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Suspected espionage in Zurich: did an ex-CIA man spy on Fifa on behalf of the sheikhs?

World Cup critics are said to have been spied on for years on Qatar’s behalf – in Switzerland. That could be illegal news service or illegal activities for a foreign country, says criminal lawyer Mark Pieth.

By Henry Habegger.

The football World Cup, perhaps the most controversial in history, begins in Qatar on November 20th.  Not only because it takes place in winter, but above all because corruption was already mentioned when the contract was awarded, because thousands of guest workers are said to have died in the construction of the infrastructure because the most elementary human rights do not apply in Qatar. And because states like the authoritarian government of Qatar are constantly trying to infiltrate our western democracies.

Especially since Qatar was chosen to host the World Cup.

IMAGE: Qatar, coal & cronyism.

This article forms the first part of our background series on the murky affairs and astonishing events in Switzerland in the run-up to the World Cup, which begins in Qatar in November.  The other two parts will follow in the next few days.

In 2010, Qatar was awarded the World Cup at the same time as Russia (2018).  A billion-dollar business that should also make the emirate one of the top addresses in world football.  But the matter was fragile, there were indications and rumors from the start that bribery was involved in the award.  The Sheikhs risked losing the World Cup again.

Twenties as a threat

Shortly after the bid, an influential German official, a former judge and human rights advocate, emerged who criticized the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar: Theo Zwanziger, President of the German Football Association (DFB), became a member of the Fifa Executive Committee in spring 2011.

At the beginning of June 2011, Zwanziger demanded in the ZDF morning magazine: The World Cup award to Qatar had to be reviewed because there was a “considerable degree of suspicion”.

Zwanzig had influence and weight worldwide. He had additional credibility because he was not on the Fifa executive in 2010 when Qatar won the World Cup.  He was also dangerous because he was committed to fighting corruption and nepotism, especially as president of the task force that was preparing a Fifa statute revision. At Fifa, he also worked closely with the Swiss criminal lawyer Mark Pieth, who tried to get Fifa on an anti-corruption course from 2011 to 2013.

Spy victim? Theo Zwanziger.

Former judge and CDU politician Zwanzer obviously posed a threat to Qatar. The sheikhs, as the AP news agency reported last year, hired a former CIA agent and his agency to target Zwanzer.

“A project was started to spy on and influence me,” Zwanziger knows today thanks to documents that apparently leaked to former employees of the CIA man”. Zwanziger says. “The agency that did it received several million dollars from Qatar. They put people on me and allegedly spied on me right down to my family circle. I didn’t notice anything about it, but that’s also the characteristic of such Stasi methods. But there are indications that there were people at Fifa and the DFB who worked for Qatar.”

«Project Riverbed» – an intelligence operation? 

According to a report known to CH Media, an influencing operation codenamed “Project Riverbed” ran from 2012 to 2014. Thus, the authoritarian rulers ultimately threw up over $10 million to spy on and influence twenties.

According to the report, drawn up after the action was completed, Zwanziger was disruptive because of his “many negative comments” regarding the lack of transparency at Fifa and because he believes Qatar is a poor choice as a World Cup venue. Zwanzig has repeatedly stated his opinion publicly. “These statements damaged Qatar’s image and ultimately its ability to host the World Cup,” according to the sheikh agency’s analysis.

The aim of the two-year project was to “change and neutralize” Zwanziger’s critical attitude. He should be convinced that the West can only achieve social change in Qatar if the country can host the World Cup. Zwanziger’s attitude towards the World Cup should be changed so “that he no longer poses a threat to the World Cup”.

The agency claims to have used a number of techniques such as secret influencing, covert operations or “IT blackmail platforms” to achieve the goal. A project manager is said to have been hired to infiltrate Fifa with the aim of developing “contacts” with knowledge of 20’s, the World Cup and international football. After gaining access to the exclusive circle of Fifa executives, it was found that Zwanziger was trying to balance his strong desire for social justice and his loyalty to Fifa President Blatter.

The agency claims it used its “covert influence skills” to change Zwanzer’s attitude towards Qatar in a “covert influence campaign”. Zwanziger initially encouraged friends, colleagues and family to think more positively about Qatar. “Individuals” who had considerable influence on twenties and who, unconsciously, in turn influenced twenties in the sense of Qatar, had been “successfully” targeted.

Others were also spied on

The agency aims to be successful within two years. According to the final report, Zwanziger is no longer against Qatar as the venue, but now sees an opportunity for the situation of guest workers to improve and a reform of human rights to be introduced. 

As “evidence”, the agency provided a list of statements made by Zwanzig between June 2011 and June 2014.

Zwanzig was obviously not an isolated case. According to the AP, however, “the small Arab nation of Qatar employed a former CIA agent for years to help spy on football officials.” This was “part of the effort that spared no expense to get and keep the 2022 World Cup”.

