A recent report reveals Saudi Arabia had negotiated with a secretive Israeli technology firm the purchase of a system that hacks into cellphones, months before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unleashed a purge of the country’s rival royals and businessmen.
Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz revealed Riyadh’s behind-the-scenes attempts to buy Israeli cyberattack software, citing a complaint filed with the Israeli police by a European businessman, who said representatives of Israel’s NSO Group Technologies offered their Pegasus 3 technology to high-profile Saudi officials during talks in Vienna, Austria, last year.
The report identified the Saudi officials as Abdullah al-Malihi, a close associate of Prince Turki al-Faisal – a former Saudi spy chief – and another top Saudi official, Nasser al-Qahtani, who presented himself as the deputy of the current spy chief.
During their meeting, NSO representatives showed a PowerPoint presentation of the system’s capabilities.
Back then, NSO was promoting its Pegasus 3 software, a sophisticated espionage tool that does not depend on the victim clicking on a link before the phone is hacked, as defined by Haaretz.
The spyware needs only a phone number to ensnare a device. As soon as a phone is breached, the speaker and camera can be used for recording conversations, according to the report.
Even encoded apps like WhatsApp can be monitored via the spying software, it added.
The Vienna’s meeting was not the first one between the two sides, Haaretz said.
The outcome of the meeting is now the subject of the complaint by the unnamed European business man, who says he helped set up the initial contact between Israeli dealers and Saudi buyers, but was frozen out of receiving any commission on the deal.
The NSO Group has been under much controversy and scrutiny over the past years, with Canadian internet watchdog Citizen Lab saying that the Pegasus software marketed by the company is being used by a number of countries “with dubious human rights records and histories of abusive behavior by state security services.”
The Haaretz report further said “it emerges that the deal was signed in the summer of 2017, a few months before Crown Prince Mohammed began his purge of regime opponents.”
Hundreds of princes, ministers, and former ministers were detained on November 9, 2017 on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s so-called Anti-Corruption Committee headed by bin Salman, in what was widely viewed as the young prince’s push to consolidate his grip to power.
The bin Salman-led purge did not remain limited to the Saudi soil.
In the following months, the Saudis continued their hunt for the dissidents living abroad, in a campaign which raised international attention only when dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October.
A recent Forbes report said Riyadh used Pegasus 3 to spy on its opponents living abroad such as the London-based comedian Ghanem Almasarir and human rights activist Yahya Assiri as well as activist Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Canada. All three were in contact with Khashoggi.
Last month, former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden said that Pegasus had been used by the Saudi regime to track Khashoggi.
“They are the worst of the worst,” Snowden said of Herzliya-based NSO, accusing the firm of aiding and abetting human rights violations.
Khashoggi, a one-time royal insider who had been critical of the crown prince recently, was murdered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.
Following weeks of denial of any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudi Arabia regime eventually acknowledged the “premeditated” murder, but has sought to distance the heir to the Saudi throne from the assassination.
A Saudi prosecutor said Khashoggi’s body had been dismembered, removed from the diplomatic mission and handed to an unidentified “local cooperator.”
The CIA is said to have concluded that the crown prince was behind the killing, but US President Donald Trump is yet to endorse the assessment.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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