Friday, 7 August 2009

Modern day Mata Hari snatched from Dubai


Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 09
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While Australians languished in Dubai jails, a much bigger fish made fraudulent millions with impunity. This glamorous but treacherous spy is finally behind bars, writes Rick Feneley.
They call her the modern-day Mata Hari, a spy-turned-criminal who laundered fortunes from drug runners and arms dealers through Dubai's high-rise wonderland. Alternatively, they have cast Malika Karoum as an innocent woman, a fugitive not from the law but from an abusive husband who maliciously defamed her - and concocted the whole spy-crime thriller - as part of a bitter custody battle for their young son.
The Netherlands media have been wrestling over the two Karoums for a year. The 33-year-old Dutch-Moroccan's exotic good looks made great fodder for magazines, newspapers and tabloid television. But on Wednesday this week came the bombshell. The cover story of Revu, a quality weekly magazine, announced: ''Spy Malika in the cell.''
Only now could it reveal that Karoum had been in jail for the past six months in Egypt, where the Ismailiya State Security Court convicted her in April of money laundering and involvement in weapons trading, but acquitted her of espionage.
Karoum, who had also performed intelligence work for Egypt, had been sentenced to 28 months in prison, and the Court of Appeal had upheld the decision last month.
More sensational, though, is the news of how Karoum was caught. In a top-secret operation, her former colleagues from the Dutch secret service arrived at her Dubai apartment at 2am on January 21. They held her there for several weeks under house arrest before taking her to Egypt, an intelligence source has told Revu's reporter Jan Libbenga. Dubai has no extradition treaty with the Netherlands. The Dutch, in effect, abducted Karoum only after negotiations with her lawyers, to bring her back to Amsterdam, broke down.
Four days after the swoop on Karoum's home, Dubai police arrested two Australians, Matt Joyce and Marcus Lee, on suspicion of fraud. The pair are former executives of Dubai Waterfront, the world's grandest waterfront project, a subsidiary of the Emirate's biggest property developer, the government-owned Nakheel.
The jailed Australians, who are fighting to prove their innocence, are in no way linked to Karoum. Karoum - using her apparent cover as a real estate executive - did do some work on property developments within Dubai Waterfront, among other sites. She was accused of funnelling drug and arms money - including that of an Egyptian weapons dealer - into Dubai's property bubble, which burst spectacularly last year. Millions invested through her by criminal networks are said to have vanished.
While Joyce and Lee and other Australians languish in Dubai's jails, the Karoum story throws light on the way business is done in the Emirate. The sheikhdom is making a big show of cleaning up corruption in its property industry, but it showed no apparent interest in stopping Karoum. Indeed, Libbenga says, she ended up spying for the United Arab Emirates, too, and it offered her protection. She had also spied for Egypt.
Her old Dutch colleagues could well understand the analogy with the original Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a seductress who became a double agent during World War I, working for both French and German spymasters.
Karoum joined the Dutch secret service in 2004, Revu says. Most of her work had concerned secret investigations of Islamic organisations in the Netherlands suspected of terrorist aid. She was sent to Dubai late in 2006 to investigate terrorist financing and money laundering to and from Dubai. Once there, she soon defected to her own cause: making money.
For her Dutch spymasters, the alarm rang in October 2007, when a Dutch-Turkish money courier was arrested at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, with more than €100,000. He said it was to be collected by Karoum. This man was not known to her spy colleagues.
The secret service contacted police. It transpired that observation teams from the Bureau of National Research had photographs of a woman in the company of Dutch drug dealers. Only then did they realise it was Karoum.
Now authorities suspect Karoum played an important role in drug trafficking, Revu reported.
Karoum had managed to slip back into the Netherlands at the time of the man's arrest, but she escaped via Madrid and Casablanca to Dubai. She left her hire car behind, with a note to the hire company, in a garage in the town of Breukelen. Diplomatic pressure on Dubai failed to have her returned to the Netherlands.
The Herald began trying to find Karoum in early February this year. As late as April our calls were being transferred to her extension at ACI Real Estate in Dubai, the subsidiary of a German-based company. Like many caught in the Arab Emirate's collapsing real estate market, ACI is struggling to complete grand visions such as its Sports Trilogy: the Niki Lauda Twin Towers, the Boris Becker Business Tower and Michael Schumacher Business Avenue. ACI's switch repeatedly told the Herald that Karoum was, indeed, still working there. But messages went unanswered, as did emails to Karoum's address with the firm, requesting a detailed response to the many allegations against her. Now we know why.
