Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the billionaire ruler of Dubai, targeted the phone of his estranged wife Princess Haya with a military-grade spyware tool during a London court battle over their two children, a High Court judge has found.
Sheikh Mohammed permitted his “servants or agents” to use an Israeli manufactured and commercially sold covert surveillance weapon called Pegasus to target the phones of Princess Haya and her divorce lawyer Baroness Fiona Shackleton, according to a High Court ruling.
Pegasus spyware, the military-grade software licensed by the Israeli company NSO Group, is only supposed to be deployed by sovereign states to prevent terrorism and serious crime, according to the company, and is sold only with approval of the Israeli government. It is licensed to the United Arab Emirates.
But rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Citizen Lab have traced the spyware to the smartphones of dozens of journalists, politicians and human rights activists across the world.
This is the first known ruling by a court in any jurisdiction on the abuse of Pegasus, though the software is the subject of legal action in the US and Israel. The High Court ruling that the spyware was misused to snoop on Princess Haya during a court case about the welfare of their two children is also highly embarrassing for Sheikh Mohammed, the vice-president and prime minister of the UAE. The case is still ongoing and has been largely ignored by UAE media.
Over the past quarter of a century, Sheikh Mohammed has overseen the development of Dubai into the region’s dominant trade, finance and tourism hub. His Godolphin stable is a dominant force in horseracing and he has been a regular fixture alongside Queen Elizabeth in the royal box at Ascot, one of Britain’s most prestigious sporting events.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the High Court’s family division, concluded in a fact-finding ruling, which can now be reported for the first time, that “it is more probable than not” that the phone hacking “was carried out by servants or agents of the father, the Emirate of Dubai or the UAE and that the surveillance occurred with the express or implied authority of the father”.
Sheikh Mohammed “is the probable originator of the hacking” and he is “prepared to use the arm of the State to achieve what he regards as right”, the judge concluded, adding that the royal had “harassed and intimidated” Princess Haya, who is a half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah, even after she fled to England with her two children in 2019.
The High Court noted that Sheikh Mohammed filed no evidence in response to the allegations and he did not confirm or deny that the UAE has or had any contract with NSO for the Pegasus system. His legal team also chose to “float various suggestions” including that other states such as Jordan were responsible for the hacking, according to the ruling. The case has been heard in private but a number of judgments have now been made public.
McFarlane noted in his ruling that Shackleton, Haya’s divorce solicitor, was first tipped off about the phone hacking on August 5 2020 by two separate lawyers — one of whom was Cherie Blair QC, a barrister and the wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair.
Blair, who advises NSO on human rights issues, had alerted Shackleton, previously divorce lawyer for Prince Charles and Sir Paul McCartney, about the phone hacking after receiving a call from a senior NSO manager.
Blair, who gave a witness statement to the fact-finding hearing, testified that NSO was “very concerned” and “it had come to the attention of NSO that their software may have been misused” to monitor the mobile phones of Shackleton and Haya, according to the ruling.
Blair was never told about the identity of the NSO customer suspected of carrying out surveillance but testified: “I recall asking whether their client was the ‘big state’ or the ‘little state’. The NSO senior manager clarified that it was the ‘little state’, which I took to be the state of Dubai,” according to the judgment.
The emirate of Dubai is one of seven members of the UAE, the capital of which is oil-rich Abu Dhabi. Dubai retains significant autonomy within the federation, including its own security service.
In a December 2020 letter to the court, NSO said it could not disclose its clients but its investigation into the phone hacking recommended that “the contract with the customer should be terminated”, according to the ruling.
An NSO spokesperson on Wednesday said: “Whenever a suspicion of misuse arises, NSO investigates, NSO alerts, NSO terminates,” adding that the company had already cancelled contracts worth $300m with various clients. The company did not fall within the jurisdiction of the UK courts, it said.
In his fact-finding judgment, McFarlane concluded there had been hacking or attempted infiltration by Pegasus of six phones and in the case of Princess Haya’s phone “a very substantial amount of data” had been “covertly extracted”.
Pegasus is designed to mirror a phone’s contents surreptitiously, thus defeating the encryption of apps such as WhatsApp or Signal, and can turn on cameras and microphones to record conversations and track the location of the device.
Bill Marczak, senior research fellow at Citizen Lab, said in this case the targets were members of high society, and while he welcomed the fact that NSO took action he added that it would have been “nice if they afforded that due process to journalists and activists who get hacked all the time using their technology”.
Sheikh Mohammed in a statement denied the allegations. He said that neither Dubai nor the UAE were party to the court proceedings and added: “The findings are therefore inevitably based on an incomplete picture.” He said the findings were also based on evidence “that was not disclosed to me or my advisers” and that “they were made in a manner which was unfair”. Baroness Shackleton, Blair and Princess Haya have declined to comment.
London’s Metropolitan Police said its central specialist crime command had launched a probe last year after it received allegations about the interception of digital devices. Officers investigated for five months and explored all possible lines of inquiry but closed their probe in February 2021 due to “no further investigative opportunities”. It said any new evidence would be reviewed.
LONDON — When the hyper-wealthy ruler of the Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai found himself embroiled in a British court case with the Jordanian princess who was once his wife, he did more than hire top-shelf lawyers.
He also deployed high-tech software purchased from an Israeli company to hack the cellphones of his ex-wife, two of her lawyers and three other associates, according to court documents made public on Wednesday.
One of the lawyers, Fiona Shackleton, a baroness, is a sitting member of the House of Lords — potentially adding friction to the close relationship between Britain and the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai.
It appeared to be the first confirmed case of the software, known as Pegasus and sold by the Israel-based NSO Group, being successfully used to hack the phone of a sitting British official, according to Bill Marczak, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, who examined the phones mentioned in the case and determined they had been hacked.
NSO Group has come under intense scrutiny in recent months after reports that various governments have used its software to target opponents.
The hacking, which came to light in a civil suit ruling in a London court, added a new wrinkle to an already complicated snarl of Arab royal family conflicts, diplomacy and the world of highly secretive companies that sell expensive hacking technologies to governments around the world, which can use them as they see fit.
NSO Group says it sells its products to governments for use in law enforcement and counterterrorism. Technology researchers have surfaced many other cases of such technologies being used by oppressive governments not to go after criminals, but to track political dissidents, human rights activists and journalists.
In an emailed statement, NSO Group said: “Whenever a suspicion of a misuse arises, NSO investigates, NSO alerts, NSO terminates.”
The company said it is committed to human rights and cooperated with the court, even though it did not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
An email seeking comment from the Dubai Media Office did not receive a response.
The legal battle, which continues, pits the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, against his ex-wife, Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, of Jordan, over the custody of their two children after she fled with them to London in 2019.
Sheikh Mohammed’s representatives have denied that the women are being held against their will.
In the judgment in the British civil court case, which was handed down in May but made public on Wednesday, a judge ruled that surveillance had been carried out by agents of Sheikh Mohammed using software licensed to the Emirate of Dubai or the United Arab Emirates. Also subjected to “unlawful surveillance” were Princess Haya’s personal assistant and two of her security staff, the court said.
In statements to the court, Sheikh Mohammed denied having known about or authorized the hacking of the phones and charged that the court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the actions of a sovereign state. The court disagreed.
The same court had earlier ruled that Sheikh Mohammed had imprisoned his daughters with Princess Haya and threatened another of his wives, though he is unlikely to face legal consequences.
Even before fleeing to London, Princess Haya, who is a daughter of Jordan’s previous king, Hussein, was a well-known figure in British high society. She was educated at British private schools, represented Jordan as a show jumper at the 2000 Olympics and was reported to be friendly with Queen Elizabeth II.
In addition to Baroness Shackleton, another of Princess Haya’s lawyers, Nicholas Manners, was targeted by the hacking. Princess Haya’s phone was found to have been hacked a number of times last year with Sheikh Mohammed’s “express or implied authority,” the judgment said.
Baroness Shackleton was tipped off to the hacking by Cherie Blair, the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who works as a business and human rights adviser to NSO, the court said.
