ICSS: Sports at the service of state security 

Staff work on March 28, 2022 at the Aspire security command centre for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, near Khalifa International stadium in Doha. Afp

As part of its goal to reshape a narrative around sports, Qatar set up the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS) in London. Its headquarters were later moved to Geneva. But from the beginning its agenda was tainted by a lack of transparency and links to the emirate.

This content was published on November 10, 2022 - 09:00

In the run-up to Qatar winning the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, plans by the Gulf state to establish an organisation aimed at fighting impunity in sports were already in the works. By March 2011, just months after the winning bid was announced, Mohammed Hanzab, a former lieutenant colonel in the country’s defence forces and intelligence officer, announced the creation of the International Centre for Sports Security.  He remains its president to this day. 

Qatar’s Geneva offensive

This is the second part of a three-part series about how Qatar has used Switzerland as a hub for efforts to boost its public image since being named host of the 2022 World Cup. In Part 1, we looked at the networks and influence built up by the emirate in Geneva, while Part 3 reports on the Sports Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA) – a Qatar-founded, Geneva-based institution which is faced with accusations of lacking transparency.

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In 2017, ICSS moved its European operationsExternal link from London to a Geneva lakeside property. Hanzab commented at the time: “Geneva is the home of some of the world’s key influencers and decision-makers.” He said ICSS looked forward to “working closely with officials in Geneva to further expand our existing portfolio of clients and international partnerships with leading international organisations, governments, law enforcement agencies, governing bodies and other NGOs.”

At the time of its creation, ICSS said its purpose was to “serve as an international hub […] to benefit and safeguard sport”. 

ICSS’ ties to Qatar immediately raised questions about whether the country was using the organisation as a soft-power tool to push its own sports agenda and brush under the carpet any sensitive topics, such as human rights abuses, that it systematically refused to address. 

After persistent questions over its funding and Hanzab repeatedly denying both links to Qatar and conflicts of interest, the organisation revealed in 2017 that it had an annual budget of CHF26 million ($26.1 million) – roughly the same as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – and that 70% of it came from Qatar. 

A bid mired in death and corruption


As Qatar embarked on making the 2022 World Cup bid a reality, reports of abuses and deaths of migrant workers building the infrastructure became a growing liability to the upbeat narrative the gas-rich country was eager to project. WorkersExternal link from impoverished communities in south and east Asia were often denied wages, forbidden from changing jobs, and unable to freely leave the country. Some foreign workers also faced harsh punishment for criticising the system.

A 2021 investigation by The GuardianExternal link newspaper found that at least 6,700 migrant workers died in Qatar between 2010 and 2020, as the country readied itself for the sporting event. However, it is unclear how many of these workers were employed on World Cup construction projects. Qatari authorities say that 37 workers have died while working on tournament building sites, with only three of these deaths resulting from a work accident. For its part, the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) conducted what it calls an “in-depth analysis”External link of work-related deaths in Qatar and concluded that 50 workers died in 2020, over 500 were seriously injured, and 37,600 suffered mild injuries – and all mainly in the construction industry.

Under pressure in particular from the Geneva-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the ILO, Qatar announced labour reform commitments seven years after winning the bid, including banning midday outdoor work during summer months, allowing workers to leave Qatar without employer permission, and establishing a minimum wage.

But advocacy group Human Rights WatchExternal link said these measures have been “woefully inadequate and poorly enforced”.

Corruption investigations into the bidding process also got under way. In late 2021 the United States Department of Justice saidExternal link a number of FIFA officials had received bribes to vote for Qatar in 2010.

And in France investigations are ongoing into a meeting between former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of the European football federation UEFA, Michel Platini, and the Qatari emir days before the successful bid. The allegation is that economic benefits were obtained in exchange for a French vote. No charges have been filed.

Less than a month before the World Cup kickoff, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, described the event as a “major humanitarian occasion” in a speech to the Shura council, the legislative body. He condemned criticisms of Qatar as “fabrications”.

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Over the past decade, its activities have ranged from organising security at sporting events to fighting match-fixing and hosting lavish events.  Behind the facade of a vast networking group, ICSS has been successful at cementing links between Qatar and international organisations.