Also in February, Political News of Morocco editorialised that Karoum was giving its emigrants a bad name and asked why Dubai was doing nothing about her. Now we know that the Dutch secret service already had.
In a webcast by Panorama Magazine late last year, Karoum said the whole story against her was a lie, created by her former husband Mohammed Boulnouar. She said she had fled the Netherlands because he had mentally and physically abused her.
Jacques Smits, an Amsterdam private investigator and former policeman, has been on Karoum's trail since January last year. He was originally employed by Boulnouar to hunt her down in Dubai and retrieve their son, Mohammed jnr, now aged about eight.
In February last year Smits flew to Dubai, hoping to confront Karoum. He had already intervened and warned her then employer, the Dubai property firm Omniyat, about Karoum. The company went on to sack Karoum and her boss for alleged fraud.
Smits only managed to get Karoum by phone. He told the Herald: ''She said, 'I am going to kill you.' I had ruined her life in Dubai.''
He believes she is capable of it, and this motivated his campaign to bring her to justice, long after he stopped working for her husband. A Dutch court later ordered Karoum to return her son to the Netherlands, then overturned that ruling last December.
Either way, Smits is no friend of Boulnouar, who had been a travel agent in West Amsterdam. He says Boulnouar paid him only €7000 ($12,000) and still owes him €10,000. Smits says he helped Dutch intelligence to keep pursuing Karoum.
Last November customers accused Boulnouar of stealing the money they had paid him for the haj to Mecca. He had claimed he was the victim of a robbery on October 31 when he tried to deliver about €300,000 in cash and several hundred passports to Royal Jordanian Airways. He claimed the robbers told him they were sent by ''Malika''.
Smits does not buy his story. Nor does he buy Karoum's. In January last year Smits received a tip that she was returning to the Netherlands for a wedding. He says he went to Schiphol Airport and, armed with photographs, alerted a Dutch military police officer. The officer had called up Karoum's Interpol file, then left the room briefly to get the print-out of the document. Smits says he was able to read the warrant on the screen. ''There were six or seven felonies.'' They included money laundering and drug offences.
Dutch police observation teams had seen a woman in the company of a British man, Simon John ''Slapper'' Cowmeadow. Only later did they realise she was Karoum. Cowmeadow was shot dead in an Amsterdam street on November 18, 2007.
Nadim Imac, a suspected heroin importer and the sponsor of a Dutch soccer team, Turkiyemspor, was thrown to his death from a moving bus on February 17 this year. Police found €223,000 in his home.
A player from his soccer team had acted as a money courier to Dubai, where money from a Turk associate of Imac's was invested in Damac Properties. Karoum had handled that introduction.
Revu has reported on Karoum's connections with the Dutch company Palm Invest, which has come under the spotlight for alleged fraud. Karoum's old boss at Omniyat took her with him in June last year when he launched Define Properties in Dubai. Define had 12 lots on Nakheel's Waterfront site, and relied heavily for funds on a key Karoum contact, an Egyptian arms dealer. But when stories began circulating about Karoum, the boss sacked her.
Later, Define could not raise enough capital and ACI Real Estate took over some of its properties. It first employed the Define boss, but dumped him after recruiting Karoum. ACI has not responded to the Herald's questions.
From last December Karoum's lawyers advised her to co-operate with Dutch authorities. Revu reported she was offered an ''ample golden handshake'' from the secret service and an opportunity to start a new life in a third country. Los Angeles, Singapore, Luxembourg, Malta, Egypt and the Dutch Antilles were destinations recommended.
The Dutch, more than anything, wanted to stop her giving intelligence to other countries, and to stop her criminal pursuits.
Karoum had seemed agreeable but withdrew at the last moment. She reportedly believed she would be afforded the protection of sheikhs in Dubai. That came to nothing at 2am on January 21.
In most countries the snatching of Karoum - a breach of sovereignty - would have caused a diplomatic crisis. But there has not been a peep out of Dubai, which does not care about bad publicity.
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it could not answer any of the Herald's questions, on privacy grounds. The names of even convicted criminals are protected in the Netherlands.
Jan Libbenga will publish a book, The Hunt for Malika, Modern Mata Hari, in October.
Jacques Smits says an estimated €19 million is still missing from Karoum's crimes and the Dutch secret service may recruit him to help retrieve it.
''If the price is right, I'm your guy,'' he told the Herald. Smits says he feels safe until Karoum's release from jail - but only until then.

2 comments:

  1. wow !. I admire this news.Police have done a good job

    ReplyDelete