The Gulf Arab state of Bahrain is using digital-era tools of surveillance, deception and repression to quell popular dissent. But a group of well-meaning tech-savvy geeks are mobilizing new digitally enhanced methods to expose who is behind this repression and how it operates today.
The digital era is full of contradictions. As technology changes everything—including how, what and when we read the news—it also changes nothing. Many states still control the media, restrict expression and imprison media activists. More journalists are being killed than ever before. Digital technology is a tool of enlightenment and a tool of entrenchment, a tool for self-expression and a tool of censorship.
The 2011 Arab uprisings ushered in a libertarian techno-optimism about the Internet as a disruptive force for unmediated and hyper-localized citizen journalism outside of state control. Today, however, the counter-revolutionary mobilization against these uprisings has led states to adopt new forms of repressive power to regain control of the digital public sphere—mass digital surveillance, electronic information armies and psychological operations against burgeoning popular movements.
The small Gulf Arab monarchy of Bahrain provides an early example of how regional states are stepping up their fight against popular opposition using digital-era tools of surveillance, deception and repression. Not coincidently, Bahrain was the first regional state to quell its own historic popular uprising, using unprecedented force. Emerging from the very same context, however, a group of well-meaning tech-savvy geeks have mobilized to expose who is behind this repression and how it operates today. By following the money, the digital tracks and the paper trails of the powerful, this group shows how open-source data investigations combined with secret documents can puncture exceptionalist narratives about oil-based legitimacy, expose new repressive methods and uncover Western support for this repression.
Many new media-based collectives and outlets emerged from the 2011 political mobilization in the Arab world to reclaim spaces of public expression from state control. Independent journalism focusing on data-driven investigations and fact-based analysis through outlets like Nawaat and Inkyfada in Tunisia and Mada Masr in Egypt, is one form this activism has taken. Another form is leaktivism—the act of obtaining and publishing secret or internal documents of powerful actors mediated through grounded investigative journalism, most famously associated with WikiLeaks and whistle-blower activists like Edward Snowden or the Panama Papers releases.
Some critics question the extent to which leaktivism may itself harbor a liberal optimism about the power of revealing information. But in a region where important public information is so often concealed, leaktivism can be a powerful mechanism of accountability that can illuminate the structures of repression and corruption in Middle Eastern autocracies.1
Investigative and leaks-based revelations in the region are not new. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, WikiLeaks and other actors uncovered war crimes, Western arms trade profiteering and other protection rackets such as the outsourcing of warfare to private security firms—all in the service of Western resource extraction from the Middle East. But this same investigative work can also expose Middle Eastern protection rackets, where marginalized democratic movements and their digital lives are being shaped and reshaped by regimes who dominate digital spaces, aided by global social media companies who own and monopolize these digital platforms.
After the Bahraini regime crushed the 2011 anti-government protests and imposed martial law as Saudi forces rolled into the country, a group of scholar-activists inside and outside of Bahrain set up a media collective in 2012 called Bahrain Watch to investigate Bahraini networks of power, information control and financial resources through obtaining and publishing secret or internal documents. Bahrain Watch is a digital platform and investigative lab that includes economists, computer scientists, historians and journalists who volunteer their academic training and technical research skills in coding, forensic accounting and data analysis. As a political project, this new media experiment sought to shift political focus away from the misleading regime discourse about dangerous sectarianism to the actual struggle over resources, wealth and power within the country.
Although the Bahraini state has extensive data on its citizens through smart IDs, CCTV, financial data and more, its citizens have very little information and data about the state. By exploiting the Internet’s open infrastructure and widely available tools, Bahrain Watch challenges this information asymmetry between the citizen and state. In particular, Bahrain Watch’s investigations have exposed three important issues: Bahrain’s extensive use of advanced surveillance tools provided by the global surveillance industry, the theft and hoarding of valuable Bahraini land hidden through murky real estate transactions and the regime’s repressive arms shipments—all of which would otherwise have remained secret. But the state has tried to stifle this work by criminalizing, persecuting and murdering its protagonists; while the mainstream media and international NGOs recolonize global leaks through propriety access.
Surveillance Industry’s Black Diamond
Bahrain Watch uncovered Bahrain’s extensive use of cutting-edge surveillance tools on its own citizens—and its deep involvement in the broader global surveillance industry—after a short and innocent looking email appeared a year after Bahrain’s 2011 uprising. During a social visit to Bahrain’s capital Manama in 2012, I received an email notification on my Apple iPhone purporting to be from a journalist called Melissa Chan from Al Jazeera news network. The email contained an attachment which I opened. I received three such suspicious emails with typing mistakes within four days.
