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Saudi dissident to sue Israel spyware firm over Khashoggi murder

December 3, 2018 at 2:12 pm

A Saudi dissident is to sue Israeli spyware firm NSO after its software was used by Saudi Arabia to track him and murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Omar Abdulaziz – a 27-year-old Saudi dissident based in Canada – has filed a lawsuit in Israel accusing NSO Group of hacking his phone at the behest of Saudi Arabia. The lawsuit claims that “in the months before [Khashoggi’s] killing, the [Saudi] royal court had access to Mr. Khashoggi’s communications about opposition projects with Mr. Abdulaziz because of the spyware on Mr. Abdulaziz’s phone,” the New York Times revealed yesterday.

During the summer prior to Khashoggi’s murder, Abdulaziz and Khashoggi “stepped up their plans for various social media campaigns to counter Saudi government propaganda”, the New York Times added, saying: “Mr. Khashoggi sent Mr. Abdulaziz $5,000 to subsidise that effort.”

The case has been filed by Israeli lawyer Alaa Mahajna, in cooperation with Mazen Masri, a lecturer at City University in London. The pair say they intend to argue the exposure of the collaboration between Abdulaziz and Khashoggi as a result of NSO’s hacking “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr. Khashoggi”.

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The New York Times’ revelation sheds light on the strong relationship between Abdulaziz and Khashoggi in the months prior to the latter’s murder on 2 October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, perhaps offering an explanation for his brutal killing.

Abdulaziz has also claimed that he was targeted by some of the same operatives linked to the Khashoggi murder, including two emissaries who met him in the Canadian city of Montreal in May. The two envoys said they had been sent by Saud Al-Qahtani, a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) who was one of five senior Saudi officials fired in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. It was also revealed yesterday that Al-Qahtani received at least 11 messages from MBS in the hours before and immediately after the killing, and is thought to have supervised the 15-man hit squad that carried out the assassination.

These revelations are only the latest in a string of developments linking Saudi Arabia to NSO Group. Last week Amnesty International’s Israel division demanded that Israel’s Defence Ministry revoke NSO’s licence as a result of its links to Saudi Arabia. Amnesty argued that “NSO has gone out of control”, adding that since it has been proven NSO’s software has been used in “a series of egregious human rights violations”, the company’s export licence should be revoked.

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NSO’s Pegasus software allows its customers to secretly listen to calls, record keystrokes, read messages and track internet history, as well as hacking a phone’s microphone and camera. Because its capabilities are so invasive, Israel classifies the spyware as a weapon and NSO must therefore obtain approval from the Defence Ministry for its sale to foreign governments. Responding to Amnesty’s demand, the Israel Defence Ministry that “it was strict about granting licenses according to the law and that [it] could not discuss the existence of NSO’s licence for security reason”.

Only two days previously it had been disclosed that two NSO representatives met with Saudi officials on multiple occasions in 2017 to promote the company’s software. NSO is believed to have sold the technology to Saudi Arabia for a sum of $55 million, with the timing of the deal being seen as particularly significant – the deal was signed in the summer of 2017, a few months before MBS began his purge of regime opponents and allegedly abducted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.

That NSO’s software was likely used to target Khashoggi has been known since November, when US whistleblower Edward Snowden told a conference in Tel Aviv: “How do they [Saudi Arabia] know what his [Khashoggi’s] plans were and that they needed to act against him? That knowledge came from the technology developed by NSO.” Snowden also accused NSO of “selling a digital burglary tool [which] is not just being used for catching criminals and stopping terrorist attacks [but is] actually costing lives.”