Journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was brutally killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October, had been subjected to a hacking attack just two months before the murder. Khashoggi’s close friend Omar Abdulaziz realized that his phone was remotely accessed (allegedly by the Saudis) and the WhatsApp correspondence between the pair was compromised. The messages were exposing the details of a “cyber army” project they were working on.
The purpose of the cyber army called “electronic bees” was carrying out social media campaigns against the propaganda broadcasts of the Saudi regime; basically posting messages on Twitter and mobilizing the opposition. Khashoggi and Abdulaziz discussed issues such as funding the “bees” over WhatsApp.
Khashoggi even promised to collect a $ 30 thousand donation from rich individuals and sent five thousand dollars at the first stage. Part of the plan was sending foreign SIM cards to Saudi youths so that they could tweet without being caught.
The Saudi journalist also called the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “a beast”, “a pac man”, adding “the more victims he eats, the more he wants,” a trend that could turn towards his supporters in the future, according to Khashoggi.
After the death of Khashoggi, Abdulaziz spoke to CNN, saying: “The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say… The guilt is killing me.”
And to sum up the project of “electronic bees”, Abdulaziz said: “We have no parliament; we just have Twitter.”
Victim remains clueless while all correspondence monitored
Abdulaziz, who lives in Canada, filed a lawsuit last December against the Israeli company NSO Group. Because, allegedly, the Saudis gained access to Abdulaziz’s phone via a spyware named “Pegasus”, which was bought from this company. That’s how they got his correspondence with Khashoggi. Cyber security experts concluded that this “military level” tool was highly likely to belong to the NSO Group.
According to a research by the New York Times, “Pegasus” ’is able to track emails, SMSs, calls and location information through smartphones, and to monitor communications over applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook. And since it doesn’t leave any trace, the victim is often clueless about what is going on.
In the lawsuit, the company is accused of violating international law by selling software that could be used in human rights violations.
The NSO Group strongly rejected the allegations. However, the result of the lawsuit filed at a Tel Aviv court, is anticipated by human rights and digital rights organizations. If it turns out that the Israeli company has hacked Abdulaziz’s phone for the Saudis, could the NSO Group be held accountable for the connection with the Khashoggi murder? It remains to be seen.
But how is all that linked to the recent hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man?
Did Saudi-Israeli collaboration target Jeff Bezos this time?
The businessman’s private messages, which revealed his extramarital affair during his divorce, were published by the National Enquirer in January. The tabloid newspaper claimed that it obtained the messages between Bezos and his mistress Lauren Sanchez from the latter’s brother in exchange for money.
Gavin de Becker, the digital security consultant of Bezos, has reached a completely different conclusion in his investigation. According to him, the Saudis, disturbed by the intense coverage of the Khashoggi murder in the Washington Post, the newspaper owned by Bezos and Khashoggi worked for as a columnist, got the businessman’s mobile phone hacked. The goal was to punish Bezos for the newspaper’s publications.
De Becker says that Sanchez’s brother Michael was not the only source of the National Enquirer, even though the outlet insisted that he was. Michael Sanchez also stated, according to de Becker, that he was not the one who first reached out to the newspaper; on the contrary, he was contacted by the National Enquirer and it seemed like the reporters had already been aware of the messages.
In February, Bezos announced that AMI, the parent company of the tabloid newspaper, blackmailed him. He said he was asked to release a statement making clear that his own investigation found out “there was no electronic monitoring or hacking involved” in the process of generating the news report by the National Enquirer. If he didn’t do as he was told, some private photos of him in the hands of the company would be published just like the messages.
After the scandal, Bezos agreed in early April to pay a record compensation of $ 35 billion to his wife as part of the divorce.
Claiming to be fighting against ‘terrorism and crime’
De Becker is convinced that Bezos’ phone was hacked and that it was the job of the Saudis. Even though the digital expert did not specify in his Daily Beast article what software was used for the hacking, the name of NSO Group was once more brought up in the US media.
Unsurprisingly, the company immediately made a statement denying any involvement in the incident.
NSO Group, which is believed to sell hacking and monitoring technologies to 60 government agencies in about 30 countries, claims that it “helps to investigate and prevent terrorism, thus saves thousands of lives all over the world.” However, cyber security researchers say that the software belonging to this company is used against journalists and human rights activists.
Founded in 2008, the company has allegedly been serving Saudi Arabia for years and digitally following the adversaries of the regime. Aside from Abdulaziz, there are two Saudi activists who have been affected by NSO Group software. One of them is an individual named Yahya Assiri and the other is a volunteer of Amnesty International in Saudi Arabia. After investigating the victim’s phone, Amnesty International addressed a petition to the Israeli Ministry of Defense to get the NSO Group’s export license revoked.
One of the governments that earned the company millions of dollars is Mexico, which is mainly using its spyware to monitor drug kingpins. NSO Group even asserted that it played a key role in the capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
There are reportedly two more ongoing lawsuits against the NSO Group in Israel and Cyprus, where Mexican and Qatari plaintiffs are seeking justice.
NSO Group has rivals in the Middle East such as Black Cube, the Israeli “private intelligence agency” that has offices in London and Paris, and DarkMatter, based in the United Arab Emirates, similarly sell advanced spying tools to governments. However, NSO Group, which is worth a billion dollars, is the name that stands out with the technologies it offers. Since 2014, US-based Francisco Partners holds 70 percent of the company that has an annual turnover of over $ 150 million.
Human rights organizations have been keeping a close eye on the NSO Group that is claimed to be facilitating targeted cyber attacks on journalists and activists by Saudi Arabia and other repressive governments. The Citizen Lab in Canada and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are leading those.
As NOVO Newspaper, we will also closely follow the legal and criminal processes related to the NSO Group and share them with you.