The Diplomat and the Cage Fighter

Trump appointee Richard Grenell helped an Arab German with a criminal past get into the U.S., sources tell SpyTalk

On August 17 last year, the German-Moroccan UFC fighter Abu Azaitar posted a photo on his Instagram page, showing himself with Richard Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany. The muscular Azaitar, wearing a tight red T-shirt, and Grenell, informally dressed in a dark shirt and a black parka vest, stand side-by-side under an arched doorway inside the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, framed between twin flag poles bearing the U.S. and State Department standards. The two men smile at the camera with their arms around one another in a relaxed, friendly pose. 

“Amazing time with Mr ambassador @richardgrenell,” Abuzaitar wrote in the accompanying text. “Great hospitality and what a great experience. Thank you for opening to (sic) door for me.” 

Abuzaitar didn’t specify what door Grenell had opened. But diplomatic sources tell SpyTalk that Grenell was instrumental in securing a waiver for Azaitar to enter the United States last fall—this despite the fighter’s violent criminal past and a prison record in Germany. Notwithstanding Azaitar’s increasingly close friendship with Moroccan King Mohammed VI, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular affairs turned him down for a visa three times because of his criminal record, the sources said, twice in Germany, where Azaitar was born to immigrant Moroccan parents, and a third time in Morocco, where the fighter also holds citizenship. 

After that third refusal at the end of last summer, Azaitar returned to Germany and appealed directly to Grenell, said these sources, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. Within unusual speed, he received the waiver in just a few weeks and entered the U.S. in October. The question is why Azaitar? Who wanted him in, despite his rap sheet? 

American immigration policy has long included its share of favoritism for the celebrated and well-heeled. But the notion that Grenell, a proudly openly gay man, relentless Trump loyalist and senior political appointee, would intervene in any way to facilitate an American visa for a foreign-born fighter with a criminal past, who also happens to be a Muslim, would seem to contradict most of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and some of his policies. But as we’ve learned with President Donald J. Trump, there are always exceptions for friends. 

In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly inveighed against “criminal aliens;” while in office he even restricted long-standing legal visa categories designed to attract skilled workers for the tech-industry and other employers.

According to the White House website, Trump’s administration also created the so-called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) group specifically to support families and victims of immigrant crime, even as the president went on national television to vilify by name individual undocumented immigrants charged with offenses, including rape. He also imposed a ban on people from several Muslim countries from entering the United States and referred to African countries as “shitholes.”

Yet Azaitar and his brother, Ottman, an undefeated lightweight in the UFC (the league for MMA fighters), turned up last October at the ranch of former heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Tyson, in Desert Hot Springs, California. There they joined their friend and manager, Ali Abdelaziz, and a dozen other top UFC fighters for a media event, organized by another influential friend, UFC president Dana White, who is a major financial donor to President Donald Trump.

On October 8, Abu Azaitar posted an Instagram picture during the visit, showing Ottman and Tyson holding up the Moroccan flag. “Representing Morocco #legend Azaitar,” the visiting fighter boasted. 

Representing Morocco 💪🏼👊🏽🇲🇦 #legend #azaitar #تبارك_الله
October 8, 2019

Azaitar also stayed in touch with Grenell, who stepped down as ambassador to Germany earlier this year when Trump made him acting director of National Intelligence. He is now the president’s special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo, but also quietly flew to Morocco last week for a meeting with King Mohammed VI, according to a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The purpose of his visit wasn’t clear, but some observers speculated that Trump had enlisted him in administration efforts to bring Morocco into Israel’s new anti-Iran coalition with Persian Gulf monarchies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Photo Ops

Last December, Azaitar posted another chummy Instagram photo of himself with Grenell standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree in the lobby of Dusseldorf’s Intercontinental Hotel. Grenell again has his arm around Azaitar. 

“I want to thank the US Ambassador @richardgrenell for the nice Evening and the big support,” Azaitar wrote.

SpyTalk sought comment from Grenell through Carnegie-Mellon University, where he is a senior fellow, on whether he helped Azaitar secure a waiver. “Ambassador Grennel will pass on this opportunity,” said a university spokesman. Both the State Department and the Homeland Security Department also declined to discuss Azaitar’s case, citing privacy regulations.

While Azaitar’s entry into the United States was technically legal, it was hardly routine. According to Ramin Asgard, a former senior U.S. diplomat and now a Tampa-based immigration lawyer, such waivers, known internally as “212” exceptions, are nearly impossible to obtain, suggesting Grenell may have used his close relationship with President Trump and other senior administration officials to help Azaitar receive the waiver.  

“They are very, very hard to get,” Asgari tells SpyTalk. “Even with a very experienced attorney filing a brief with exhibits, it’s a real challenge getting that done.” 

Indeed, under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, only a senior consular officer or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could recommend a 212 waiver, and they would have faced a high bar to rationalize the entry of an applicant like Azaitar. They would have to have presented: exhaustive evidence of both Azaitar’s worthiness and the U.S. “national interest” his entry would serve, according to a Homeland Security official, speaking with SpyTalk on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such matters.  