A senior NSO manager had called Ms. Blair to tell her the company was worried that its software had been “misused” to monitor the phones of Baroness Shackleton and Princess Haya, the court said. The company told her it had made sure the software could no longer be used on their phones and asked Ms. Blair to contact the baroness.
Princess Haya’s flight to London in 2019 followed attempts by two daughters of Sheikh Mohammed from another marriage, Sheikha Latifa and Sheikha Shamsa, to flee their father’s custody. Both were eventually captured.
Sheikha Latifa was seized by armed commandos from a yacht in the Indian Ocean; Sheikha Shamsa was kidnapped off the street in Cambridge and flown back to Dubai. Advocates for the women say they are still being held against their will, claims that have tarnished the reputation of their powerful father.
Sheika Latifa’s whereabouts and circumstances remain unclear. Though she appeared in a video earlier this year saying she was being held prisoner by her father, subsequent photos appeared on social media that showed her in Iceland, at the Madrid airport and at a shopping mall in Dubai. A cousin told the Free Latifa campaign, a group that had worked to publicize her case, that he had met her in Iceland.
Yet the princess has not spoken publicly herself, raising doubts about whether she is acting of her own free will.
Reclining by a window in her hilltop residence outside Beirut, Randa al-Banna took a puff of her slim cigarette and looked out over the Mediterranean. The former wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai needed all her ingenuity just to make it here.
The house, where she lives with two chihuahuas, a Yorkshire terrier and a Pomeranian, is one of the few places she feels safe, decades after her split from the billionaire prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. His sporadic financial support, coupled with what she says was a recent three-month spell kept in effective house arrest in Rome, has enmeshed Banna, 66, in her former husband’s world, but it has not silenced her, even though she still fears she could be targeted for speaking out about one of the Middle East’s most powerful men.
She first told her story to The Sunday Times two years ago, but the plight of Princess Latifa, one of the sheikh’s daughters by another wife, has prompted her to speak out again. This month, Banna picked me up in her car in Beirut — looking, as ever, like a character from a Fellini film, in sunglasses and a silk scarf.
“Darling,” she said. “I have never acted badly towards someone if they didn’t do something to me.”
Latifa was detained on her father’s orders and returned to Dubai after trying to escape the desert emirate on a yacht in 2018. She released videos this year saying she had been imprisoned. A few months ago, however, she began appearing in Instagram photographs that purported to show her, free and happy, out with friends. The campaign calling for her release has been closed down. Sioned Taylor, a former teacher of Latifa’s and an erstwhile employee of the Dubai royal family, who posted photographs of herself with the princess, told me that Latifa “just wants to be left alone”.
In a statement from Latifa issued on Friday by her British lawyers, she said: “The allegation that I am not free is completely untrue. I am free to travel and am living the life I wish. I would ask that my privacy is respected so that I can live my life in peace.”
Banna is unconvinced. She is the first family member to break ranks publicly on the recent developments in Latifa’s case. “If Latifa is free, why haven’t we heard from her?” she said. “She’s just in a bigger prison than before. If she’s really free then let her come out and say so. I will believe she is free when she comes out and talks, like she was brave when she came out of her prison with that video.” She said of Maktoum: “He will release her when he decides.”
Banna also questioned why Shamsa, Latifa’s sister, has not been heard from publicly in decades. She was kidnapped in Cambridge in 2000 after running away from her father’s Surrey estate.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the High Court in London, has ruled that Maktoum orchestrated the abduction and forced captivity of Shamsa and Latifa. He denies the claims. In a video released in 2018, Latifa said Shamsa has been imprisoned and drugged since being returned to Dubai.
Marcus Essabri, a cousin of Shamsa’s who had called for her release, has changed his mind. He told me this summer that Shamsa had “moved on with her life, is a practising Muslim, she is at peace”. He also appeared in a photograph with Latifa after travelling with her, and others, to Iceland on holiday.
“Was amazing to see her and happy that she is well,” he wrote to me.
Many of Maktoum’s critics believe there is more to the story. If anyone knows the dangers of being an outspoken female member of the house of Maktoum, it is Banna.
“I have been treated very badly,” she said. “Very badly.”
Maktoum paid for her house in London for a time and gave her a monthly stipend — which has since stopped. He also paid for her daughter by her third former husband to leave Libya and travel to Italy to give birth after having a difficult pregnancy. But amid the acts of generosity, something went horribly astray.
Today Banna asserts publicly for the first time that for three months from September, she was kept in effect under house arrest at her flat in Rome by officials from the city’s Emirati embassy, allegedly on her ex-husband’s orders. A spokesperson for Maktoum denied the allegations. She says her passports were taken, her phones monitored and her movements tightly controlled.
I went to Rome in the autumn after hearing that Banna was having problems and found her flat, in a handsome house on a cobbled street. Something was wrong. Banna had answered my messages only with an all-caps “AM WELL THANK YOU FOR ASKING”, rather than her usual voice notes. When I rang the bell, I was told by the person who answered that everything was fine and Banna was resting. Much later, after repeatedly failing to make contact with her, I received a text. “Louise, I went through hell since September. Please make sure I’m safe,” Banna wrote.
She says she rented the flat with her own funds and was surprised one day to find an Emirati woman at the door. The woman said she was from the embassy and would be staying there to help her. “I was shocked,” Banna said.
It soon became clear that the woman was not going to leave. Banna says she was blocked from going out alone.
Despite being an Italian citizen, she feared going to the authorities, believing they might be allied with Maktoum. She was terrified she would be forced to go to Dubai.
Later, Banna said, a man came to the apartment, introducing himself as an employee of Maktoum. He gave her a document to sign: it said she would not speak to the media or the Free Latifa campaign, nor contact her own daughter, and that she would cancel the publication of her memoirs. Banna said she initially refused but in the end, desperate, signed a watered-down version. It is understood that Maktoum denies any involvement.
Her passports were returned and she left for London. There, she says, she received phone calls from a woman with a British accent who claimed to be an employee of the sheikh. She told her that the stories about Latifa being imprisoned were untrue and that the princess was ready to talk to her. Banna said Latifa could call her if she wanted, since she had her number. She became suspicious when the woman asked her if Latifa had been in touch.
“I told her you had no right to ask about that,” she said. Four months ago, the woman stopped contacting her.
The house arrest in Rome was just the latest chapter in a life marked by high drama and tragedy. Banna was 16, and recently expelled from convent school, when she first met Maktoum, six years her senior, after he saw her in a Beirut nightclub. They were soon married.
She was his first wife, though he would reportedly go on to marry at least five others. The couple embarked on a whirlwind life together, flying around the world and planning their future. But just a few years later, she was back in Beirut, divorced and forced to leave five-month-old Manal, her daughter with Maktoum, behind in Dubai. After an abusive marriage with a Lebanese militiaman during the country’s civil war, she escaped with her two other children to Rome, where she wanted to become a fashion designer.
She hoped Maktoum would one day allow her to see her daughter. Yet despite what Banna says were his repeated promises to unite them, it never happened. In 2005, she tried to take matters into her own hands by travelling to Manal’s wedding in Dubai. Days before she was to leave for the Emirates, she was attacked by an assailant with a baseball bat. Banna now has eight metal screws in her back. Maktoum paid for her medical treatment after the attack.
Banna says she has left four names of people she accuses of being involved in the attack with two lawyers — one American and one Italian — to be released in the event of her untimely death. She refused to share the names with me. “If I die in a suspicious way, then I accuse these persons of carrying out the attack,” she said.
Banna stayed quiet and refused media requests for decades after leaving Dubai, in the hope that she would be able to see her daughter. “I’ve been accused of wanting to be famous,” she said. “Famous for what? If I wanted to be known that I was the mother of his daughter I would have done that years ago. Why wait?”
She relented nearly two years ago after Latifa’s thwarted escape bid, when we met at a Knightsbridge hotel. Banna said she did not know Latifa well but hoped that speaking out would help her and Shamsa.