Sensing these were being sent from a party desperate for me to open the attachments, I immediately sent them to a colleague, Bill Marczak—a former Bahraini resident following events in Bahrain closely—who was starting a PhD in the United States on cloud computing. Bill immediately suspected this was malware because of its customizability (the way the emails were customized around my interests in human rights), and we contacted the journalist Vernon Silver working at Bloomberg News who then established a connection with Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, an interdisciplinary lab focusing on research on information and communication technologies, human rights and global security.
By analyzing the software’s capabilities—the way it can access the hard drive, switch on camera and microphone and transfer data—and dissecting the code within the software, the team quickly realized that this was high-level hacking software that no one had previously analyzed. Described as a “black diamond” by security experts, the malware operated stealthily, waiting for the user to stop using the device while connected to Wi-Fi to transfer data. Its keylogger stored and transferred all typed text.
Through reels of code, the team eventually discovered the software’s producer: Gamma International, a British-German company. The software itself was called FinFisher, which Silver described as “one of the world’s best-known and elusive cyber weapons.” Wikileaks previously published internal company documents about Gamma’s products including a marketing video for FinFisher showing animations of how police can access a target’s computer.2 Virus hunters had been looking out for FinFisher since Egyptian protesters stormed the Ministry of Interior in Cairo in 2011, uncovering a government contract with Gamma International for FinFisher. But no one had found or analyzed evidence or specimens of the software until this time. Exposing this software led many Bahraini activists to take even greater precautions about their digital activities, leading some to stop their online activity altogether.
In early 2014, Wikileaks published further internal files on Gamma International—they hacked the hacker. The released documents contained a customer support database, in which a single file contained a list of Bahraini government surveillance targets and the date of their “time of infection” between 2010 and 2011. Many people were “infected” before me, but none had detected this intrusion. This list was largely composed of prominent opposition leaders, lawyers and journalists.
Bahrain Watch member Bill Marczak had switched the focus of his PhD to the commercial hacking industry, which led to his revelation that Gamma had sold its software to at least 36 other countries ranging from Mexico to Ethiopia and Malaysia. All had been using FinFisher to spy on journalists and activists. Activists filed several legal cases against Gamma International—I was interviewed about this at least 20 times and was a complainant on a legal case against the British government for failing to investigate Gamma for non-compliance of export laws on cryptographic products, which the court upheld.
Following the exposure of Gamma, Gulf states moved into other intrusion products and surveillance companies—Bahrain Watch followed the trail. By this point Marczak’s trust and credibility within the Gulf’s small activist communities were well-established. In 2015, Citizen Lab published evidence that the UAE was using Pegasus software designed by one of the most dangerous companies, the Israel-based NSO Group, against one of the very few human rights activists in the UAE, Ahmed Mansoor, who was under house arrest. This was a huge discovery since Pegasus appeared to exploit a zero-day vulnerability in the Apple iPhone. Marczak had received information on the suspected SMS late at night and worked through the night to capture evidence of the surveillance operation. By the morning, the spy company had switched it off.
This disclosure forced Apple to issue an emergency IOS update globally on every iPhone to close this vulnerability. Finding and selling zero-day vulnerabilities can be worth millions on the dark web. Shortly after, Ahmed Mansour was jailed and sentenced to 10 years in prison, largely believed to be because he exposed the Israeli security links.
In addition, suspicions that a Saudi activist student was being targeted in Canada with NSO Group tools were confirmed by Marczak when he found that Omar Abdulaziz, a vocal Saudi critic who had been in communication with Jamal Khashoggi before his murder in the Saudi consulate in Turkey was being spied upon by these tools. Legal complaints were filed against the NSO Group in Canada and Israel. This finding reveals that Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia not only target citizens in their own countries but also actively spy on dissidents abroad, which became a critical pillar in the report on the Khashoggi murder by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killing.
While new surveillance tools are often tested and adopted early on by authoritarian states, the secretive intelligence sector operates globally, at a scale where national and international laws are absent and accountability mechanisms are opaque. For example, Pegasus can access any WhatsApp communication and was used against a British lawyer working on legal cases against Pegasus in 2019. In a strange twist, in June 2019 it emerged that the CEO of a prestigious London art gallery, the Serpentine, Yana Peel, had earlier in the year invested $250 million with her husband to buy the majority share of the NSO Group. Yana Peel had built her reputation and personal brand as an activist and techno-optimist—even sitting on the board of the free speech-supporting Index of Censorship—but she apparently believes that the hacking industry is a great investment opportunity. Within three days, protests forced Yana Peel to resign.
