Did Saudi Arabia use Israeli technology to spy on Khashoggi?

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (POMED / Flickr

Saudi Arabia may have used Israeli technology to spy on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. After a number of attempts at muddying the waters, Saudi Arabia eventually admitted the Washington Post columnist had been killed in the building.

One day before Khashoggi’s disappearance, University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published an investigation revealing that one of Khashoggi’s close friends, Omar Abdulaziz, was likely to have been spied on by the Saudi government using Israeli technology, adding that Khashoggi was targeted as well.

“We have high confidence that the cellphone of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist and Canadian permanent resident, was targeted and infected with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware,” the investigation revealed.

The malware, called Pegasus, is made by the Israeli cyber warfare company NSO Group and is only sold to governments.

Pegasus hacks smartphones by sending the targeted device a compelling message that contains a link. If the recipient clicks on the link, the system installs sophisticated malware on the device that can go undetected and send information back to those doing the spying.

Data that can be obtained through Pegasus includes locations, recordings, screenshots, email and text messages, passwords and photographs.

Khashoggi targeted

“It is 100 percent clear that [Jamal Khashoggi] received one of these text messages containing a link,” Bill Marczak, a senior research fellow at Citizen Lab, told CNN in October.

It is unclear whether Khashoggi’s device was infected with the malware – he would have had to click the link – and when the Citizen Lab report was published on 1 October, Abdulaziz’s relationship to Khashoggi was seemingly irrelevant.

Khashoggi’s disappearance the next day, however – given the pair’s close relationship, which was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as resembling “that of a source and a journalist” – may suggest the two are linked.

“We were talking every single day,” Abdulaziz told CPJ. “We had this kind of relationship, not just between colleagues, but between father and son.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, a close ally of the United States and someone who has been keen to improve relations with Israel, is widely suspected of giving the order to a team of Saudi assassins to abduct, murder and dismember Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Evangelicals in Riyadh

Earlier this month, the crown prince hosted a delegation of Christian evangelicals and pro-Israel American figures in Saudi Arabia.

The delegation was headed by Joel Rosenberg, a Christian Zionist and a dual citizen of Israel and the US, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

The crown prince reportedly discussed the Khashoggi killing with the delegation and told his evangelical interlocutors that his “enemies are exploiting this to the fullest.”

The Palestinian issue was also discussed at length during the meeting, Rosenberg reportedly told Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10.

Rosenberg claimed that the crown prince asked the delegation not to discuss that part of the conversation publically.

Rail link between Israel and Arab states

Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz attended the International Road Transport Union in Oman last week, at the official invitation of the Omani government.

Upon his return to Israel, Katz stated that “cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states can and should be expanded,” according to The Times of Israel.

Katz proposed a plan – complete with a promotional video – to build a regional transportation and trade rail that links Gulf states to the Mediterranean Sea via Israel.

The “Tracks for Regional Peace” rail link, which Katz said was supported by the Donald Trump administration, was “based on two central ideas – Israel as a land bridge and Jordan as a regional transportation hub.”

Katz’s trip came less than two weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman, in the most visible sign of Israel’s normalization of ties with Arab states with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

But it was only the tip of the iceberg. Israeli sports delegations fanned out to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in October as well.

Qatar also welcomed an Israeli delegation at the end of the month for the Enriching the Middle East’s Economic Future Conference in Doha organized by the Qatari foreign ministry.

Among them was Israeli politician and former member of parliament Erel Margalit who told Israeli technology news site CTech that Saudi-Israeli relations are warming, if unofficially.

“Sometimes it is easier to forge forward through economic collaboration than through the diplomatic echelons,” he told the news site.

“Israel-based cybersecurity firms aided Saudi oil and gas company Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, in dealing with the fallout of a 2012 cyber-attack that left the world’s biggest energy company nearly bereft of all IT resources,” he reportedly explained to the publication.

Activist group Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalization denounced Israel’s participation:

Israel’s “knight” and Dershowitz

An Israeli athlete also participated in a showjumping championship in Qatar recently, hosted by an organization operated by the state-funded multi-billion dollar Qatar Foundation.

Israel’s verified Arabic-language Twitter account congratulated Danielle Goldstein for coming in second place at the Doha competition:

The Qatar Foundation hosted prominent pro-Israel propagandist Alan Dershowitz in Doha earlier this year, as part of a wave of all-expenses-paid junkets of rightwing Americans and key leaders of Israel’s Washington lobby to Qatar, at the invitation of Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Mother Jones magazine recently revealed that Dershowitz had a contract to provide advice to Joseph Allaham, a lobbyist working for the Qatari government.

Allaham transferred $250,000 to some of the most extreme pro-Israel organizations in the United States on behalf of the Qatari government in late 2017 and early 2018.

The sums included $100,000 to the Zionist Organization of America, $100,000 to Our Soldiers Speak and $50,000 for Blue Diamond Horizons, Inc.

Allaham stated he had a contract with Dershowitz for the latter to provide “advisory and consulting” services “in many matters that involved [the] Middle East, especially Israel,” at the same time he was counseling US President Donald Trump, according to Mother Jones. Allaham’s statements were revealed in the transcript of a deposition connected to a federal lawsuit filed by pro-Israel Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who claimed Qatar attempted to hack and leak his emails.

Allaham refused to say during the deposition whether Dershowitz was paid for his services, although Dershowitz insisted that he “never received a single penny pursuant to that contract” and that it was “never implemented,” according to Mother Jones.

Dershowitz added that “I have done nothing and will do nothing on behalf of any country” and threatened to sue Mother Jones for defamation if the magazine reported that he had a conflict of interest with Qatar while he was advising the White House.

Dershowitz made two trips to Doha, one in January, at the invitation of the emir of Qatar, who financed the trip, and another in March.

Allaham helped organize the January trip.

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So Oman de facto recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital by sending the invitation there ... the betrayal continues.

Re the train video: it played fast and loose with Palestine. First it included the West Bank but not Gaza; then the West Bank disappeared. Soon after, both Palestinian territories showed up, then disappeared. Oddly, the video imagines that (West Bank) Palestinians will be able to use the Bibi-endorsed railway -- right after the 'two-state' fantasy is realized, I suppose.

Question: will Egypt, Israel's strong ally in controlling Gaza, be thrilled at this plan to massively divert commercial traffic away from the Suez Canal?

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.