She also hoped that by talking to me, her daughter would know that she missed her and might make contact. Manal al-Maktoum is one of the most powerful women in the Emirates — head of the Dubai Women Establishment, she is married to the UAE deputy prime minister. But she never got in touch.
Banna said: “I want to meet Manal with Sheikh Mohammed to have a debate. Then, whatever the truth was, she is going to know it. I want to know from him: why did he do this to me? What did I do to him? It’s my right.”
A spyware tool developed by an Israeli security company might have been used to trace an Emirati princess who tried to flee her father’s kingdom.
Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum was recaptured by commandos in a yacht off the coast of India. She fled from Dubai with Tiina Jauhiainen, a fitness instructor she had become friends with, on February 24, 2018.
They drove to Oman, boarded a dinghy then used jet skis to catch a yacht that was to take them to Sri Lanka.
Commandos stormed the yacht off the coast of Goa. A fact-finding judgment in 2019 by Sir Andrew McFarlane, of the High Court, found that as the princess was dragged away she was heard to shout: “Shoot me here, don’t take me back.”
It now appears that a phone-hacking tool called Pegasus, developed by the Israeli company NSO, may have been used to track the movements of her friends.
The Washington Post reported that the phone numbers for the princess and her friends were added to a list of devices targeted for surveillance using Pegasus in the hours after she went missing.
The research group Citizen Lab was said to have identified the United Arab Emirates as a client of NSO. The newspaper quoted an unnamed source who said that NSO had terminated its contract with Dubai in the past year after it learnt of the surveillance, along with other potential abuses.
NSO has said that the list of numbers was “not a list of potential targets of NSO’s customers” and to suggest that people on the list were targets was “false and misleading”. The princess has since been able to leave Dubai.
The princess had been careful, so she left her phone in the cafe’s bathroom. She’d seen what her father could do to women who tried to escape.
She hid in the trunk of a black Audi Q7, then jumped into a Jeep Wrangler as her getaway crew raced that morning from the glittering skyscrapers of Dubai to the rough waves of the Arabian Sea. They launched a dinghy from a beach in neighboring Oman, then, 16 miles out, switched to water scooters. By sunset they’d reached their idling yacht, the Nostromo, and began sailing toward the Sri Lankan coast.
Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the 32-year-old daughter of Dubai’s fearsome ruler, believed she was closer than ever to political asylum — and, for the first time, real freedom in the United States, members of her escape team said in interviews.
But there was one threat she hadn’t planned for: The spyware tool Pegasus, which her father’s government was known to have used to secretly hack and track people’s phones. Leaked data shows that by the time armed commandos stormed the yacht, eight days into her escape, operatives had entered the numbers of her closest friends and allies into a system that had also been used for selecting Pegasus surveillance targets.
“Shoot me here. Don’t take me back,” she’d screamed as soldiers dragged her off the boat, roughly 30 miles from the shore, according to a fact-finding judgment by the United Kingdom’s High Court of Justice. Then she disappeared.
Latifa’s failed 2018 escape from her father — Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the United Arab Emirates’ prime minister, vice president and minister of defense — sparked outrage and gave life to a troubling mystery: How, given all her precautions, had the princess been found?
An investigation by The Washington Post and an international consortium of news organizations may offer critical new insight: Latifa’s number and those of her friends appear on a list that includes phones targeted for surveillance with Pegasus, the hacking tool from the Israeli spyware giant NSO Group, amid the sprint to track her down.
Numbers for Latifa and her friends were added to the list in the hours and days after she went missing in February 2018, the investigation shows. The UAE was believed to have been an NSO client at the time, according to evidence discovered by the research group Citizen Lab.
It is unknown what role, if any, the phone-hacking software ultimately played in the princess’s capture. Their phones were not available for forensic examination, and the list does not identify who put the numbers on it or how many were targeted or compromised. In multiple statements, NSO has denied that the list was purely for surveillance purposes.
“It is not a list of targets or potential targets of NSO’s customers, and your repeated reliance on this list and association of the people on this list as potential surveillance targets is false and misleading,” NSO said in a letter Tuesday.
But when Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were on the list to search for forensic evidence of Pegasus spyware, 37 phones showed traces, including 23 phones that had been successfully infected and 14 others that showed signs of attempted targeting.
The forensic analyses of the 37 smartphones also showed that many displayed a tight correlation between time stamps on the list and the beginning of surveillance — sometimes as little as a few seconds.
In the year after Latifa’s chase, operatives appear to have entered numbers onto the list for another Dubai princess: one of the sheikh’s six wives, Haya bint Hussein, who had voiced concerns about Latifa’s confinement before fleeing with her two young children to London.
Princess Haya, her half sister, her assistants, her horse trainer, and members of her legal and security teams all had their phones entered onto the list in early 2019, both in the days before and in the weeks after she, too, fled Dubai, the investigation shows. Around that time, Haya later told a British court, she’d faced threats of exile to a desert prison and twice discovered a gun in her bed.
An NSO attorney said the company “does not have insight into the specific intelligence activities of its customers” and that the list of numbers could have been used for “many legitimate and entirely proper” purposes “having nothing to do with surveillance.”
But a person familiar with the operations of NSO who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations says the company terminated its contract with Dubai within the last year after it learned of the princesses’ surveillance and other human-rights concerns.
NSO’s co-founder and chief executive, Shalev Hulio, on Sunday said he was disturbed by reports of journalists and others being hacked with his company’s software, and he promised investigations. He said the company had terminated two contracts in the past 12 months because of human rights concerns.
NSO said in a “Transparency and Responsibility Report” last month that the company had disconnected five clients from Pegasus since 2016 following investigations of misuse, including one unnamed client that a company probe last year revealed had used the system to “target a protected” individual.
Latifa’s hunters had many options for pursuit and interception, and some of the princess’s supporters have suggested that the Nostromo’s crew members made tactical errors, including sending online messages during the chase that could have given their location away.
But the records show that the phones were added to the list at critical moments in the search, underscoring how a surveillance tool that NSO says is deployed to “help governments protect innocents from terror and crime” can be abused. The Pegasus software allows operatives to track a hacked phone’s location, read its messages, and turn its cameras and microphones into live-streaming spy devices.
How Pegasus works
Target: Someone sends what’s known as a trap link to a smartphone that persuades the victim to tap and activate — or activates itself without any input, as in the most sophisticated “zero-click” hacks.
Infect: The spyware captures and copies the phone’s most basic functions, NSO marketing materials show, recording from the cameras and microphone and collecting location data, call logs and contacts.
Track: The implant secretly reports that information to an operative who can use it to map out sensitive details of the victim’s life.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, oversaw the investigation, called the Pegasus Project, and the news organizations worked collaboratively to conduct further analysis and reporting. Journalists from the British newspaper the Guardian and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung contributed reporting for this article.
Officials with Dubai and the UAE, a close ally of the United States, did not respond to requests for comment but have previously declined, saying the episodes are family matters. The sheikh has argued that the assault on the Nostromo rescued his daughter from a high-ransom kidnapping, though Latifa had prerecorded a video explaining that she’d chosen to run because of years of oppression and abuse.
The sheikh’s personal attorneys in the U.K. and Germany sent letters this month denying his involvement in any attempted hacks. Officials with the sheikh’s Dubai Ruler’s Court have previously said in statements that they are “deeply saddened by the continued media speculation” and that Latifa is “safe and in the loving care of her family.”
From the outside, Latifa seemed to enjoy a life of unimaginable affluence. The Emirati princess lived in a palace compound in the Emirates’ biggest city and appeared free to enjoy wild extravagances, including riding champion racehorses and leaping out of planes.
Her father, one of the Persian Gulf’s most powerful autocrats, had presided over Dubai’s transformation into a capitalist playground for the ultrarich, famous for showpieces such as the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, and palm-shaped islands visible from space.