Disappearing Shoreline and Wealth
Leak-based investigative action has also exposed the Bahraini ruling family’s takeover of some of the country’s most important coastal land and real estate and how they hide it through secretive shell companies abroad.
Bahrain, like other Gulf States, is often misleadingly portrayed as based on a social contract between the ruler and the ruled whereby citizens forego agency and political rights in return for social welfare, free public services and housing. This presumption allows the West to pretend that Gulf state investments are legal and legitimate state acquisitions despite no internal democratic accountability in these countries. This faulty view hides the reality of political contestations, resistance to economic and political inequality, repression and corruption and citizen’s desire for accountability and self-determination. In Bahrain there are almost rhythmically consistent uprisings every decade, which the state violently quells. The regime’s control of public space, including its far-flung real estate holdings and its growing control over the island’s valuable shoreline, along with relative economic poverty among some citizens and the absence of political rights, has been a central grievance in these cycles.
When I moved back to Bahrain in 2009, the public expressed major concerns about the disappearance of the island’s natural shorelines as the state’s massive land reclamation projects ravaged beaches and distorted the horizon. According to a 2014 study, the landmass of Bahrain expanded about 12.5 percent (from 650 square kilometers in 1987 to 730 square kilometers in 2013) through reclamation and in-filling of coastal areas, including new land added along the northern coast of Bahrain and to Muharraq Island.3 Bahrain was once an island of palm groves, beautiful beaches, fishing and pearl-diving—but now almost 95 percent of its coastline has been privatized and there is only one public beach. I began to trace the process of ownership and privatization in these large-scale land reclamation developments.
Bahrain is an absolute monarchy with an imposed constitution and a decorative parliament that has no power to legislate without approval from the appointed upper chamber. It is widely known among Bahrainis that any land walled off with two levels of brick or three levels belonged to either King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, or to his uncle, the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa who has been in office for 50 years. The layered wall pattern was found in smaller plots of land within towns and cities, but as land plots got bigger and further away from the city, the walling-off process was much more expansive and ownership of those plots became invisible. A third of the total landmass in the south of Bahrain is off-limits and owned by the ruling family. With mainland land scarce, the value of land reclamation from the sea since 2001 has increased rapidly.
A Parliamentary Committee in 2006 was the first to disclose who was behind these land takings when they managed to obtain a trove of land registry documents—having gained a rare entry into the land registry office.4 Title deeds showed how a 12 square kilometer sea plot was transferred to the Royal Court in 2003, then later in 2006 a company called Premier Group WLL requested the division of land between two companies, Stone Ventures and Ciel (Stone actually owns Ciel). But the relationship between the Royal Court, Premier Group WLL and Stone Ventures was still unclear.
The parliamentary committee’s published report caused an uproar because of the chronic lack of housing and shrinking land for housing developments. Although the MPs refrained from naming individuals, their political strategy was to demand the return of land to public ownership. As I conducted interviews with these MPs, filmed rallies and attended debates on the subject, I continually wondered why people were not angrier about this massive land theft.
But as our fieldwork came to a close by the end of 2010, Bahrain’s largest uprising erupted a month later. In the early protests, people gathered in Bahrain Bay, where the prime minister had acquired a strategic land plot for one Bahraini dinar, with many protesters carrying a dinar note to emphasize their disapproval. Corruption and inequality were at the heart of the protests, which were later intentionally portrayed as sectarian. I left my work on the investigation here, as I was swept into the revolutionary moment and the subsequent violent repression, imprisonments, surveillance and child-rearing.
The trail picked up again in mid-2014, however, when I received an unexpected email from an anonymous whistleblower that contained extensive documents of the real estate portfolio in Great Britain of a company called Premier Group. This elusive company appeared nowhere in any company records. The documents provided details of at least 20 properties in London purchased after 2003, including hotels, office blocks and luxury apartments in upscale neighborhoods of Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Kensington.