An early agreementExternal link between ICSS and the Qatar World Cup organising committee to assist with safety and security considerations in the run-up to the event set a tone for the group’s role. It began recruiting high-ranking security figures. Khoo Boom Hui, Interpol’s former president, joined the groupExternal link as an advisory board member. Chris Eaton, another former Interpol official and FIFA’s head of security, left the football body together with his entire team to join ICSS. His transfer came just after he had overseen an examination of vote swapping between Qatar and Spain-Portugal ahead of the awarding of the 2022 World Cup.

“There is an environment [at ICSS] that is marked by former police and military [and] that includes people from Qatar and elsewhere”, says Jens Sejer Andersen, director of Play the Game, a Danish-backed initiative to raise ethical standards, democracy and transparency in sports.

Mohammed Hanzab, former lieutenant colonel in the Qatari army, is founder and president of ICSS AFP

Unusual setup

In Geneva, the ICSS registered as a foundation in the Swiss commerce registry and made its home first at a lakeside estate not far from the Qatari ambassador’s residence, before moving to a detached residence that oddly bears no visible marks of the organisation’s presence. 

From the beginning, this lack of transparency raised questions.

The ICSS lists an address on its website – Boulevard Georges Favon 18 – that upon inspection turns out to be the offices of a Swiss insurance company and an assortment of other businesses. Just across the street is PM Audit and Office Consultant Société Fiduciaire, the one and same outfit responsible for preparing financial reports for SIGA, another organisation closely linked to Qatar. (see Part 3 of this series)

On Geneva’s business registry, however, ICSS’s most recent address is listed as the detached house at Chemin de la Carcellière 17, in the nearby leafy suburb of Vésenaz. On the mailbox there is a name – not that of ICSS, but of the group’s public relations officer, a former employee at Qatar’s UN mission in Geneva.

There is also little information on the ICSS website about its finances or checks and balances. The platform simply statesExternal link that “ICSS prepares financial statements in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards” and that its headquarters’ financial records are audited by KPMG. But those records are not publicly available.

Qatar chose Geneva to push its foreign policy agenda, of which hosting the FIFA World Cup, was a cornerstone

VIP venues

As soon as it was created, ICSS organised a multitude of conferences and events on issues such as involvement of youth and women in sport and financial integrity. It invited officials from the world of sports, government agencies, international organisations and media groups to speak in key cities. 

Venues included the House of Commons in London and Times SquareExternal link in New York, where former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who had no known experience in sports, was among the guests. The square was transformed into makeshift football pitches. Other meetings were held in Washington, Brussels and Geneva.

The group also ventured to tackle match-fixing, which had not yet been recognised as a major threat by most sports organisations. A 2014 University of Sorbonne reportExternal link commissioned by ICSS found that roughly $140 billion is laundered every year through sports-fixing. 

 The organisation saw an opportunity to take a stance on the issue.

“It was an open space up for grabs,” says Andersen of Play the Game. “ICSS soon discovered that there was a bigger sports integrity challenge internationally, where you could earn a reputation and gather intelligence if you engaged in it.”

 In 2015, just weeks after Swiss authorities arrested seven FIFA officials at a Zurich hotel at the request of US authorities, ICSS organised a talk at the National Press Club in Washington on boosting transparency in bidding for hosting major sporting events and fighting corruption. The event raised eyebrows as well as questions about the group’s intentionsExternal link. 

A partnership was signed in early 2015 with the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, where Qatar’s attorney-general External linkassumed a leading anti-corruption role (see part 1). The partnership was aimed at strengthening cross-border cooperation to fight match-fixingExternal link through legal assistance and the lifting of banking secrecy, and by launchingExternal link a good practices guide for investigations. 

ICSS held a workshopExternal link in 2021 with the World Health Organization on “risk communication” at sporting events. This year it organised a dialogueExternal link on preventing violent extremism through sport with other UN offices and institutes to which Qatar is a major donor.

However, any discussion about wrongdoing by Qatar was off the table. Back in 2015, at an ICSS Financial Integrity and Transparency in Sport (FITS) forum organised at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, ICSS president Hanzab left the room when Jaimie Fuller, a sports activist and FIFA critic, asked about labour abuses in Qatar, recalls Andersen, who attended the meeting. 

Edited by Virginie Mangin/gw

This article was amended on November 17 to provide additional information on the number of migrant workers thought to have died in Qatar.

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