When not commanding his empire, the sheikh had become a star in the world of thoroughbred horse racing, owning one of its most prestigious breeding operations, and spent heavily to portray himself as a progressive crusader for women’s rights and a family man to his 25 children, three of whom are named Latifa. He also wrote books, such as “Reflections on Happiness and Positivity,” and poetry, which he posted to his 5.7 million-follower Instagram account.
To Latifa, her father’s public persona was all a lie, she would say in the video. Her life had been rigorously scheduled and restricted. She could not drive or travel, and her every movement was tracked by her father’s office. Her siblings, she said, lived similar lives of mistreatment or neglect.
“There is no justice here. They don’t care. Especially if you’re a female, your life is so disposable,” she said. “All my father cares about is his reputation. He will kill people to protect it. … He’s even burned down houses to hide the evidence.”
In the summer of 2000, Latifa’s older sister Shamsa, then a mother figure to her, ran away from the sheikh’s stables during a family holiday in the U.K. For weeks, she lived as a fugitive, sleeping in a London hostel and staving off loneliness by calling friends back home, according to Latifa’s video and the High Court judgment released last year.
Soon after, Shamsa was abducted off the street in Cambridge, flown via helicopter to France and shuffled onto a private jet back to Dubai, the judgment found. Latifa said in the video that one of Shamsa’s friend’s phones had been bugged, allowing her father to learn where she was.
In a letter Shamsa sent to an immigration lawyer and cited by the British court, Shamsa said she’d been imprisoned and forcibly tranquilized. “They have all the money, they have all the power, they think they can do anything,” she wrote. She has not been seen since.
Two years after Shamsa went missing, a distraught Latifa, then 16, attempted her own vanishing act. She’d naively believed, she said in the video, that she could just cross the border to Oman to find help or, at worst, get locked up with Shamsa, who would at least then know “she has somebody with her.”
When the border guards caught her, Latifa said, she was returned to her father’s compound, confined alone in a windowless room and subjected to “constant torture.” “Your father told us to beat you until we kill you,” she recalled her captors telling her. “I didn’t know when one day ended and the next began.”
After three years and four months, she was freed. The High Court judge wrote later that she marveled then at the “strangeness of ordinary things”: car rides as fast as a “roller coaster,” the bliss of a bath. She appeared to live a quiet life, spending her days at the horse stables and training in the dance-fighting style of capoeira with Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish instructor who became her friend.
But Latifa never stopped dreaming of escape. By 2017, Jauhiainen said in interviews with a Guardian reporter in April, she and the princess had begun drawing up a daring plan, recruiting Christian Elombo, Jauhiainen’s friend and fellow trainer, and Herve Jaubert, a French businessman who’d fled Dubai after an embezzlement conviction and had moved to Florida, where he built submarines.
Latifa committed her entire life savings of more than $300,000 toward the plan, Jauhiainen said in interviews. And as a last resort, she recorded the 40-minute video in Jauhiainen’s apartment, scheduling it to post online if their bid collapsed.
“If you are watching this,” Latifa said, “either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.”
By the time the leaked records show Latifa’s number was added to the list, she and Jauhiainen had already ditched their phones in the bathroom of La Serre, a Parisian cafe in downtown Dubai, and begun their doomed voyage across the Arabian Sea.
Someone then added numbers for Juan Mayer, an aerial photographer who often recorded Latifa’s skydives; Lynda Bouchikhi, an event manager who had served as Latifa’s officially sanctioned chaperone; and Sioned Taylor, another friend and chaperone whose LinkedIn profile says she worked then as a “personal assistant” for a “member of the Ruling Family.” Taylor, through an attorney, declined to comment. Mayer and Bouchikhi did not respond to requests for comment.
Aboard the Nostromo, a two-masted, U.S.-flagged sailing yacht chartered for luxury cruises around Southeast Asia, the escape team was growing anxious, Jauhiainen said. They’d planned to cross the Indian Ocean, disembark in Sri Lanka with prearranged visas and hop a flight to the United States. To pass the time, they watched bad movies and sent messages using a satellite Internet connection that Jaubert had pledged was secure.
But when they lost contact with Elombo — who unbeknown to them had, after piloting the dinghy back to shore, been arrested in Oman — the team abruptly steered toward a backup dock on India’s coast for fear they’d been compromised, Jauhiainen said. Soon, an Indian coast guard boat and low-flying plane began shadowing them.
Then one night, as they prepared for bed, the team heard heavy boots on the upper deck, Jauhiainen said. Their cabins suddenly filled with smoke. An Indian special forces unit — backed by helicopters, military boats and a squad of UAE soldiers — had blitzed the Nostromo, shouting Latifa’s name. Locking herself in a bathroom, the princess sent Radha Stirling, head of the London advocacy group Detained in Dubai, a distress call over WhatsApp: “Please help … there’s men outside.”
As the team watched, Jauhiainen said, the commandos tied Latifa’s hands behind her back and dragged her off the yacht, their guns’ laser sights shimmering through the darkness.
In the week afterward, Latifa’s supporters posted her “last video” online and filed missing-person reports with international law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Jaubert, Jauhiainen and Elombo were questioned for days in Dubai and then released, with no idea where Latifa was being held. And all the while, the leaked data shows, operatives continued to add the princess’s allies to the list.
In the years since, the escape team has struggled to piece together what went wrong. Jauhiainen has questioned the yacht’s satellite uplink and, in a report this month, USA Today cited unnamed people knowledgeable about the operation who said the FBI had assisted with what they believed was a kidnapping investigation by pulling location data from the satellite Internet provider, Rhode Island-based KVH Industries. The FBI and KVH declined to comment.
But the yacht also carried two “burner” phones, according to Jauhiainen, which Jaubert has argued were bugged. Latifa had used them to send emails, seek help on Instagram and exchange messages through WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging firm that sued NSO in 2019, alleging the company helped spy on its users.
She had also communicated, Jauhiainen said, with Taylor, whose phone, the leaked data show, had been added to the list before the assault.
Princess Haya had for months gone along with her husband’s assertion that Latifa was the mentally unstable victim of a criminal plot. But as Latifa’s video gained attention, she began to openly question the official line.
In late 2018, Haya arranged for a doctor and psychiatrist to see Latifa at her guarded villa. When they found nothing wrong, she visited Latifa herself. Latifa, Haya would tell the High Court, appeared pale and forlorn, caged in a bedroom “akin to a prison,” sobbing that she would do anything to “take it all back.”
Haya, the daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein,had for years boosted the sheikh’s image in elite social circles by defying the expectations of feminine royalty: The Oxford graduate had become the first woman in Jordan licensed to drive heavy trucks and, in 2000, the first Arab woman to jump horses in the Summer Olympics.
But their marriage was unraveling behind closed doors: They hadn’t “enjoyed an intimate relationship” together for some time, the court filings say, and Haya had recently pursued a romance with one of her bodyguards.
Haya’s involvement in Latifa’s case, including asking a former United Nations commissioner to check on her, had pushed their bond to a breaking point. The sheikh ordered her to stay out of it, she told the court.
Then she learned that her husband’s agents were arranging for their 11-year-old daughter to marry the then-33-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. She found notes warning “your daughter is ours” and a pistol in her bed. One of the sheikh’s helicopter pilots landed outside her home with orders to fly her to a desert prison, according to the British court judgment; the sheikh, she said later, laughed it off as a mistake. The sheikh had also, she learned later, secretly divorced her on the 20th anniversary of her father’s death — a date, she told the court, he’d chosen to maximize the insult.
One year after Latifa’s failed breakout, Haya staged her own. She flew with her daughter and 9-year-old son to London, where she’d secured a post in the Jordanian Embassy on the belief its diplomatic immunity could keep her safe, she told the court.
But operatives had already begun attempting to trail her, the leaked data suggests. The phones of top officials at Quest, a British private-security firm that had advised the princess for years, had been added to the list: Martin Smith, the company’s chief executive, and Ross Smith, its director of investigations and intelligence. So, too, had numbers for Haya’s personal assistant, the executive assistant of her Dubai household, and John Gosden, a horse trainer who had worked with Haya’s colts.
