Citizens International

Israeli Software Helped Saudis Spy on Khashoggi, Lawsuit Says

By David D. Kirkpatrick


LONDON — A Saudi dissident close to the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi has filed a lawsuit charging that an Israeli software company helped the royal court take over his smartphone and spy on his communications with Mr. Khashoggi.

The lawsuit puts new pressure on the company, the NSO Group, and on the government of Israel, which licenses the company’s sales to foreign governments of its spyware, known as Pegasus. More broadly, the suit also calls new attention to Israel’s increasingly open alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies like the United Arab Emirates have never recognized the Jewish state but have quietly found common cause with it in opposition to Iran. Since the Arab Spring uprisings, Israel and those monarchies also appear to have found an alignment of interest in defending the established Arab order.

The lawsuit, filed in Israel by the Montreal-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, follows parallel suits by journalists, activists and others charging that the NSO Group improperly helped the governments of Mexico and the United Arab Emirates spy on their smartphones even though the individuals had no criminal records and posed no threat of violence.

The human rights group Amnesty International has also recently accused the NSO Group of helping Saudi Arabia spy on a member of the organization’s staff. Amnesty said last week that it was considering legal action after the Israeli defense ministry rejected a request to revoke NSO Group’s license to export its spyware.

“By continuing to approve of NSO Group, the Ministry of Defense is practically admitting to knowingly cooperating with NSO Group as their software is used to commit human rights abuses,” said Molly Malekar, the programs director of Amnesty International’s Israeli office.

In a statement on Sunday, the NSO Group said its products were “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime.”

Contracts for use of its software “are only provided after a full vetting and licensing by the Israeli government,” the company said, adding: “We do not tolerate misuse of our products. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract.”

The spyware allows its customers to secretly listen to calls, record keystrokes, read messages, and track internet history on a targeted phone. It also enables customers to use a phone’s microphone and camera as surveillance devices.

Because of those sweepingly invasive capabilities, Israel classifies the spyware as a weapon. The company must obtain approval from the Defense Ministry for its sale to foreign governments. Saudi Arabia paid $55 million last year for its use, according to Israeli news reports.

Mr. Abdulaziz, the plaintiff of the new lawsuit, is a 27-year-old Saudi who sought asylum in Canada and lives in Montreal. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, he had become popular among Saudis for online videos and social media commentary criticizing the rulers of the kingdom for their authoritarianism. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company identified him as an influential driver of dissent on social media.

Over the last two months, he has also gained international attention because of his friendship and collaboration with Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi exile living in Virginia who wrote columns for The Washington Post.

Mr. Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. American intelligence agencies and many Western officials have concluded that Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, authorized the assassination. He has denied authorizing the killing, and Saudi officials have said that a team of agents sent to retrieve Mr. Khashoggi decided on their own to kill him instead.

The lawsuit claims that in the months before the killing, the royal court had access to Mr. Khashoggi’s communications about opposition projects with Mr. Abdulaziz because of the spyware on Mr. Abdulaziz’s phone.

Mr. Abdulaziz has said he was also targeted by some of the operatives close to Prince Mohammed who have been linked to the Khashoggi killing as part of a campaign to bring home or silence Saudi dissidents abroad. After pestering him for months with messages urging him to return to the kingdom, two Saudi emissaries met him in Montreal last May to pressure him in person.

Mr. Abdulaziz covertly recorded the conversations. “There are two scenarios,” one of the agents told him, referring to him in the third person as Omar. In the first option, “Omar is a beneficiary or a winner, because he is going back home,” an emissary told him. “The second side, the state, is a winner and is happy as well,” the emissary added, suggesting that the kingdom might pay also Mr. Abdulaziz large sums of money.

If he declined, however, “Omar is a loser because he is going to jail,” the emissary said, and he said Mr. Abdulaziz might be apprehended at an airport. The Saudi emissaries said falsely that Mr. Khashoggi was also considering returning to the kingdom.

The emissaries said they had been sent by Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the crown prince who has been the target of United States sanctions for his alleged role in the Khashoggi killing. A statement announcing the sanctions also identified him as the supervisor of the intelligence agent who led that operation. But the emissaries made clear that their orders had ultimately come from the crown prince.

They promised Mr. Abdulaziz that the day after he landed in Saudi Arabia he would meet with Prince Mohammed and could ask him for anything. They said they had already booked a hotel room for Mr. Abdulaziz in Jeddah.

Mr. Abdulaziz declined to return to the kingdom and also refused a request to visit the Saudi embassy in Ottawa for further discussions. That request began to look more ominous after Mr. Khashoggi’s death in the Istanbul consulate, Mr. Abdulaziz has said.

The next month, in June, he received a text message that looked like a link to track the shipment of a package but turned out to mask a link to the NSO Group’s spyware, according to court papers filed with the lawsuit.

In August, a research group at the University of Toronto that studies online surveillance notified Mr. Abdulaziz that his phone might have been hacked. The research group, Citizen Lab, later concluded that the Saudi government was behind it.

Around the same time as the arrival of the fake text message, Saudi security forces carried out a raid with search dogs in the middle of the night at the home of Mr. Abdulaziz’s family in Jeddah. Two of his brothers were arrested and remain in prison without charges, according to the court papers.

Mr. Abdulaziz “has also learned that the security personnel in the detention center are using torture against them and are subjecting them to inhumane and humiliating treatment, all in order to put pressure on the plaintiff to force him to stop his activism,” the court papers state.

It was also during the period after the spying began that Mr. Abdulaziz and Mr. Khashoggi stepped up their plans for various social media campaigns to counter Saudi government propaganda. Mr. Khashoggi sent Mr. Abdulaziz $5,000 to subsidize that effort.

The lawsuit was filed by an Israeli lawyer, Alaa Mahajna, in cooperation with Mazen Masri, a lecturer at the City University of London.

The lawyers say in the court papers that they intend to argue that the resulting exposure of the collaboration between Mr. Abdulaziz and Mr. Khashoggi “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr. Khashoggi.”


An earlier version of this article overstated what is known about a report by McKinsey & Company about Omar Abdulaziz. Although the report identified him as an influential driver of dissent on social media, it is not clear whether that evaluation was shown to the royal court.

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