This information was not necessarily a major revelation. Qatar alone has spent over $50 billion on real estate in Great Britain, owning more real estate than the queen for example. The significance was not in the what, but in the who and the how. The documents leaked to me revealed a web of companies set up by a company called Ogier on behalf of the king of Bahrain to obscure his direct ownership, and which involved registering the ownership of each purchased property to different company entities in Great Britain and in Jersey, connecting all acquisitions to Stone Company SPC and Premier Group WLL.
The diagram connected all the title deeds collected by MPs a few years earlier with new records of real estate purchases in London that linked directly to what Bahrain’s independent MPs had deemed the illegal acquisition under Bahraini law of sea-shore plots in Bahrain. We found that the land transferred to the king in 2003 was deemed a $103 million “in-kind” contribution to a partnership with foreign sukuk investors (sukuks are Islamic bonds, a form of generating financial credit for investment), who hoped to sell the land to secondary developers for $1.3 billion. The land, in fact, cost nothing but would have returned at least half a billion dollars to the king once sold. This is just one example of the journey of capital from Bahrain to secretive financial havens and glittery luxury real estate in London.
The blue boxes in the diagram contain the names of offshore companies registered in Jersey. For example, the Four Seasons Hotel in Park Lane was purchased by a London-registered company called Inn on the Park whereas the Marriot Hotel on Park Lane was purchased by a Jersey-based company called PL Hotel Limited. These companies were easy to cross-check since London and Jersey both have company records.
The London companies in orange registered with Company House list the names of directors for each company. Premier group used a company called Ogier to offer “nominal directors” (people who loan their names for use as directors to hide the real owners’ identities) and an office address that is not the actual office. Meanwhile, the companies registered in the offshore haven of Jersey contain no information on directors or owners of companies. I subsequently worked with the Financial Times for six months on an investigation that cross-checked and verified the documents and confirmed that Premier Group is owned by the king of Bahrain, and got more information on the foreign investors who plowed money into turning the sea plots into luxury developments.5 The king of Bahrain’s real estate portfolio amounts to at least £1 billion.
This investigation revealed how the corrupt hide public traces of their transactions through complex company structures that make it nearly impossible to impose accountability. The Gulf states’ use of offshore companies is not just for tax avoidance purposes, it also enables them to hide their assets from the public. The result, however, was that this investigation resurrected the narrative around land, power and privatization which was the primary motivation for the protestors in the 2011 uprising.
Stop the Shipment
Bahrain Watch also undertook another serendipitous project called Stop the Shipment, which exposed the extent and international sourcing of the government’s use of aggressive and often lethal crowd control weapons.
The widespread use of tear gas against protestors in the 2011 uprising was particularly harsh in Bahrain. The Arab uprisings were a boon for arms producers specializing in “dispersal non-lethal weapons“ that were used to forcibly disperse protesters. These weapons had caused many deaths, rendering them, in fact, intentionally lethal. The markets for “non-lethal weapons” in the Middle East was estimated to be worth $45.7 million in 2013 out of a $368 million global market, increasing to $51.9 million out of a $490 million global market by 2018.
The Bahraini government regularly used major amounts of tear gas to suppress public protest. It deployed tear gas in the country’s villages to quell even the smallest street protests, with an estimated 2,000 canisters fired each day. Tear gas cans are lethal when police shoot canisters at close distances and aim directly at protesters, or when fired in a confined space and the gas suffocates residents. I was at the protest in Sitra in 2011 when Sayed Hashim Sayed Saeed, a 15-year-old, was shot with a canister and died in the ambulance, leaving a clear square imprint on his skin. I have also been in homes where tear gas was intentionally shot inside, causing residents to smash windows to escape.
The widespread use of tear gas was perceived to be a form of collective punishment due to its indiscriminate use after a protest emerges. NGOs and activists estimated the use of hundreds of canisters per night, recording many cases of newborns and the elderly suffocating to death. These deaths were more obscure and even less accountable than from those caused by live ammunition. Death certificates frequently recorded the cause of death as “respiratory problems” without any toxicology tests and without attribution to tear gas inhalation.
Bahrain Watch became involved in an ongoing project to identify tear gas products, their manufacturers and evidence of tear gas abuse. In the course of our investigations, a whistleblower sent us a secret tender issued in 2013 from the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior seeking the provision of 1.6 million tear-gas projectiles, 90,000 tear gas grenades and 145,000 stun grenades. Despite Bahrain’s free trade agreement with the United States which stipulates that state contracts must procure products and services through an open and competitive public bidding process, military and security products and services are exempt. Military and security armaments are typically procured directly or requested from suppliers in officially sealed forms.