The official added that the State Department’s doctrine of not reviewing the cases of applicants already classified as ineligible for an entry visa “makes [waiver] grants almost unheard of after a denial.”

The friendship between the ambassador and the cage fighter appears to be based at least partly on a political alliance between the Trump camp and some mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters and their fans. “MMA athletes and fans are overwhelmingly for @realDonaldTrump,” Grenell tweeted on Sept. 14. “They know what a fighter looks like.”

Grenell, whose ambassadorial nomination in 2017, widely seen as a reward for his fierce loyalty to Trump, also appears to have a close relationship with Azaitar’s manager Abdelaziz. Earlier this month, Grenell retweeted a photo post by Abdelaziz, showing them together with UFC fighter Justin Gaethje and former UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo. “I want to thank my brother @RichardGrenell for being the beautiful person that he is,” Abdelaziz said. “He reintroduced me to my American dream once again. I love you Richard.” 

Speaking at a Nevada political rally a day earlier, Trump, a vocal MMA fight fan, singled out White and Abdelaziz and for praise. 

White has known Trump for decades, and the real estate developer hosted UFC fights at his then-lavish Trump casino in Atlantic City. (It later went bankrupt.) White donated $1 million to Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and spoke in support of his candidacy at both the 2016 and 2020 Republican national conventions. 

An Informant

Abdelaziz’s journey into Trump’s embrace followed a more shadowy path. Before founding his Dominance MMA Management company in 2012, the Egyptian-born fight manager had assisted the New York Police Department in its post-9/11 investigation of an extremist Islamist group in upstate New York. According to the 2014 book, Enemies Within, by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists Matt Appuzo and Adam Goldman, Abdelaziz infiltrated the group as an undercover informant. He was also suspected of being a double agent.

Neither White nor Abdelaziz responded to SpyTalk requests to explain what role, if any, either played in helping Azaitar receive his visa waiver.

Like some UFC fighters, Azaitar came from a troubled background. After graduating from a Saudi-funded Islamic high school in Bonn in 2003, Azaitar and his look-alike younger brother, Ottman, became known as “the brutal twins” for their violent acts as members of a Palestinian criminal gang. A year later, a court in Cologne sentenced Azaitar to two years and three months in prison after he was convicted of savagely beating a businessman, dousing him in gasoline, and stealing his car, according to an account of the court’s proceedings in the German-language Kölner Stadt Anzeiger newspaper.  

In prison, Azaitar fell in with a gang of fellow criminals, who enlisted him as one of their guardians. “One of our roles was to be the protectors of the German prisoners against some unscrupulous groups of foreigners,” Azaitar told the German news site, Kölnischer Rundschau

Azaitar emerged from prison in 2006 unreformed. According to German press reports, he allegedly broke a man’s nose during a brawl at a mixed martial arts gym. He also allegedly punched his girlfriend and broke her eardrum, but he was not charged in either of these allegations. 

In 2007, however, Azaitar announced he was putting his criminal past behind him and training to become a professional fighter. “When we are young, everybody does something wrong,” he told a sports news interviewer a little over a decade later. “Now I’m 32. I cannot talk about what happened 15 years ago...I try to be a good person in everything I do in my life.”

But according to Bloody Elbow, a well-known MMA news website, Azaitar has maintained contact in Germany with several reputed criminals, even posting a photo on his Facebook page of himself with Arafat Abu Shaker, the alleged leader of a Berlin-based organized crime family widely reputed to be involed in extortion, drugs, sex trafficking and arms. 

Azaitar did not respond to repeated efforts for comment. The Bloody Elbow quoted a UFC source as saying that Azaitar had not violated the organization’s athlete code of conduct. 

Royal Rewards

Highly popular in Morocco, Azaitar also has developed a close relationship with King Mohammed VI, posting numerous photos of them together on social media. According to the French online news site Orient XXI, soon after Mohammed VI divorced his wife, Princess Lalla Salma, in 2018, Azaitar and his brothers became frequent visitors to the king’s palace in the capital, Rabat. Since then, the monarch has reportedly taken Abu Azaitar on vacation to the Seychelles, given him expensive gifts, and allowed the fighter to oversee the renovation of an unused palace in Tangier into a sports club. 

One diplomatic source told SpyTalk that the king was known to be upset that Azaitar’s visa troubles had ruined their plans to travel together to the United States last year and may also have weighed in with the U.S. government to secure his visa waiver.  

“Favors to kings happen,” said the source, who is familiar with Azaitar’s case and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss consular affairs.

Meanwhile, Azaitar has kept up with his friend, the ambassador. When Grenell ended his stint as the top U.S. envoy to Germany in June, Azaitar once again praised him, saying “Germany is losing one of the best US Ambassadors to our country ever. good luck with everything. Germany love you ❤️.”

An earlier version of this story misspelled Ramin Asgard’s last name as Asgari. An earlier version also mistakenly stated that Donald Trump first hosted UFC events in the 1980s and that Dana White was the founder of the organization. We regret the errors.