Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the cyber institute led by one of his closest aides, Saud Al-Qahtani, signed a deal in early 2018 with the former head of the US National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, to help the Kingdom's de facto ruler train the next generation of Saudi hackers to take on its enemies, the Intercept reported yesterday.
The Gulf Kingdom has become a lucrative destination for retired US generals and senior intelligence officials. Their skills and expertise have made them very much in demand as the authoritarian regimes in the region face ever-expanding security threats.
IronNet was founded by the four star general. The company signed the deal with the Prince Mohammed Bin Salman College of Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Technologies at a ceremony in Washington, DC. The college was set up to train Saudi cyber intelligence agents.
There have been a number of efforts to step up the Kingdom's cyber capabilities which coincided with a vicious campaign against overseas critics of the prince. At the same time, the then Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of the ruling clique in Riyadh, Jamal Khashoggi, received a series of threatening messages, including one from Al-Qahtani. Khashoggi's family and close associates also discovered malware implanted electronically on their smartphones.
Qahtani is said to have been the mastermind behind the murder of Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. According to reports, the former royal court advisor was in touch with the killers via Skype to insult the journalist during the ordeal prior to his killing. He is said to have told the team to "bring me the head of the dog." Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw.
The Intercept revealed that IronNet's agreement tied to the alleged mastermind behind the killing of Khashoggi is not listed on its website, and it is not known if the business relationship still stands, or what the extent of it ever was. The Saudi Arabia relationship, according to former IronNet employees, has largely been shrouded in secrecy, even within the firm. The report revealed that several other US firms with recruits from the US Air Force, Army and NSA, are also selling cyber spyware to the Kingdom.
Concerns have been raised over US officials plying their trade in the Gulf Kingdoms. For example, after a group of American hackers who once worked for US intelligence agencies helped the UAE spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures, former US ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith condemned the practice.
"Folks with these skill sets should not be able to knowingly or unknowingly undermine US interests or contradict US values," said Smith at the time, while calling on Washington to supervise US government-trained hackers more effectively after they leave the official intelligence community.