of their release.
Lowell argues that Broidy’s lawsuit against his client should be dismissed because Benomar has diplomatic immunity resulting from his current role working with Morocco’s UN mission. Broidy’s lawyers dispute this, noting that Benomar was retained by the Moroccan mission on August 1, 2018, nine days after Broidy sued him.
In a meeting with attorneys in the case last week, Seibel agreed to put off discovery in Broidy’s lawsuit until she rules on the question of Benomar’s immunity. Lowell treated that ruling as a win. He argues Broidy’s lawsuit aims mostly to use the discovery process to reveal information that embarrasses Doha and win points with the UAE. Broidy’s aim is “deflecting attention from himself and continuing to align himself with foreign countries with whom he has or has had a financial relationship,” Lowell wrote in a September 28 letter to the judge.
Broidy may lose in court. But if what he really desires is to reveal the actions of Qatar and its agents, perhaps he has already succeeded.