London Lawsuit Sheds Light on Disinformation Warfare in the Middle East

A lawsuit by ex-Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan relating to an article published by the online publication Middle East Eye (MEE) exposed a connection to Turkish intelligence.

Following allegations by MEE that the UAE and Dahlan had secretly funded the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, the publication was slammed with a lawsuit for libel in London. The revelations that came to light during litigation have shed new light on MEE’s agenda, and reopened it to questions about its connections to Qatar and Turkey and their rivalry against regional enemies.

The court proceedings concluded only a few days ago, and it was revealed that an unverified Turkish source was behind the information that MEE used to write the story in question.

“Middle East Eye never tried to verify any of these claims by contacting Mohammed Dahlan. In the legal action it did not seek to defend any of the claims as being true. It admitted that the claims were based on information provided by a single unidentified source in the Turkish Intelligence Services,” said Paul Tweed, Dahlan’s attorney, in a statement released on Monday.

A Lawsuit, and a Can of Worms

MEE has been on watchdogs’ radars for some time over its biased coverage and its seeming blind eye for any Qatari indiscretions. However, most of it has been speculative, as the organization has remained tight-lipped about its funding and its ties to any major influence spheres in the Middle East. However, the publication found itself in hot water following a story published July 29, 2016.

The article alleged that the United Arab Emirates government, aided by former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, had covertly funneled resources to Turkish insurgents as they planned and prepared for a coup attempt that would eventually fail. The story was disseminated extensively on social media, which accounts for a large portion of MEE’s traffic, and seemed to be a bombshell about a foreign power directly interfering in sovereign state affairs.

Unfortunately, the story was also largely unverified and incorrect. On one hand, the MEE post claimed that Dahlan had been expelled from the UAE—where he had been acting as a political operator—following the failed coup as well as accusing him of working to prolong the civil conflict in Libya. The first claim was refuted by both the UAE government and Dahlan (who also filed a separate lawsuit related to the article) and easily disproved. Dahlan also refuted the second charge and denies any involvement in the Libyan conflict.

The libel lawsuit that followed led to some concerning revelations. Perhaps the most damaging fact that came to light was the source of the story—an unverified individual working for Turkish Intelligence. MEE did not verify any of the claims made by their source, and in a damning display, did not argue in court that the story was factually correct.

Through their counsel, MEE was forced – in publicly available court documents – to admit that indeed they had only used a single unverified lead from Turkish security services. Since the court proceedings have now been concluded, much of the court materials were released into the public domain.

The story adds credence to speculation that Qatar has long had a hand in the publication’s editorial process, and that even Turkey may be employing it for political gain.

“Information warfare and coupled with lawfare can be an effective way to take down political enemies while creating positive narratives about one’s own agenda. There’s nothing surprising here. When it comes to influencing public opinion or appealing to decision makers, especially in the US and Europe, media platforms can be extremely helpful,” said Jonathan Cardozo from Paris-based Media Research Inc.

“MEE has been accused of ignoring Qatar’s indiscretions and misdeeds while avidly attacking other Gulf States for similar issues. Some have noted that MEE was noticeably quiet as Qatari royals were arrested and abused, and others have noted how even employees have supposedly been cowed by the atmosphere of secrecy,” Cardozo said.

Finally, the question of MEE’s operating capital has also been left unanswered, leading to more intense concerns about influence and agenda. The company was funded as a start-up by private donors, and founder David Hearst has staunchly refused to disclose his sources of capital. This all becomes more complicated by MEE’s repeated use of anonymous sources, with some employees claiming they are required to write pieces with little means to verify them.

Expanding Influence

The influence of state actors on news media is especially concerning in this era of fake news and disinformation. Qatar has been especially brazen in its use of Al Jazeera to push its agenda, but it may be embracing the more subtle knife of disinformation. With the expanded importance of social media, websites like MEE are proving an effective tool for the Qatari regime and could be a troubling sign of things to come.

About the Author
Yusuf Budak has over 15 years of experience in Turkish domestic and foreign policy analysis where he advises foreign corporations on their entrance strategy into Turkey. Yusuf also writes about Middle East peace strategies and offers unique and provocative solutions to a region desperately in need of stability.