As the sheikh’s lawyers pushed the High Court to order his children returned to Dubai, the leaked records show that numbers were added for Haya; her half sister, Princess Aisha bint Hussein;a member of Haya’s legal team advising her on the custody dispute; and Shimon Cohen, founder of a public relations firm that had worked with Haya’s private-security firm. Haya, her legal team, the Quest officials, Cohen and Gosden declined to comment. Princess Aisha did not respond to requests for comment.
In a possible episode of internal paranoia, the data shows, someone also added to the lista number for Stuart Page, a private investigator who had long worked on the sheikh’s behalf.Page confirmed the number was his but declined to comment.
Around that time, the sheikh published a poem, “You Lived, You Died,” that Haya read as a veiled threat: “I exposed you and your games. … I have the evidence that convicts you of what you have done.”
But the custody battle had also exposed unanswered questions about the missing princesses. In a statement to the British court, the sheikh said that Latifa was safe after her “rescue” and that Shamsa had been “still a child” when she fled at age 19. The sheikh and Shamsa’s mother had “jointly decided to organize a search” for her, he wrote, and “when she was found, I remember our feeling of overwhelming relief.” Both women, the sheikh told the court, declined to be interviewed.
Last year, shortly after former president Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka posed for photos with the sheikh during a Dubai women’s-equality conference, the court ruled that the sheikh had orchestrated the intimidation campaign against Haya and the abductions of Shamsa and Latifa.
The judge, Andrew McFarlane, said virtually all of Haya’s allegations were substantiated, save for the “hearsay” regarding the Saudi crown prince. (Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment.) As for Latifa, McFarlane wrote, she had been “plainly desperate to extricate herself from her family and prepared to undertake a dangerous mission” to do so.
For the princesses’ supporters, the judgment was only a symbolic victory. Though Haya and her children remain in London, the custody battle is ongoing, and the ruling changed little about Shamsa and Latifa’s precarious state in Dubai.
Latifa’s friends earlier this year gave the BBC several videos that she had secretly recorded on a contraband phone, in which she said she was being held “hostage” in a villa by guards who had told her she “would never see the sun again.” “Every day I am worried about my safety and my life,” she said. Her videos and messages stopped abruptly last year. In April, two months after the BBC report, U.N. officials demanded that the UAE provide evidence that she was alive and well.
Then suddenly in May, after months of silence, Latifa reappeared. In three photos posted to Instagram over a four-day span, Latifa was spotted having a “lovely evening” in a Dubai mall, eating “lovely food” near the Burj Khalifa and “enjoying dinner” with a Dubai friend.
Two of the photos had been posted by Sioned Taylor, and one also showed Lynda Bouchikhi. Numbers for both women had been added to the list before the raid on the Nostromo, the data shows. Latifa posted no photos of her own. Taylor declined to comment.
The law firm Taylor Wessing, which says it represents Latifa, also began sending letters demanding that Latifa’s friends and members of the advocacy campaign Free Latifa stop talking about her in the media, saying their comments had caused the princess distress.
In a statement attributed to Latifa, the firm reported that she said she can “travel where I want,” adding, “I hope now that I can live my life in peace.”
A lawyer at the firm said Latifa had declined a request from The Post to be interviewed by phone or video, either on or off the record. The lawyer said Latifa had read a Post reporter’s questions but did not want to talk about her past and sought only to move on with a quiet life. The lawyer declined to provide any details of their legal retainer, citing client confidentiality.
Last month, Taylor posted a photo from an airport terminal. Latifa held what appeared to be boarding documents. Taylor gripped an iPhone.
“Great European holiday with Latifa,” said the caption, with a smiley face. “We’re having fun exploring!”
No other photos of Latifa have emerged since.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organizations coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read more about this project.
An investigation by USA Today claimed that the FBI handed over details of the location of the US-flagged yacht Nostromo from satellite data gleaned from its internet access after the sheikh claimed that his daughter had been kidnapped.
The agency faces questions of whether it acted unlawfully and within its own protocols, the newspaper reported.
A British judge ruled last year that Mohammed, 71, had abducted Latifa, 35, and her sister Shamsa, 39, who disappeared in Cambridge in 2000.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the High Court, made the ruling after the sheikh started legal action when the youngest of his six wives, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein of Jordan, 47, fled to London with their two young children.
Mohammed, who is prime minister and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, has said that he was protecting Latifa and Shamsa and described the incident on the yacht as a “rescue mission”. Latifa claimed to have tried to escape Dubai in 2002, which led to her being jailed for three years.
USA Today said that the FBI had not sought a subpoena to locate the yacht before agents contacted the internet provider and said that they needed help because of a public safety emergency.
“The FBI truly believed this was a kidnapping case and the US was saving the day,” a person with knowledge of the operation told the newspaper.
The captain of the yacht, Hervé Jaubert, a former French navy intelligence officer, had insisted on a communications blackout so the vessel could not be tracked. Latifa ignored the command and communicated by email and WhatsApp and posted Instagram messages using the yacht’s satellite internet provider which left a digital footprint.
Mohammed’s office allegedly contacted an FBI agent stationed in the US consulate in Dubai claiming Latifa had been kidnapped and there was a ransom demand. The agent was allegedly first told a subpoena was required but the company agreed to release the information after the FBI agent insisted that it was a hostage who was the daughter of the leader of a close American ally in the Middle East.
“Latifa’s fatal mistake was she checked her email,” one of the people familiar with the operation told USA Today. “That was the breakthrough. It was cross-checked with other information and databases in the area, and the Emiratis were able to figure out precisely which boat she was on, and where that boat was located.”
A UN panel ruled in February that Indian commandos had carried out the raid in return for a wanted British arms dealer being held in Dubai.
Weeks after the operation on the yacht Christian Michel, 59, was extradited from Dubai to Delhi where he is accused of paying bribes to help Agusta Westland, the helicopter manufacturer in Yeovil, Somerset, win a $500 million contract. Mohammed’s British lawyers declined to comment.
Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum – also known as Princess Latifa – was running away from her father, the authoritarian ruler of Dubai, when her escape was thwarted after a dramatic raid of her yacht in 2018 on the Indian Ocean.
How Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum located his daughter was a mystery for three years – until now. A USA TODAY investigation has found the FBI played a key role.
On March 4, 2018, Princess Latifa, then 32, had been at sea for eight days when the U.S.-registered yacht Nostromo she was traveling on was raided by armed men. They bound her wrists and dragged her off the boat. They had been sent by the princess’s father, the billionaire prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai.
USA TODAY, which pieced together the harrowing events through witness interviews, video, audio and other data, has learned that the FBI, responding to an urgent plea from Sheikh Mohammed’s office, helped locate the princess.
USA TODAY’s sources said they believe the FBI was misled about her circumstances aboard the yacht. The Dubai government claimed the princess had been kidnapped and needed emergency aid to secure her release, according to multiple people familiar with the FBI’s role in the highly sensitive operation. That prompted FBI agents to obtain geolocation data from the yacht’s internet provider and supply it to Dubai officials.
Sheikh Mohammed, Princess Latifa’s father, declined to comment through legal representatives, but he has maintained in court records that he rescued the princess. He has repeatedly rejected claims of mistreating her.
The FBI, the White House and State Department also declined to comment.
On a yacht in the Indian Ocean, heavily armed commandos seized the princess.
“Shoot me here! Don’t take me back!” Princess Latifa – whose full name is Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum – screamed during the raid in March 2018 as the armed men bound her wrists. They had been sent by her father, the billionaire prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and authoritarian ruler of the Emirate of Dubai.
Despite her pleas, confirmed by two eyewitnesses who traveled with her aboard the U.S.-flagged yacht Nostromo, the princess was dragged off the vessel and returned to Dubai and her father’s rule.
How Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum found his daughter has been a mystery for more than three years – until now.
A USA TODAY investigation established that the FBI,responding to an urgent plea from the powerful Dubai leader’s office, provided assistance essential to her capture.
