How the UAE Nurtured Sweden’s Islamist Bogeyman
Updated: Nov 16
Magnus Ranstorp has become a key node in the UAE’s influence network in Sweden nurturing a network of fellow researchers who are all directly or indirectly linked to Abu Dhabi sharing the UAE’s simplistic and Islamophobic narratives. [This piece was originally published with Politics Today https://politicstoday.org/how-the-uae-nurtured-swedens-islamist-bogeyman]
Recently, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) operating under the Ministry of Justice announced the creation of an Agency for Psychological Defence – a smart move at a time when influence operations conducted by external powers threaten the integrity of domestic discourse. Russian influence operations in the United States and Europe are well documented. At a closer look, however, the new Swedish agency appears to be closely linked to an information network with strong ties to another foreign influence warrior: the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
While Russia registers as an antagonistic power in most western countries, the UAE and its influence operations in western capitals are often dismissed as public diplomacy activities of a partner in the Gulf. However, although Abu Dhabi’s influence operations started fifteen years ago in Washington as benign public diplomacy activities, mounting evidence especially in the United States suggests that the tribal Gulf monarchy has tried to actively influence western policymaking on the most strategic level of governance.
In Europe, as well, Abu Dhabi has actively tried to shape and subvert public discourse on the Middle East, the Arab Spring and Islam. Born out of fear from civil society post-Arab Spring, Islamism has been securitized in Abu Dhabi as fundamental threat to regime security. The inner circle around UAE strongman Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) is driven by a deep-seated phobia of civil societal activism that is not sanctioned by the state and even worse potentially legitimized by the power of religious belief. UAE officials have been on the forefront of securitizing political Islam and any civil societal activism attached to it as ‘terrorism’. It has become a vehicle to justify authoritarianism at home, in the region and increasingly also in the West.
Here, Abu Dhabi incubated information networks consisting of right-wing nationalists, Islamophobes and orientalists in media, academia and policymaking. Their bizarre conspiracy theories of a creeping Islamization of the occident have been used to promote the UAE’s narrative of ‘moderated Islam’ – one that is subservient to the interests of the regime and leaves no space for civil societal activism.
And instead of merely being used to justify the UAE’s clamp down on dissidents, opposition figures and civil society at home, Abu Dhabi has nurtured these networks to pressure governments in Europe to take a harsher stance against Islamism – first and foremost against the Muslim Brotherhood and NGOs or civil society groups with alleged links. In Britain these influence campaigns resulted in a coercive attempt by Abu Dhabi and its networks to pressure the Cameron government in 2015 to investigate whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be listed as a terrorist organization.
Developments in Sweden since 2017 suggest that the UAE have taken a similar route and succeeded in fundamentally altering the discourse on the Muslim Brotherhood in the country resulting in government institutions stigmatizing Muslim organizations and NGOs thereby disrupting their ability to actively participate in civil society. Where Abu Dhabi fails to get Islamists on a government terror list, stigmatization and delegitimization in public discourse are the alternative means to undermine their freedom of movement.
Where Abu Dhabi fails to get Islamists on a government terror list, stigmatization and delegitimization in public discourse are the alternative means to undermine their freedom of movement.
What is most paradox of all in Sweden, is that the UAE’s anti-Islamist narratives in Sweden are promoted by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which appears to have been subverted by experts and advisors from within a UAE-incubated network.
It all started with a Muslim Brotherhood report commissioned by the MSB in 2017, written by Magnus Norell and Aje Carlbom featuring prominent Emirati narratives around the ‘conveyer belt theory’ – a debunked myth suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood acts as an ‘entry drug’ to jihadism. The MSB followed this report up with a long list of conferences, talks and events that provided a platform for a range of like-minded researchers propagating anti-Islamist narratives founded on academically questionable research.
Magnus R. has become a key node in the UAE’s influence network in Sweden nurturing a network of fellow researchers who are all directly or indirectly linked to Abu Dhabi sharing the UAE’s simplistic and Islamophobic narratives.
Much of that research was drawn up by the MSB-funded Center for Asymmetric Threat and Terrorism Studies (CATS), which was created as a means of dissociating research output from the government agency. This way CATS could function more readily as an incubator for controversial research and debate around anti-Islamic ideological synergies that would unlikely stand the test of peer-review or critical enquiry. At the heart of CATS activities is Magnus R., its head of research, turned Muslim Brotherhood expert overnight in 2017– suspiciously around the same time he became an advisor to the UAE’s state-funded Hedaya Center, which is the UAE’s primary soft power tool to advance their anti-Islamist agenda globally.
Magnus R. has become a key node in the UAE’s influence network in Sweden nurturing a network of fellow researchers who are all directly or indirectly linked to Abu Dhabi sharing the UAE’s simplistic and Islamophobic narratives. Among those many authors whose reports have been promoted by CATS and the MSB is Lorenzo Vidino, a Washington-based scholar who promotes right-wing conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood. His close ties to infamous networker and influence warrior Yusuf Otaiba – the UAE’s ambassador in Washington – are not coincidental.
Sara Brzuszkiewicz, another member of Ranstorp’s network and invited to speak during the launch of the second MSB report on the Brotherhood in 2018, is the editor-in-chief of a UAE-sponsored front called the European Eye on Radication (EER). The EER platform has been used frequently by members of the network to amplify anti-Muslim Brotherhood narratives, featuring articles of Magnus Norell who wrote the first MSB report on the Brotherhood. Sameh Egyptson is also part of the MSB nexus and has written a book on the Brotherhood in Sweden, published in 2018 by the publisher Dar el Maaref, which is financed by Abu Dhabi.
The newly created Agency for Psychological Defence – eventually run by Sweden’s former ambassador to Abu Dhabi Henrik Landerholm – is still closely tied to the MSB, whose website still features a range of publications written by Ranstorp’s network including the controversial Norell report on the Muslim Brotherhood. Absurdly the very government organization that promises to protect liberal values of freedom of speech, employs the UAE’s Islamist bogeyman to justify the clamp down on Muslim civil society.
Instead of actually raising flags about Emirati influence operations subverting open discourse in Sweden, the new agency seems to be preoccupied with defending Swedish society from a scarecrow it imported from an authoritarian regime in the Gulf. Instead of actually countering radicalization, the openly Islamophobe theory of the creeping Islamization of the West, contributes to alienating Muslims and undermining their integration in Swedish society.