By JON GAMBRELL , DUBAI, United Arab Emirates May 31 , (AP) — A Kenyan security guard now facing charges in Qatar after writing compelling, anonymous accounts of being a low-paid worker there found himself targeted by a phishing attack that could have revealed his location just before his arrest, analysts say.
While analysts from Amnesty International and Citizen Lab said they were unable to say who targeted Malcolm Bidali, the phishing attack mirrored others previously carried out by Gulf Arab sheikhdoms targeting dissidents and political opposition. It also would require access to confidential information stored by telecommunication companies typically only released to government or security force officials to be able to be useful as well.
Ooredoo and Vodafone Qatar, the two major internet providers in Qatar, did not respond to requests for comment. Qatar as well did not respond to questions about the phishing attack targeting Bidali.
The weekslong detention of Bidali, 28, in an undisclosed location comes ahead of Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup and has again raised questions about freedom of expression in this small, energy-rich nation before the tournament.
Qatar has “ made a lot of steps ... to reform its labor systems,” said James Lynch, a director at the London-based group FairSquare Research and Projects, which advocates for migrant workers in the Middle East. ”Yet when we have a migrant worker speaking out about his experience, sharing his experience and calling for change in a fully peaceful manner, we see them being shut down and disappeared.”
Bidali, 28, worked 12-hour days as a security guard. In his spare time, he wrote under the pen name “Noah” about his experiences as a guard, including trying to improve his worker accommodations. His essays offered plaudits for Qatar at times as a “trendsetter in many areas.”
However, he didn’t hold back in describing the cramped bedrooms some of his compatriots shared — with up to 10 men in a room — or the frustration of being unable to afford the “luxury of privacy” that white-collar Western expatriates and Qataris themselves enjoy.
“Why should intimacy, and even family life, be reserved for the privileged nationalities and financially affluent?” he asked in one article.
The cause of Bidali’s detention remains unclear. Days earlier, he spoke and briefly appeared in a video conference with civil society and trade union groups describing his experiences. Activists say he clicked on a suspicious internet link as well during that time. Gulf Arab states widely use spy software and hacks to monitor possible dissenters, but it’s unclear who targeted him.
There also was a recent post in which he criticized by name Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the wife of Qatar’s former emir and the head of the Qatar Foundation. Bidali worked as a security guard for GSS Certis at a development under the Qatar Foundation. The foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An employee at GSS Certis who gave his name as Puvan said he didn’t know where Bidali was.
“We were told that this is still under investigation so have no detail on that,” he said.
Security guards in Qatar at two companies also recently held what they described as strikes over pay and labor issues. Only Qatari nationals with the General Union of Workers of Qatar have the right to strike, according to the Washington-based group Freedom House.
Foreign laborers and household help “who engage in labor protests risk deportation,” Freedom House said in a recent report. Qatar’s government said it intervened in both cases.
The Kenyan Embassy in Qatar did not respond to requests for comment. In a letter to Qatari officials human rights groups, including Amnesty International, FairSquare and Human Rights Watch, said they feared Bidali had been held “without access to a lawyer or consular assistance.”
“We are extremely concerned for his well-being and safety,” they wrote.
Qatar, a small nation on the Arabian Peninsula, is home to the state-funded Al-Jazeera satellite news network. However, expression in the country remains tightly controlled.
“While residents enjoy some freedom of private discussion, security forces reportedly monitor personal communications and noncitizens often self-censor to avoid jeopardizing their work and residency status,” Freedom House said. “Social media users can face criminal penalties for posting politically sensitive content.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists later called on Qatar to clarify the charges Bidali faced or immediately release him, noting that Doha has “repeatedly arrested journalists covering labor issues.”
“We are alarmed by the detention of blogger Malcolm Bidali without any reason disclosed, especially given Qatari authorities’ record of trying to shut down reporting on labor rights ahead of the country’s hosting of the World Cup next year,” said Justin Shilad, the committee’s senior Middle East and North Africa researcher.