The FBI obtained and provided data about the yacht’s location to the Dubai government after officials thereclaimed the princess had been kidnapped and needed emergency aid to secure her release, according to multiple people familiar with the FBI’s role in the highly sensitive operation.
Sheikh Mohammed declined to comment through legal representatives, but he has maintained in court records thathe rescued the princess,and he has repeatedly rejected claims of mistreating her. USA TODAY’s sourcessaid theybelieve the FBI was misled about her circumstances aboard the yacht, prompting the agents to obtain geolocation data from Nostromo’s U.S.-based internet service provider and supply it to the Dubai government.
In doing that, the agents may have violated FBI protocols, legal experts said, if they obtained the data without subpoenaing the provider, as normally would be required.
It was not immediately clear whether the FBI, which declined to comment on the matter, was aware the request for help appears to have been been misleading.
USA TODAY pieced together the seriesof harrowing events through interviews with witnesses and people familiar with the FBI’s role, emails, images, encrypted social media messages, ID certificates, satellite data and audio and video material that substantiate Princess Latifa’s escape plan and that shed light on her recapture.
Without the FBI’s assistance, Princess Latifa might never have been foundduring her escape.
Questions swirl over the well-being of the princess.
Images that appeared to show her in public in Dubai for the first time since December 2018 were published on two Instagram accounts in May. In late June, one of the accounts posted a photo of Latifa, 35, allegedly in an airport in Spain, where she was said to havebeen vacationing.
Shortly before publication of this story, London-based law firm Taylor Wessing issued a statement attributed to the princess, saying the photos were released to prove “I can travel where I want. I hope now that I can live my life in peace.”
In video published in February by USA TODAY, Latifa said she feared for her life and was held captive in a villa in Dubai.
UAE authorities refused repeated proof of life requests from the United Nations, and it remains unclear whether the new photos and Latifa’s statement were released with her consent. Taylor Wessing insists they were.
The United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.The White House and State Department declined to comment about the FBI involvement or other matters.
Departure from FBI protocol
The FBI’s connection to Princess Latifa’s abduction raises potentially difficult questions for the U.S. government, given the level of outrage the case sparked among human rights activists.
President Joe Biden vowed to make respect for human rights a cornerstone of foreign policy and dealings with allies and foes alike. The FBI’s participation in the operation, even if unwitting,may pose a test for the Biden administration as it deals with delicate issues of diplomacy and national security.
It also raises questions about adherence to protocols withinthe bureau’s far-flung international operation in which agents for decades have maintained mutual aid agreements with law enforcement counterparts in 63 offices across the globe.
The FBI truly believed this was a kidnapping case and the U.S. was saving the day.
PERSON WITH DIRECT KNOWLEDGE OF THE OPERATION
The FBI appeared to have departed from its own guidelines for legal attaches, known as “legats,” whose collective mission is to cultivate ties with host countries and advance global law enforcement cooperation.
Rather than seek a subpoena for Nostromo’s location, agents contacted the internet provider and said they needed help because of a public safety emergency, people familiar with the operation said. The agents did not formally document the request, as required by bureau protocol, by opening what is known as a foreign policing cooperation case that allows bureau officials to track developments related to the request, according to those briefed on the operation.
“The FBI truly believed this was a kidnapping case and the U.S. was saving the day,” said one person with direct knowledge of theoperation.
USA TODAY is the first media outlet to report the FBI’s involvement in providing information that led to Princess Latifa’s forced return to Dubai.
None of the people who outlined the FBI’s involvement to USA TODAYagreed tobe identified because they were not authorized to speak about the geopolitically sensitive incident or because they said they feared retaliation by U.S. authorities. The sources also requested anonymity because of concerns they could be subject to a campaign of intimidation or hacking attacks by the UAE’s formidable security and intelligence services.
We feared that our daughter was in the hands of a criminal.
SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL-MAKTOUM
Sheikh Mohammed has said he acted in his daughter’s best interests when he ordered the high seas raid on Nostromo, fearing for her safety because he believed she was being extorted. In a statement, he said: “We feared that our daughter was in the hands of a criminal who might hold her to ransom and harm her. To this day I consider that Latifa’s return to Dubai was a rescue mission.”
Taylor Wessing said the princess did not want to comment on the allegation.
Details of Latifa’s escape and her claims of mistreatment have emerged from a U.K. court proceeding in 2020, the princess’s own public statements, eyewitness accounts and numerous published reports.
What happened: How they found Nostromo – and on it, Latifa
Princess Latifa spent seven years planning her escape from Dubai.
She wanted to run away from the wealthy ultramodern emirate led by her father because she was subjected to years of cruel and demeaning treatment, she claimed in a home video.
She wasn’t allowed to travel or study outside Dubai.
A minder or male guardian trailed her everywhere.
With the help of two confidantes – Finnish-born Tiina Jauhiainen, a fitness instructor, and Hervé Jaubert, a former French navy intelligence officer and naturalized U.S. citizen – she devised a plan to flee via the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean.
Latifa hoped to reach India or Sri Lanka and file for asylum in the USA, according to Jauhiainen, multiple confidantes of the princess and London-based representatives campaigning for her freedom. They denied Sheikh Mohammed’s claims that the princess was in danger or being financially exploited.
Latifa boarded Nostromo on Feb. 24, 2018, about 20 miles off the coast of Muscat, Oman, in international waters, after reaching the vessel by dinghy and Jet Ski.
Jauhiainen accompanied her.
The seas were rough. They didn’t reach the boat until around 7 p.m. as the sun’s light faded on the horizon.
Jaubert, Nostromo’s captain, was already aboard.
For eight days, Nostromo sailed southward.
Jaubert insisted on a communication blackout, so the vessel could not be tracked. For unknown reasons, Latifa communicated by email with various individuals.
The princess sent at least one email, probably several, from a private Yahoo account, using the yacht’s satellite internet provider, which left a digital footprint disclosing her location, according to the people familiar with the operation.
She posted, then deleted a few Instagram messages.
Various theories have emerged to explain how the yacht –Nostromo – was found, including that Latifa or others aboard were tracked by their cellphones.
Data emitted by cellphones probably played some role in locating Nostromo. As did surveillance planes and ships, intercepted communication and other sophisticated tools deployed by the Signals Intelligence Agency, the United Arab Emirates’ intelligence branch, people familiar with the operation said.
Although the princess didn’t realize it, she provided the main clue that led to her capture.
Though her father did not know where she was, Sheikh Mohammed’s office contacted an FBI agent stationed in the U.S. consulate in Dubai. The agent was told Mohammed’s daughter had been kidnapped and there was a ransom demand. Princess Latifa was trying to run away from her father for the second time, multiple sources have told USA TODAY.
Mohammed’s office asked the FBI agent for emergency help to determine when and where email accounts used by Latifa were last checked. Such information is typically accessible by internet providers. The agent immediately called FBI headquarters in Washington but was not given clear instructions on how to proceed. The agent’s boss, stationed in the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, UAE’s capital, was also consulted.
The FBI agent in Dubai contacted Nostromo’s satellite company directly. The agent was told a subpoena was required, but the request was elevated, and the company agreed to release the information after the agent insisted it was an emergency situation involving a hostage who was the daughter of the leader of a close U.S. ally in the Middle East, according to the people familiar with the operation.
Latifa’s fatal mistake was she checked her email.
PERSON FAMILIAR WITH THE OPERATION
“Latifa’s fatal mistake was she checked her email,” said one of the people familiar with the operation. “That was the breakthrough. It was cross-checked with other information and databases in the area, and the Emiratis were able to figure out precisely which boat she was on, and where that boat was located.”
USA TODAY reached both FBI agents allegedly involved in the episode by phone and via an encrypted messaging service. Both declined comment and referred questions to the FBI’s press office in Washington, which also declined comment. Citing security concerns, the FBI asked that the identity of one of the agents, who remains with the bureau, not be made public. The other agent, retired, is not being identified because of similar security concerns.