The US agency described the documents to the AP as forgeries. The “projects” mentioned with names like “Pickaxe”, “Falconeye”, “Merciless” or “Viper” never existed, and the agency never resorted to illegal practices. Regarding “Project Riverbed”, the agency told the AP that it was “banal media monitoring”.

Twenties spying heavily in Zurich

In the conversation, Theo Zwanziger names two officials who, in retrospect, he has the impression that they were active on behalf of Qatar. One person worked at Fifa headquarters in Zurich, the other was a senior representative of the DFB in Germany.

The man in Zurich did not want to comment further on the subject: He said “in principle neither to former employers nor to past or current mandates”. But what he can say: he knows neither the former CIA agent nor his agency. The former top German official did not respond to an email request sent via the DFB.

One thing is certain: the spying and influencing, if they existed, took place mainly at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich.


He was the greaser of the sheikhs from Qatar – why did the Swiss judiciary never take action against Bin Hammam?

Qatar, where human rights are non-existent, secured the 2022 World Cup like clockwork. And resisted losing the hosting rights again. In the middle of the “Schweizerhof”, the hotel of the sheikhs in the center of Bern, where Fifa and the federal prosecutor’s office met secretly.

Victorious sheikh with the World Cup trophy: Qatar’s ruler Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on December 2, 2010 after the World Cup had been awarded. On the right is the then Fifa boss Sepp Blatter.

In June 2010, the sheikhs from Qatar closed the sack in Bern: They took over the small remainder of the shares in Bern’s posh hotel Schweizerhof, which they did not yet own.

In December 2010, the sheikhs from Qatar closed the deal in Zurich: they secured the bid for the 2022 World Cup from Fifa.

As a result, the “Schweizerhof” and the World Cup awards were to make headlines worldwide and open up the abysses of Swiss criminal justice. The hotel became the scene of secret meetings between Swiss federal prosecutor Michael Lauber and FIFA boss Gianni Infantino. What was negotiated there is still controversial and obscure to this day.

Two federal special investigators, retired Zurich prosecutors Ulrich Weder and Hans Maurer, are still trying to find out what happened. They were elected by the federal parliament at the end of 2021 to investigate whether abuse of office, violation of official secrecy, abetting or incitement to these crimes occurred.

Billionaire Mohammed bin Hammam in March 2011. He had made the Qatar miracle possible and now wanted to overthrow Sepp Blatter from the Fifa throne. Two months later he was banned for life for corruption.
Francois Mori/AP

Journalists from the British “Sunday Times” traced how the World Cup in Qatar came about in the book “The Ugly Game”.  Accordingly, the then Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani “decided” in 2008 to bring the World Cup to the desert. That was considered hopeless. But Qatar had Mohammed bin Hammam, a member of the FIFA executive since 1996. He was known for generously helping out with money when it came to buying influence. He knew how to lubricate the Fifa gears.

 This is how the “miracle” of December 2010 came about at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich. Qatar defeated the United States by a vote of 14 to 8. But the sheiks’ great fear was losing the World Cup again. Suddenly bin Hammam was a problem. In March 2011 he made the mistake of challenging Sepp Blatter for the Fifa presidency. Two months later, bin Hammam was initially suspended by the Fifa ethics committee and later banned from all football offices for life. He wanted to buy votes in the Caribbean to overthrow Blatter.

The British “Sunday Times” had also been leaked millions of e-mails, bank statements and transfers from bin Hammam’s company and football network. These showed in detail how the lubrication system from Qatar worked.

Bin Hammam had another special skeleton in the closet. One that smelt strong and could cost Qatar the World Cup: Bin Hammam was also the key figure in the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office about the 2006 World Cup, the German “summer fairy tale”. Since 2015, the federal prosecutor’s office has been conducting criminal proceedings over World Cup awards to Russia and Qatar. And also because of the “summer fairy tale”.

Ten million via Switzerland to Qatar

It was about ten million francs from association coffers that ended up in a Doha account of bin Hammam’s electronics company Kemco in 2002, after the World Cup had been awarded. One of his bribery cash registers is said to have been there. The transaction was initiated by “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer, President of the Organizing Committee of the 2006 World Cup, who even advanced six million. The money flowed through a law firm in Obwalden.

What bin Hammam did with the money is still unclear to this day. He is silent. And the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office never took action against him, they never listed him as a suspect in the “summer fairy tale” process. The key character was not an issue. Why not?

Qatar critic Theo Zwanziger, on the other hand, was one of the accused in the proceedings, which ultimately became statute-barred. The former DFB president, who had been spied on by Qatar until a year earlier (part 1 of the series).

“The federal prosecutor conducted the wrong process,” says Zwanziger today. He had become the “vassal of Qatar”.  “You should have initiated criminal proceedings against bin Hammam, the money had flowed through accounts in Switzerland. And Infantino should have taken action against him and reclaimed the ten million, which, according to Beckenbauer, belonged to FIFA.”

