"I came across your profile and think that the work you've done helping Syrian refugees and your extensive technical background could be a great fit for our new initiative," Bowman wrote.
Abdul Razzak said he thought the proposal was a bit odd, but he eventually agreed to meet the man at Toronto's swanky Shangri-La Hotel on the morning of Dec. 18.
The conversation got weird very quickly, Abdul Razzak said.
Instead of talking about refugees, Abdul Razzak said, Bowman grilled him about his work for Citizen Lab and its investigations into the use of NSO's software. Abdul Razzak said Bowman appeared to be reading off cue cards, asking him if he was earning enough money and throwing out pointed questions about Israel, the war in Syria and Abdul Razzak's religiosity.
"Do you pray?" Abdul Razzak recalled Bowman asking. "Why do you write only about NSO?" ''Do you write about it because it's an Israeli company?" ''Do you hate Israel?"
Abdul Razzak said he emerged from the meeting feeling shaken. He alerted his Citizen Lab colleagues, who quickly determined that the breakfast get-together had been a ruse. Bowman's supposed Madrid-based company, FlameTech, had no web presence beyond a LinkedIn page, a handful of social media profiles and an entry in the business information platform Crunchbase. A reverse image search revealed that the profile picture of the man listed as FlameTech's chief executive, Mauricio Alonso, was a stock photograph.
"My immediate gut feeling was: 'This is a fake,'" said John Scott-Railton, one of Abdul Razzak's colleagues.
Scott-Railton flagged the incident to the AP, which confirmed that FlameTech was a digital facade.
Searches of the Orbis database of corporate records, which has data on some 300 million global companies, turned up no evidence of a Spanish firm called FlameTech or Flame Tech or any company anywhere in the world matching its description. Similarly, the AP found no record of FlameTech in Madrid's official registry or of a Gary Bowman in the city's telephone listings. An Orbis search for Alonso, the supposed chief executive, also drew a blank. When an AP reporter visited Madrid's Crystal Tower high-rise, where FlameTech claimed to have 250 sq. meters (2,700 sq. feet) of office space, he could find no trace of the firm and calls to the number listed on its website went unanswered.