Nostromo’s internet provider at the time of the raid in 2018 was a Rhode Island-based company named KVH Industries, according to contract documents and email correspondence reviewed by USA TODAY.
KVH, a satellite company, specializes in mobile connectivity and navigation systems. Its services enable a boat far from shore to have access to internet services such as email and social media. Generally speaking, satellite companies that provide access to navigation systems and other more generalized forms of connectivity for oceangoing vessels are aware of their customers’ locations.
In a statement, KVH said it “cooperates with law enforcement when compelled or permitted under existing laws, such as in emergencies involving potential death or serious injury. KVH does not comment on or release information concerning its communications with law enforcement unless legally required.”
About six days after Nostromo left Oman’s coast – and two days before heavily armed Emirati and Indian commandos stormed the boat – Jaubert noticed another vessel trailing their route from a few miles behind. A coast guard spotter plane from the Indian mainland made several observational flights over the boat.
Satellite tracking data seen by USA TODAY shows Nostromo’s last position on March 4, 2018, was about 50 miles off Goa, southwestern India, in international waters.
That night, the boat’s crew and passengers awoke to loud voices, gunshots and smoke or gas grenades. Indian and Emirati special forces had forced their way aboard.
“Who is Latifa?” an Indian commando shouted over and over, according to Jauhiainen, before an unidentified Arab man identified the princess.
“When those commandos came on the boat, they already knew Latifa was aboard,” said Jaubert, who was beaten along with Jauhiainen and other crew members and taken back to Dubai under armed guard. They were interrogated at a high security prison for days, then deported.
They have not seen Latifa since.
The reasons for India’s willingness to help are murky. A few months after the raid, Dubai extradited to India a British businessman named Christian Michel. He was wanted on charges of corruption, which he denies. Michel, according to his lawyer Toby Cadman, was told the extradition was in exchange for the seizure and return of a high-profile detainee to Dubai. Cadman said the extradition was “entirely politically motivated” because Dubai had rejected a prior request from India based on the same information.
India’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to USA TODAY’s inquiries.
On March 11, 2018 – 15 days after Latifa secretly boarded Nostromo – a YouTube video was published in which she described her plight. She left instructions for human rights representatives in London to publish the video only if her escape attempt failed.
“Pretty soon I’m going to be leaving somehow, and I am not so sure of the outcome, but I’m 99% positive it will work,” Latifa says in the video, which was filmed in Jauhiainen’s Dubai apartment. “And if it doesn’t, then this video can help me because all my father cares about is his reputation. He will kill people to protect his own reputation. He – he only cares about himself and his ego. So this video could save my life. And if you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing. Either I’m dead, or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.”
What should’ve happened: ‘They need paper’
Multiple former FBI agents and ex-U.S. intelligence officers with no knowledge of the operation in March 2018 expressed skepticism over whether U.S. involvement in the operation took place as USA TODAY’s sources described.
“It doesn’t sound right. This is not how it should happen,” said one former CIA officer who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the allegations and his private-sector employment that involves working with American and foreign diplomats and security services from across the Middle East.
The former U.S. intelligence officer, who has spent extended periods of time on diplomatic missions in the Middle East, said that if a sovereign nation asks the United States for emergency help, there are often sufficient U.S. law enforcement and intelligence resources available in that country to provide assistance.
The former intelligence officer saw few reasons why FBI or Emirati intelligence services would need help from a private company in the USA in obtaining location data such as the information that led to Latifa’s forced return.
“The Emiratis have a tremendous capability themselves. It’s unusual they would have gone to the U.S. for help in the first place,” the former intelligence officer said.
The former CIA officer described this “capability” as sophisticated snooping and detection tools that give intelligence officers exceptional powers to “intercept and triangulate” private cellphone and internet data alongside open-source location information, such as that found on social media platforms.
Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director who oversaw the bureau’s international operations division for five years before retiring in 2008, said legats field hundreds of requests from host countries each year. Those almost always prompt the formal opening of a foreign police assistance file, Fuentes said. In cases in which information is required from private companies, he said, subpoenas are used.
There are instances, he said, when agents need to make direct inquiries. In those cases, formal subpoenas generally follow the emergency requests. “I don’t know of any internet service provider who would provide it (the data) without some kind of paperwork,” Fuentes said. “They need paper.”
Fuentes said he knew of no cases in which agents acted unilaterally to assist. “I can’t imagine anyone doing that,” he said.
A request such as the one from the Emiratis would have “raised red flags” and prompted the involvement of senior FBI and State Department officials in Washington, along with the local ambassador, Fuentes said, and the FBI field office nearest to the service provider would be alerted.
“There would be a meeting of the minds to determine whether it would be appropriate to provide the assistance requested and to consider whether we (the U.S. government) are being used for a bad purpose,” Fuentes said.
The former official said legal attaches are trained to recognize potential “diplomatic minefields” and how to avoid them. The prospect of a legat or legats acting outside that process in such a case, Fuentes said, appeared “impossible.”
A spokesperson for Barbara Leaf, the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates at the time of the operation, said she had no knowledge of any FBI involvement in Sheikh Mohammed’s efforts to locate his daughter.
The spokesperson said Leaf was not aware of what happened with Latifa until it was reported in the media. Leaf is a senior Biden administration official working on national security issues connected to the Middle East.
The State Department declined to comment.
It is possible other U.S. government employees were aware of the operation and USA TODAY has simply not been able to locate them.
The operation took place in a different political context, when the Trump administration appeared willing to overlook human rights breaches by allies.
“I saved his ass,” Trump was quoted as saying in a book by journalist Bob Woodward. “I was able to get Congress to leave (the crown prince) alone.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not return a comment request.
Judge: Another princess abducted years earlier
Dubai is part of a federation of seven semiautonomous emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. All are under patriarchal rule.
The country prioritizes men’s legal rights in marriages, divorces and child custody. It still permits domestic violence.
The United States views the UAE as a key partner in fighting terrorism. The FBI officially opened its legal attache office in Abu Dhabi in 2004, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to track leads in the far-reaching, global investigation. The FBI’s Dubai office opened after that.
Sheikh Mohammed has relentlessly portrayed his emirate as enlightened and Western-friendly, but Dubai has a troubled human rights record.
In 2020, a State Department report identified abuses such as torture in detention, arbitrary arrest, disregard for privacy rights and restrictions on free expression.
Video clips filmed in the bathroom of a barricaded villa in Dubai where Princess Latifa said she was held against her will without access to the outside world were published by USA TODAY in February. They appear to have been filmed between early 2019 and early 2020, according to Jauhiainen and David Haigh, a London-based human rights advocate who campaigned for Latifa’s release.
“Every day, I’m worried about my safety and my life. I don’t know if I’m going to survive this situation,” the princess says in one video.
Haigh, who co-founded the Free Latifa campaign, said he was “pleased to see Latifa seemingly having a passport, traveling and enjoying an increasing degree of freedom, these are very positive steps forward.”
When she was 16, the young princess tried to escape Dubai by crossing into neighboring Oman. She was caught, imprisoned, tortured and denied medical attention, according to her account in the YouTube video.
Details of Latifa’s escape attempts were revealed in the context of a British court ruling in a child custody case brought by Sheikh Mohammed’s ex-wife, Jordanian Princess Haya bint al-Hussein. Haya fled to London in 2019 with her two children and claimed Dubai’s leader waged a campaign of intimidation against her.
The judge in the custody case examined allegations related to Latifa and another daughter of Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum. In 2000, Princess Shamsa fled to Britain to live a less constricted life.
The court credited claims of mistreatment and abduction related to Princess Latifa, and concluded that Sheikh Mohammed had arranged for the daylight abduction and forced return to Dubai of Princess Shamsa 20 years earlier.
British police suspect Shamsa, Latifa’s older sister from another marriage, was drugged and smuggled back to Dubai by men working for her father.
Shamsa has not been seen in public for almost 21 years.
