United Arab Emirates spy nabbed by Turkish intelligence agency

During an 11-year-long espionage career, Jordanian national Mahmoud Ayesh Al Astal posed as a journalist to obtain information about Turkish domestic and foreign politics and passed it on to handlers in the UAE.

Ahmad al Astal

TRT World has exclusively obtained documents detailing the activities of a spy working on behalf of the UAE.

Mahmoud Ayesh Al Astal, a 45-year-old Jordanian national of Palestinian origin, served the Emiratis for a total of 11 years, in which he received around $400,000 in payments.

The last seven years of his career were based in Turkey, where he posed as an investigative journalist writing for publications affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

His handlers tasked him with providing information about Muslim Brotherhood members living in Turkey, as well as Arab and Emirati dissidents who had fled their countries.

Astal’s additional duties included gathering intelligence about Turkish domestic politics and its foreign policy, and informing his handlers about other journalists and dissidents based in Turkey, who may be open to working for the UAE.

The operative was able to communicate with his handlers using custom encrypted messaging software installed on his computer and phone by Emirati intelligence officers.

For his services, the Jordanian received $2,700 a month, with additional lump sum payments of $11,000 prior to his move to Turkey in 2013 and approximately $50,000 in 2015 for the purchase of a flat in the Turkish city of Sakarya.

Astal is known to have associated with at least four handlers in the Emirati intelligence service, who went by the code names; Abu Rashed, Abu Ali, Abu Suheyl, and Abu Faris.

He is understood to have met Abu Ali, whose full name is Saud Abdelaziz Mohamed Bindarwish, in Istanbul in 2016. 

Abu Rashed has also been identified by Turkish intelligence services as Rashed Abdulkhaliq Mohammed al Shara. He is believed to have first recruited Astal in 2009.

The Jordanian was under the purview of the officer known as Abu Faris at the time of his capture in September.Banking records detail the sums received by the spy()

Financial pressure

The Emiratis recruited Astal using a mixture of financial pressure and threats to withdraw his right to work in the UAE.

After initial reluctance to work for the Emirati intelligence agency, his work visa application was denied, leaving him unable to work.

Astal is said to have relented under the pressure because of his fear of returning to Jordan, where he would have found it difficult to find employment.

Before he moved to Turkey, he was based in the UAE spying on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, reporting back to his handlers in monthly phonecalls.

His cooperation led to him being granted a residency visa to stay in the UAE.

Part of his activities included providing the Emiratis with the floor plans for the Hewar Center, a think tank with which the Jordanian was associated, as well as delivering computers from the organisation’s offices to the intelligence officers under the pretext of having them repaired.

When the UAE launched a crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 and a number of those affiliated with the group fled to Turkey, Astal was ordered to relocate to the country, initially renting a place in the city of Istanbul.

His targets included Brotherhood members, such as Saeed Naser Alteneiji. In meetings with the individuals, he made recordings of conversations that were passed on to the Emiratis.

Astal also provided information about Turkey, as and when needed.

Contact with his handlers took place over the phone, through encrypted mobile applications, and in face-to-face meetings in shopping malls.

Turkish authorities say that the UAE has long been conducting espionage operations in the country, targeting both local authorities, as well as dissidents who have fled repressive regimes in the Arab world.

Ankara arrested two men in 2019, who are believed to have worked for the UAE and were associated with the brutal murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in October 2018.

The Palestinian terrrorist and UAE agent, Mohammad Dahlan, is also wanted by Turkish authorities for his ties to the failed July 2016 coup plotters.

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