A kind of fraternization. Qatar now has a new sheikh. His name is Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and he is the son of the old man. Civilian Fifa boss Gianni Infantino, who now lives in Qatar.
Hassan Ammar/AP

Investigations against the Emir’s confidante “had a devastating effect on the World Cup in Qatar,” says Zwanziger. Bin Hammam was himself a member of the executive committee when it was awarded to Qatar, “he steered the process”. If Switzerland had accused bin Hammam, it would have accused the Emir: Bin Hammam was a tool of the absolutist ruler. He literally fell to his knees before the Emir, at court he was called “the slave”.

The fact that votes were bought when the 2006 World Cup was awarded is almost official today. A report from 2021 by the Esecon company, which investigated on behalf of the DFB, says: “The facts known to date convincingly suggest that ‘vote buying’ took place.”

The Emir has had a hand in this before Germany won the award in 2000 by a vote of 12 to 11 against South Africa. Eight votes came from Europe. The remaining four votes came from the Asian association AFC, which was chaired by bin Hammam. “His role was pivotal in getting the Asian voices that Beckenbauer needed,” the authors of The Ugly Game note. Later, when it came to the 2022 World Cup, the Emir duly reminded Beckenbauer. That means: He had the Germans in the sack.

Qatar critic Zwanziger, on the other hand, had to deal with the judiciary several times. The sheiks reported him in Germany in 2015 for defamation. In June 2015, the former judge said on Hessischer Rundfunk that Qatar was “a cancer in world football”.

On April 19, 2016, the District Court of Düsseldorf dismissed Qatar’s lawsuit against Zwanziger. It’s part of freedom of expression to say that. Three days later, the new Fifa boss Gianni Infantino arrived in Zurich on the Emir’s jet from Qatar. He came to one of the secret meetings with the federal prosecutor (Michael Lauber). Fifa chief lawyer Marco Villiger and Lauber’s chief public prosecutor Olivier Thormann, under whose aegis the Fifa proceedings have been running since 2015, were also present.

Three days later, the Fifa lawyers wrote to Thormann “as discussed” asking that the world football association be admitted as a private prosecutor in the “summer fairy tale” procedure, which happened later.  

This allowed Fifa to influence the process.

Bin Hammam has been phased out

 Zwanziger calls these processes “friendliness in the Schweizerhof”. He sees this confirmed by the investigation that today’s special investigator Ulrich Weder conducted against public prosecutor Thormann in 2018. Based on a submission by federal prosecutor Lauber, Weder investigated the current federal criminal judge on suspicion of breaching official secrecy and taking advantage. Neither stopped the proceedings, but accused Thormann of being too close to Fifa’s chief lawyer Marco Villiger.

Research by CH Media suggests that Lauber tried at times to persuade Qatar to provide legal assistance, and even the Federal Council is said to have been involved, unsuccessfully. It is conceivable that the federal prosecutor hoped for support from FIFA, since they had the “leverage” with the World Cup. But the sheikhs certainly didn’t go along with it. They did not provide any legal assistance to Germany either. There was not even a response to questions submitted.

Bin Hammam, the man who knows too much, is sitting somewhere in Doha and is silent. He was phased out by his master, the new Emir.

Almost next door: Embassy Qatar, Meeting Room III

Qatar above all.  Probably the most mysterious of the four secret meetings between FIFA and the federal prosecutor’s office took place on June 16, 2017 in the Nobel Hotel Schweizerhof. None of at least four participants can supposedly remember. A fifth man was probably there, five sets of three “Gipfeli” were billers.

An on-site inspection shows that Meeting Room III, where the ominous meeting took place, is on the first floor of the Schweizerhof – just three or four steps from the entrance to the Qatar Embassy.  If you want to go to the meeting room, you have to go past the embassy.  So the sheikhs sat, at least, in the front row of this piece.

Door to door in Bern’s Hotel Schweizerhof: the entrance to the Qatar Embassy and the entrance to Meeting Room III (back left in the picture), where the “forgotten” meeting between FIFA boss Gianni Infantino and federal prosecutor Michael Lauber took place in 2017. An unknown fifth man may have been there. It can be guessed.

The corridor between the embassy and the meeting room is under video surveillance. Not just the hallway: in 2018 it became known that a surveillance camera from the hotel was even filming Bern’s Bahnhofplatz.  The sheikhs certainly know more, and they are known to use their knowledge to achieve their goals.

Meeting Room III in the “Schweizerhof” Bern. Special attorneys are trying to figure out what went on here.

Perhaps the two special investigators who are investigating the affair surrounding the secret meetings between the federal prosecutor’s office and Fifa will provide more clarity. They not only lead the Fifa boss and the former federal prosecutor as accused. But also: André Marty, Lauber’s head of information; Rinaldo Arnold, childhood friend from Brig von Infantino, was present at three of the secret meetings. In addition, Olivier Thormann and Marco Villiger, former Fifa chief lawyer; and Cédric Remund, federal prosecutor.

It is unclear what the accused are specifically accused of. The special investigators are currently not communicating, and the accused deny having committed criminal acts. The presumption of innocence also applies to the sheikhs.

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