As a head of state, Sheikh Mohammed declined to participate in the court proceeding examining abuse and abduction claims. He disputed the ruling and tried to prevent it from being published, calling the custody case a private matter.
“As a head of government, I was not able to participate in the court’s fact-finding process. This has resulted in the release of a ‘fact-finding’ judgment which inevitably only tells one side of the story,” he said in a statement released after the ruling.
The Biden administration suspended arms sales to the United Arab Emirates in January, so it could review calls by rights advocates to end such deals because of the country’s poor human rights record, including its participation in the ongoing Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen. In April, the Biden administration confirmed it would move forward with a planned $23 billion weapons deal.
As the raid of Princess Latifa’s yacht began, Radha Stirling, a human rights advocate, received a WhatsApp message from the princess.
“Please help. Please please there are men outside. I don’t know what is happening.”
A short while later, Stirling was speaking to the princess on the phone when she heard gunshots.
Then the line went dead.
Three years later, Stirling said she isn’t sure how to assess the recent photos of the princess, as well as her statement issued via her London law firm claiming she is free to travel and wants to be left alone to live her life in peace.
“It seems like she’s cooperating with her father. Is she doing this because she now wants a life in Dubai?” Stirling asked. “Or is she cooperating simply to have increased freedoms? Is she secretly thinking she might use these freedoms to escape again?”
Princess Latifa has appeared in a photo with a British teacher in a Spanish airport, four months after claiming she was imprisoned after being kidnapped by her billionaire father, the ruler of Dubai.
The 35-year-old princess wore a mask in the photo posted on Monday by Sioned Taylor, a Royal Navy veteran and Dubai-based teacher, captioned “Great European holiday with Latifa. We’re having fun exploring!”
Responding to a comment asking about Princess Latifa, Ms Taylor replied “She is great” with a thumbs-up emoji, confirming the pair were at Madrid-Barajas airport.
They are the only public sightings of the princess since she claimed in videos released in February that she was being held hostage in a guarded Dubai villa after being forcibly returned to the United Arab Emirates following a 2018 escape attempt.
Until shortly after Princess Latifa’s escape, Ms Taylor’s LinkedIn profile described her as working “for a member of the Ruling Family as her personal assistant”, citing discretion as one of the “key skill requirements”.
The Dubai Media office and Ms Taylor did not immediately respond to requests for comment about her apparent role as Princess Latifa’s chaperone.
The latest photo of Latifa appeared “stage managed”, according to Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“We just need to know that she is free and able to express her wishes, which is really difficult to know” from a photograph, Ms Begum said.
“The UAE has not been forthcoming [about Princess Latifa’s well-being], instead they’ve given this stage-managed show. It would be good if immigration officials were to take her aside and ask her if she wants to claim asylum or check that she wasn’t being held against her will,” she added.
Her apparent ability to travel was a positive development though, according to David Haigh, a lawyer who has campaigned for Princess Latifa’s freedom.
“We are pleased to see Latifa seemingly having a passport, travelling and enjoying an increasing degree of freedom, these are very positive steps forward,” Mr Haigh said in a statement. “I can also confirm that several of the campaign team have been contacted directly by Latifa.”
Mr Haigh declined to elaborate on communications between the princess and the Free Latifa Campaign when contacted by The Telegraph, cautioning that “this is a very, very complicated matter with a two-decade-long history of abuse, coercion, torture, [and] kidnapping.”
The findings came as part of a custody battle between the Sheikh and his former wife Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, whose allegations of intimidation and harassment by her ex-husband were accepted as proved by Judge Andrew McFarlane.
Princess Latifa also claimed to have personally witnessed Shamsa suffer “physical abuse at the hands of family members”, in a letter to British police requesting they reopen a probe into the August 2000 kidnapping of her sister in Cambridge by Sheikh Mohammed’s enforcers, who forcibly extradited her to the UAE, where she remains.
Princess Latifa also tried to escape her father’s control by attempting to flee the UAE aboard a yacht before Emirati and Indian commandos stormed the vessel in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Goa.
Friends of a Dubai princess who claimed to have been kidnapped and held captive by her billionaire father are suspending a campaign to free her after a photograph appeared to show her on holiday in Spain with a British teacher.
Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, appeared in the picture wearing a facemask at Madrid airport, four months after she recorded leaked videos claiming that she was being held in solitary confinement after a foiled escape attempt, and prevented from travelling.
The videos previously raised international concerns over the 35-year-old’s status and health, with a United Nations panel calling for her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and his government to provide “proof” that she was alive and well.
The latest photo was posted to Instagram early this morning by Sioned Taylor, a former Royal Navy veteran and teacher based in Dubai, who previously posted pictures with the princess in a shopping centre and restaurant in the Emirate.
Taylor captioned the latest photograph of the pair standing together beside a red suitcase: “Great European holiday with Latifa. We’re having fun exploring!”
In her first public statement for months, the princess said: “I recently visited 3 European countries on holiday with my friend. I asked her to post a few photos online to prove to campaigners that I can travel where I want. I hope now that I can live my life in peace without further media scrutiny. And I thank everyone for their kind wishes.”
The princess had previously claimed that she did not have access to her passport and could not leave Dubai without her father’s permission. Asked if Latifa was “okay”, Taylor wrote “she is great” with a thumbs-up emoji.
The Free Latifa group, founded by friends of the princess who helped her to try to flee the oil-rich Emirate three years ago, said it was “on hold” after seeing the photo and receiving messages from Latifa.
David Haigh, a British lawyer who founded the Free Latifa campaign with Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish martial arts instructor and confidante of the princess, said on Monday: “We are pleased to see Latifa seemingly having a passport, travelling and enjoying an increasing degree of freedom, these are very positive steps forward. I can also confirm that several of the campaign team have been contacted directly by Latifa.”
While the group was continuing to seek guarantees on Latifa’s safety and wellbeing, Haigh added: “At present the campaign has put on hold all campaigning activities and we would like to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all those around the world that supported the Free Latifa campaign.”
The photos posted by Taylor and two other women in Dubai last month are the first time the princess has been seen since she claimed, in videos leaked to the media in February, that she was under effective house arrest in a villa that “has been converted into a jail”.
One of 25 children of Sheikh Mohammed, she tried to flee the country by jet ski and boat in 2018, only to be detained by commandos off the coast of India.
“I’m not allowed to drive, I’m not allowed to travel or leave Dubai at all,” she said in a video recorded just before her 2018 escape, in which she was aided by Jauhiainen.
Sheikh Mohammed has always denied mistreatment of his daughter.
In March last year a senior judge ruled at London’s High Court that Sheikh Mohammed, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, had ordered the abduction of Latifa and her elder sister Shamsa.
Judge Andrew McFarlane said he accepted as proved that the sheikh had arranged for Latifa to be snatched from a boat in international waters off India by Indian forces in 2018 and returned to the emirate in what was her second failed escape attempt.
The findings formed part of a battle between Mohammed and his ex-wife Princess Haya over the custody of their two children.
Radha Stirling, founder of the Detained in Dubai campaign group who was contacted by the Princess after her 2018 escape, said: “We are pleased to see Latifa enjoying increased freedom and time in Europe with friends after what has been a complex three-year long campaign. But a few photos of Latifa does not conclude the matter.
“The UAE and India attacked a US yacht in international waters and kidnapped Latifa along with five foreign nationals, including a US citizen.
“The UAE cannot sweep this unlawful and unprecedented attack under the rug for if they do, they have a green light to commit further crimes outside their jurisdiction.”
The UAE’s embassy in London and the Dubai media office did not respond to requests for comment about the recent photos.
Taylor, originally from Liverpool, is believed to have known Latifa before her escape. On her LinkedIn page, Taylor says she worked as a personal assistant to a female member of the royal family from September 2017 until March 2018. Latifa was captured off the coast of India on March 4, 2018.
Taylor is also an avid skydiver, which Latifa was also well-known for, as well as being a mathematics teacher at Latifa School for Girls, a primary and secondary school in Dubai founded by Sheikh Mohammed.