Friend of Khashoggi sues Israeli spyware company

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (POMED / Flickr

Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit against Israeli cyber warfare company NSO Group in Tel Aviv on Sunday, on the basis that the company’s malware intercepted conversations between the activist and slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The lawsuit alleges the spyware company violates international law through selling its software to oppressive regimes that use it to violate human rights, CNN reported.

Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, where he was killed and dismembered by a hit squad sent from Saudi Arabia.

After a number of attempts at muddying the waters, Saudi Arabia eventually admitted the Washington Post columnist was slain inside the building.

Abdulaziz is one of Khashoggi’s close friends and a Saudi activist living in political asylum in Canada. Abdulaziz and Khashoggi were speaking on an almost daily basis between October 2017 and August 2018, according to CNN.

One day before Khashoggi’s disappearance, University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published an investigation revealing that Abdulaziz was likely spied on by the Saudi government using Israeli technology. Citizen Lab later added that Khashoggi was targeted as well.

“The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say,” Abdulaziz told CNN. “The guilt is killing me.”

The malware that reportedly infected Abdulaziz’s phone, called Pegasus, is made by NSO Group and is only sold to governments.

Pegasus hacks smartphones by sending the targeted device a compelling message that contains a link. These have included fake messages purporting to be an urgent notification regarding a family member. According to Citizen Lab, Abdulaziz was sent a fake notification for a package delivery.

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.

Pegasus reportedly gives operators access to the user’s location, emails and messages as well as access to the phone’s camera and microphone, among other functions.

“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.

WhatsApp messages

Abdulaziz shared more than 400 WhatsApp messages exchanged between him and Khashoggi with CNN.

The pair mainly discussed creating a joint digital activism project, which they dubbed “cyber bees,” aimed at documenting Saudi human rights abuses in short films that could be easily shared.

Their messages also criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is widely suspected of giving the order to abduct and kill Khashoggi.

“NSO should be held accountable in order to protect the lives of political dissidents, journalists and human rights activists,” Abdulaziz’s lawyer in Jerusalem, Alaa Mahajna, told CNN.

Abdulaziz targeted

Abdulaziz told CNN he was approached by two Saudi government emissaries in May who asked to meet him in Montreal.

Abdulaziz met with the officials and secretly recorded hours of conversations in which officials offered him a job on behalf of the crown prince.

The government officials also suggested Abdulaziz visit the Saudi embassy to pick up some paperwork, but Abdulaziz declined at the advice of Khashoggi, who warned Abdulaziz to only meet them in public spaces.

“Abdulaziz’s recorded messages are telling because Saudi Arabia has always claimed its crown prince had nothing to do with plots like the one leading to Khashoggi’s death, blaming that incident on a failed rendition attempt, masterminded by advisers and subordinates from the security staff,” CNN reported.

Pegasus offered to Saudi Arabia

Israeli daily Haaretz revealed in November that NSO Group had offered the Saudi government an advanced version of its system, called Pegasus 3, and described it as “an espionage tool so sophisticated that it does not depend on the victim clicking on a link before the phone is breached.”

Representatives of NSO Group met with Abdullah al-Malihi, a close associate of a former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services, and Nasser al-Qahtani, a top Saudi official close to the crown prince, in June 2017 in Vienna, according to Haaretz. The Saudis expressed interest in NSO’s technology at the meeting.

Al-Malihi and al-Qahtani met with “officials of Israeli companies in which other Israelis were present” multiple times after that, and “an agreement was made to sell the Pegasus 3 to the Saudis for $55 million.”

“Israel is willing to sell these countries security-related technologies, and they forge closer ties with Israel in the strategic battle against Iran,” Haaretz reported.

Lawsuits against NSO

Amnesty International has also said it intends to pursue legal action over NSO Group after one of its staff was targeted by Pegasus in an effort to spy on them earlier this year.

Amnesty is also demanding that Israel’s defense ministry revoke the spyware company’s export license, citing “a series of egregious human rights violations.”

Mexican journalists and a Qatari citizen have also filed lawsuits against NSO Group in Israel and Cyprus, accusing the company of participating in illegal spying, The New York Times reported in August.

The Times report revealed that the United Arab Emirates used NSO Group’s malware in attempts to spy on Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a Saudi prince.

The UAE signed a contract to license the malware as early as August 2013. The deal is likely to have been worth around $18 million, according to the Times, and could not have passed without the approval of the Israeli defense ministry.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.