The sheer number of canisters and stun grenades in this request confirmed the substantial use that Bahraini residents and activists were reporting. We also discovered that a South Korean arms supplier would fulfill this contract. In fact, the total amount that the supplier intended to sell was double the original tender ($3 million). The campaign highlighted the new transnational arms supply routes: American and British tear gas cost around $90 per canister, the new supplier was offering canisters for under $10. The story of the tender was published in the Financial Times in October 2013.6
A global campaign #StopTheShipment run by Bahraini and South Korean activists also forced the Korean government to halt the sale to Bahrain.7 The campaign sent nearly 400,000 emails to South Korean government departments. Korean activists held weekly protests outside the Defence Acquisition Program Administration in Seoul and the Korean media took a keen interest in the story. By January 2014, the South Korean government declared it would not approve any further sales of tear gas. Korean media and activists were astonished by this sale, since Korea did not have a tradition of tear gas production. During a visit to Seoul, I learned that the Arab uprisings resonated with South Korean pro-democracy movements in the 1960s in which several protestors were killed by tear gas before they established a more democratic process.
Where Paper Trails End
Gulf states have enjoyed a level of impunity for decades based on faulty narratives of royal wealth and citizen acquiescence. Gulf investments in universities, newspapers, digital platforms and think tanks in Western states has inhibited independent critical research and accountability for these states. This impunity was only recently ruptured with the death of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and decreasing global dependency on oil. Those who have tried to breach this silence such as journalists, activists or critics of corruption like Al-Zamil in Saudi Arabia, Ebrahim Sharif in Bahrain and Ahmed Mansour in the UAE are serving, or have served, long jail sentences for attempting to publicly discuss state corruption. The UAE arrest of British researcher Matthew Hedges is similar to these cases, but the less globally privileged citizens of these states have no leverage or get out of jail cards.8
Navigating this dangerous terrain, my colleagues and I attempted to overcome these challenges through collaborations between those inside and outside Bahrain to work on in-depth investigations using open-source and secret documents to expose protection rackets never before investigated. We used Bahrain’s apparent exceptionality as a lens to show how financial services, surveillance technologies and crowd control weapons supplied by an elaborate network of multi-national foreign companies abet local state power. Protection rackets such as these implicate many other parties and states besides Bahrain.
In this vein, we sought mainstream journalistic collaboration with Bloomberg and the Financial Times specifically because we believed there should be global exposure to our hyper-local realities of repression and inequality. Our investigations also show the power that whistleblowers can generate by taking the first steps to expose secrets, and how trusted activists and academics can be the first go-to point for such whistleblowers. Most importantly, we demonstrated that grounded research in local socio-political conditions and histories are essential in contextualizing information, that, when combined with other digital research skills, make this a formidable approach. More work still needs to be done in terms of investing in research and media infrastructures and institutions that allow for the accumulation of skills and knowledge. One essential skill still needed, for example, is developing long-form Arabic writing about these empirical investigations to make them more widely accessible to regional populations. ■
1 Petter Slaatrem Titland, “It’s All in the Game: Journalism, Whistleblowing and Democracy Under the Rules of the Global Economy,” in Roy Krøvel and Mona Thowsen, eds., Making Transparency Possible (Cappelen Damm Akademisk, 2019): https://doi.org/10.23865/noasp.64.ch14.
2 WikiLeaks—Spy Files, 2014: https://wikileaks.org/spyfiles/. FinFisher promo videos, Finspy—YouTube, 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc8i7C659FU.
3 Susan Wolfinbarger, Jonathan Drake, Eric Ashcroft, and Andrea Hughes, Investigating Land Use and Land Cover Change in Bahrain 1987–2013 (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014): https://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/AAAS_Bahrain_Report.pdf.
4 Mahmoud Cheriff Bassiouni and Nigel Rodley, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2014).
5 Cynthia O’Murchu and Simeon Kerr, “Bahrain land deals highlight alchemy of making money from sand,” The Financial Times, December 10, 2014.
6 Simeon Kerr and Simon Mundy, “Bahrain boosts supplies of tear gas as instability continues,” The Financial Times, October 21, 2013.
7 Song Jung-a and Simeon Kerr, “South Korea halts tear gas exports to Bahrain,” The Financial Times, January 9, 2014.
8 Shana Marshall, “Scholars, Spies and the Gulf Military Industrial Complex,” Middle East Report Online, September 4, 2019.