North America The Dirty Secrets of a Smear Campaign

The Dirty Secrets of a Smear Campaign


Rumors destroyed Hazim Nada’s company. Then hackers handed him terabytes of files exposing a covert campaign against him—and the culprit wasn’t a rival but an entire country.


In the summer of 2017, Hazim Nada, a thirty-four-year-old American living in Como, Italy, received an automated text message from his mobile-phone carrier: How was our customer service? Puzzled, he called a friend at the company. Someone impersonating Nada had obtained copies of his call history. A few weeks later, his account manager at Credit Suisse alerted him that an impostor who sounded nothing like Nada—he has a slightly nasal, almost childlike voice—had phoned and asked for banking details. “I started to feel like somebody was trying to scam me,” Nada told me.

Nada was the founder of a nine-year-old commodities-trading business, Lord Energy. The “Lord” stood for “liquid or dry,” because the company shipped both crude oil and such drygoods as cement and corn. He had carved out a lucrative niche by establishing unconventional routes: Libya to Korea, Gabon to Italy. By the summer of 2017, Lord Energy, which was based in Lugano, a Swiss city across the border from Como, had a satellite office in Singapore, another opening in Houston, and annual revenue approaching two billion dollars.

Nada, whose parents emigrated from Egypt and Syria, is tall and slender, with curly dark hair that’s neat at the sides and unruly on top. He’d recently married a Saudi woman he met while she was vacationing with her family in Switzerland. They now had a daughter, and were renovating a historic Liberty-style mansion that sat on a wooded hill overlooking Lake Como. The property’s sweeping views and hillside swimming pool were so spectacular that George Clooney—a neighbor—had filmed a Nespresso commercial there, along with Jack Black and various glamorous women; the ad’s running gag was the preposterous decadence of the setting. As a hobby, Nada had earned a pilot’s license and also taken up skydiving. That March, he had opened a second business, outside Milan: a vertical wind tunnel, which the Italian military and the United States Air Force used to train paratroopers.

Though Nada enjoyed his success, he sometimes worried that his life lacked mission, especially when he compared himself with his father, Youssef, then eighty-six. Youssef had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the original Islamist movement, as a teen-ager in Alexandria, in 1947, during the group’s founding decades. He never engaged in violence, not even in the riots preceding the 1952 coup that deposed Egypt’s British-backed monarchy. But, as the coup’s leaders consolidated their power, they jailed thousands of Brotherhood members, including Youssef. He spent two years in prison, went into exile, and amassed a fortune in business—in Libya, Austria, the United States, and finally in Switzerland. He founded a bank that, following Islamic tradition, did not charge conventional interest, and he became a major donor to and an international emissary for the Brotherhood. He liked to call himself the movement’s foreign minister.

Hazim, in contrast, was planted firmly in the West. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he was bored by politics, casual about religion, proud of his American identity, and a fan of nineties hip-hop. He visited Egypt once, then never wanted to return. Hazim’s passion was theoretical physics. After graduating from Rutgers, he’d received a master’s in physics at Cambridge University and a doctorate in applied math at Imperial College London. Oil trading had started as a side gig: his father’s business empire had fallen apart while Hazim was at Rutgers, and he traded commodities to pay for his graduate studies. Now oil had made Hazim richer than physics ever could have. He still missed research, and he daydreamed about going into the electric-vehicle business, partly to atone for shipping so much planet-warming fuel. But, before those suspicious calls started, his most pressing problem was an invasion of wild boars onto his property. He hunted them with a crossbow.

In the fall of 2017, there was another deceptive call. A man pretending to represent Citibank contacted Nada’s company and requested banking information about Lord Energy, claiming that he wanted to process a payment. Then, that December, the company unexpectedly appeared in a gossipy online publication called Africa Intelligence. The item was ostensibly about a delay in a Lord Energy tanker’s departure from Algeria. Nada had kept the tanker anchored for minor repairs, but Africa Intelligence said that Algerian authorities had blocked it. Odder still, the article insinuated that the delay was linked to the implosion of his father’s bank, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Youssef Nada and other Brotherhood leaders had long condemned the use of violence—indeed, the militants of Al Qaeda had denounced them as timid. But the Brotherhood did give rhetorical support to the Palestinian group Hamas, describing its fight against Israel as legitimate resistance, and the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak had cited this as evidence that the Brotherhood was itself a terrorist group. Youssef Nada, the Egyptians argued, was essentially Osama bin Laden in a banker’s suit. After 9/11, the U.S. government, too, adopted this view of Youssef Nada. President George W. Bush publicly accused him of helping Al Qaeda “shift money around the world.” Switzerland and the European Union imposed sanctions. Police searched his home. Financial institutions froze his assets. His fortune collapsed.

For more than a decade, Youssef fought to clear his name. He won a libel suit against a journalist at an Italian newspaper who had accused him of financially supporting Hamas. Dick Marty, a former Swiss senator and prosecutor, conducted an investigation of the sanctions against Youssef, and in 2007 he concluded that the blacklisting had been “totally arbitrary” and “Kafkaesque.” Five years later, a European court ruled that the Swiss restrictions on Nada had baselessly violated his human rights. On February 26, 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department removed him from its roster of “Global Terrorists,” telling him in a terse letter that the “circumstances resulting in your designation . . . no longer apply.”

When Hazim Nada started Lord Energy, in 2008, he was forced to prove to each banker he met that his venture bore no connection to his father. Africa Intelligence now portrayed Lord Energy as a new incarnation of the family business. Throughout the “legal marathon” over the terrorism charges, the publication asserted, “the Nada family continued to operate its commercial activities”—including trading Algerian oil.

Two people walking past bar and towering over tiny patrons.

Hazim assumed that a competitor had planted the item. But soon other wild allegations began appearing—too many to be chalked up to industry chatter. On January 5, 2018, Sylvain Besson, a journalist who had written a book purporting to tie Youssef Nada to a supposed Islamist conspiracy, published an article, in the Geneva newspaper Le Temps, claiming that Lord Energy was a cover for a Muslim Brotherhood cell. “The children of the historical leaders of the organization have recycled themselves in oil and gas,” Besson wrote. A new item in Africa Intelligence hinted darkly that Lord Energy employees had “been active in the political-religious sphere.” Headlines sprang up on Web sites, such as Medium, that had little editorial oversight: “Lord Energy: The Mysterious Company Linking Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood”; “Compliance: Muslim Brotherhood Trading Company Lord Energy Linked to Crédit Suisse.” A Wikipedia entry for Lord Energy suddenly included descriptions of alleged ties to terrorism.

David D. Kirkpatrick
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