When news about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder surfaced, a lot of dilemma about the reason behind it loomed, too. One of the theories suggested that Khashoggi caught hold of some ‘secret information’ against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The said information would have helped expose one of Saudis plans to violate human rights. However, before Khashoggi could get the information out, he was called to the Saudi consulate and the rest is just history.
The question here is not what information did Khashoggi have to enrage Saudis so bad that they ended up murdering him. But, how did Khashoggi’s secret campaign with a friend and another Saudi critic, Omar Abdulaziz, get exposed?
Did Saudi murder Khashoggi to put an end to his criticism and secret projects?
Surveillance in Saudi Arabia
Edward Snowden, NSA whistle-blower and president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, claimed in his recent video conference that Jamal Khashoggi was under ‘Saudi government’s surveillance’. He added that the government of Saudi Arabia had been second-handedly spying on the journalist using NSO Group’s surveillance software, Pegasus.
NSO Group, infamous for developing spyware technology, was all over the news a few months ago. The organization had reportedly hacked a journalist’s phone and tapped his calls; all to impress governmental clients in the UAE.
Recently, Edward Snowden claimed that the group similarly hacked Omar Abdulaziz’s phone to track his conversation, but specifically with Jamal Khashoggi; the journalist they are accused of murdering. Snowden also added that the kingdom tracked Omar’s movements from one network zone to another, a claim supported by Citizen Lab. This eventually led to the murder of the journalist, who went to the Saudi consulate to collect his marriage-related documents, and never returned.
Omar Abdulaziz, himself is an equivocal Saudi critic and an Internet personality. As a result, he was approached by Saudi officials close to the crown prince asking him to return to the kingdom. However, on rejecting the offer, two of his brothers and eight of his friends living in Saudi Arabia allegedly got arrested.
Omar’s link with Khashoggi developed over multiple projects the two were working on. According to Omar, the project was supposed to include their work on a ‘short film based on human rights and the initiation of a digital army’ within Saudi Arabia. Abdulaziz, who is living in Montreal, Quebec; got his smartphone infected through a bait message sent to him with an infected link by the name of the courier company DHL. He interpreted the message to be of a courier he was expecting and clicked on the link. He was completely oblivious of the fact that he initiated a spyware program on his device. It was only after Citizen Lab reached out to Omar that he discovered his phone had been under surveillance for over a month. When under surveillance, Citizen Group claims, one’s phone no longer remains under their control. The hacker can enable any application, software, camera and even microphone on the victim’s phone to track, view, or listen to their surroundings, stealthily.
After Saudi murder Khashoggi, sources close to the Washington Post journalist stated that he was about to expose ‘Saudi Arabia’s use of chemical weapons in Yemen war’. Possibly, the discovery of the projects was what triggered and enraged Saudi to the extent of premeditating his murder.
This is not the first time governmental surveillance has been carried out targeting dissidents whether living inside Saudi Arabia or taking asylum in foreign lands. Saud al Qahtani aka ‘Mr. Hashtag’ was not only a close advisor to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. In fact, Qahtani was the flag-bearer of Saudi’s interest and investment in Hacking Team spyware.
Moreover, this wasn’t the first technologically-led attack on Khashoggi, the first time his ties with the government started deteriorating, he was started being harassed on Twitter by Saudi bots. In fact, MbS had put Qahtani on the job to hunt down and target all Saudi dissidents on Twitter and blacklist them, which eventually led him to Khashoggi. With no ‘freedom on the net’, dissidents in Saudi have become voiceless. Freedom of speech on any platform is a fundamental right that the Saudis are devoid of. Whether Saudi murder Khashoggi to end his criticism towards Mohammed bin Salman or ability to expose his ill deeds remains to be discovered. He was only about to expose a portion of what the world already knew about the kingdom. The problem-solving approach of Saudi Arabian crown prince, MbS, points at the lack in his leadership alone.
Could political change be a solution to the problems in Saudi Arabia?