Pakistani-American mercenary donor was a prolific lobbyist for Turkey and its allies

Imaad Zuberi, a well-connected Pakistani-American businessman, was sentenced to 12 years in prison last Thursday for multiple tax crimes and failing to register as a foreign agent after lobbying on behalf of numerous foreign governments. 

Prior to his indictment in Jan. 2020, Zuberi was known for his shocking rolodex of contacts across the American political landscape. Through his wealth and what his cohorts viewed as a superhuman ability for networking, Zuberi was able to reach even the highest levels of government. He is known to have met with both President Barack Obama and his successor  Donald Trump. 

Prosecutors described Zuberi plainly as a “mercenary” willing to rub elbows, spend money and charm any politician on behalf of his client. His list of interested partners is proof of his lack of discrimination, having worked on behalf of figures as varied as Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. 

That said, Zuberi found a particular client base among the world’s Islamist-leaning regimes, most notably Turkey. 

According to records reviewed by the Associated Press, Zuberi found his services in demand with Turkey’s ambassador in Washington D.C, Serdar Kılıç. In 2015, Kılıç sought out Zuberi for help in killing a resolution condemning media censorship in Turkey, something he said  “would be extremely counterproductive” before the general election that year.

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has progressively grown into one of the world’s most oppressive governments for media freedom. 

Zuberi was acquainted with both Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the then chairman and ranking member respectively of the House Foreign Affairs Committee where the resolution was to receive a vote. According to an email obtained by the Associated Press, Kılıç received a draft of the resolution in advance from Zuberi, who then referred to Erdogan as a “hero”. 

The resolution, H.Res.279, ultimately died in the House Foreign Affairs Committee without getting a vote after Zuberi convinced one of its sponsors to turn against it. Both former members of Congress denied to AP that they were influenced by Zuberi on this bill. 

Zuberi did not end his work for Turkish interests after his work with Kılıç. In another instance a year later, he provided a check of $50,000 to Democratic Party donor and Turkish-American businessman Murat Güzel

Güzel serves on the board of the Turkish-American Steering Committee (TASC), an advocacy organisation that counts a cousin of President Erdogan on its board and has espoused pro-Erdogan positions in its work.  

Federal Election Committee (FEC) data shows that Güzel, a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, donated a $34,400 check on June 23, 2015 to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) with Zuberi’s California home listed instead of his own Pennsylvania address. In the five years since that check was donated, Güzel donated almost exclusively to Democrats again. 

Zuberi’s interactions with Güzel later contributed to his downfall. Interviewed by the FBI as part of their investigation into Zuberi, Güzel was provided immunity and he shared with them a copy of the $50,000 check that he was given by him. 

At the time of his initial indictment, Zuberi stood accused of trying to bribe witnesses in his case, but it is unknown if Güzel was among those he tried paying off. 

Turkey was not the only one among Zuberi’s Islamist clients looking to make use of his reach. In a court filing from November, Zuberi was accused of attempting to shift U.S policy on behalf of Qatar “to align with Qatar’s interests.” The means Zuberi used to do this remain under seal however. 

Like Turkey, Qatar is a known supporter of Islamist movements in the Middle East including the Muslim Brotherhood.  From May 2017 to Dec. 2020, Qatar was subject to a blockade from its neighbours led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The removal of the 5,000 Turkish troops based in the small kingdom was one of the demands for lifting the blockade that was refused. 

Zuberi similarly worked on behalf of other allies of Turkey’s. In a report from Foreign Policy magazine in 2015, Zuberi was revealed to have not disclosed his ties to foreign interests to the Justice Department and to have once been on the board of the Doha-based Syrian National Council (SNC). 

The SNC is a recognised opposition group against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Founded in Qatar in 2012, the SNC has been supportive of Turkey’s policies in northern Syria against local Kurdish militias including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that worked with the United States against the Islamic State. 

Turkey accuses this group of being an arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency against it since 1984. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation in the United States and Turkey. 

The SNC has called the YPG a “terrorist militia” and called for Washington to drop its support for it as Ankara has. At the same time, the SNC has defended the Turkish occupation in parts of Syria despite the widespread reports of serious abuses that have taken place in these cantons. 

Finally, Zuberi began working on behalf of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) to unfreeze $30 billion in U.S assets from the era of deceased dictator Muammar al-Gadhaffi. This goal has been repeatedly pursued by the Turkey-aligned Government of National Accords (GNA) which has in the past relied on registered lobbyists who had worked on behalf of Turkish interests as well. 

As part of this particular scheme, Zuberi involved a former aide to now President Joe Biden named Fran Person. It is unknown how far this plan went beyond some meetings with Libyan officials in Paris or the exact nature of Person’s role in it, but it is believed to have amounted to nothing. 

Zuberi’s involvement with the current U.S president is not new. As part of his trial in California, prosecutors shared photos of the disgraced operative with the then-vice president and met with him on multiple occasions, including during a 2014 interaction in Morocco where Joe Biden was travelling on official business. 

Chuck Ross, a reporter for the conservative Daily Caller, reported that an adviser for Biden suggested his son Hunter Biden remain in touch with Zuberi in 2012. The younger Biden announced last December that he was under investigation by the U.S Attorney in Delaware for his business dealings but has not been charged with any crime. 

In a statement previously provided to the Associated Press by then president-elect Biden’s transition team last November, a spokesman confirmed Biden and Zuberi met before, but accused the donor of embellishing their interactions. 

“Mr. Zuberi was vetted at the time and passed because he obviously concealed the activities in question, which neither then-Vice President nor the others to whom he donated had any way of knowing about,” said spokesman Andrew Bates.