CIA warned three Khashoggi associates of imminent Saudi threats

CIA warned three Khashoggi associates of imminent Saudi threats
At least three pro-democracy activists in Norway, Canada and the US have been warned by the CIA they face security threats from Saudi Arabia.
4 min read
09 May, 2019
Baghdadi says he has been targeted for criticising Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [AFP]

The CIA has warned at least three friends colleagues of Jamal Khashoggi that their continuing pro-democracy activism has singled out them and their families for potential retaliation from Saudi Arabia.

Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian refugee and activist who was granted asylum in Norway in 2015 after being deported from the UAE, was warned last month by Norwegian security officials that he was a Saudi target for his work, he said on Wednesday.

The CIA had alerted Norway's interior security service, who briefly placed Baghdadi under police protection, to the threat, The Guardian reported.

Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident and close associate of Khashoggi, and a person living in the US who requested not to be named have also been briefed in recent weeks that they face undisclosed Saudi threats as vocal critics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MbS, TIME reported on Thursday.

Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old Saudi activist exiled in Canada, was working on a number of projects to support Saudi democracy, including a campaign to counter Saudi government trolls on social media, with Khashoggi before his murder.

He is among several activists and journalists worldwide to have filed lawsuits against the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, who sold its Pegasus hacking software to the Saudi government, which then allegedly used the programme to intercept his communications - including those with Khashoggi.

The anonymous third person allegedly targeted by Saudi Arabia was also working closely with Khashoggi on projects relating to Arab media and social media before his death.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in the US who had taken a public stance against Prince Mohammed, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.

Read more: After Khashoggi killing, Saudi Arabia extends its claws to Norway

The crown prince is widely suspected, including by the CIA, to have ordered the killing.

All three increased their activist efforts following Khashoggi's murder.

While the CIA declined to comment on whether it had issued the warnings, the agency has a "duty to warn" possible victims of threats including murder, kidnapping and serious bodily harm, according to a 2015 directive signed by the Director of National Intelligence.

The US intelligence agency faced criticism for failing to warn Khashoggi after reportedly learning that Prince Mohammed had issued an order to kidnap the journalist.

Although the nature of the threats were not specified, both Baghdadi and Abdulaziz were told that they and their families were not in physical danger, according to people familiar with the briefings.

Baghdadi, though, was told to take several precautions, including measures to make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to hack his electronic devices.

The activists were also instructed to avoid traveling to several countries in Europe and Asia where Saudi Arabia holds a particular influence, and to move family members out of Malaysia, where several of Baghdadi's relatives live.

"They did not describe the nature of the threat except to say that I had crosshairs on my back, that I shouldn't travel and that I should warn my family immediately," Baghdadi told TIME.

"The reason I was told is that [Prince Mohammed believes] I'm hurting his reputation internationally, within the English language public sphere just as Khashoggi had been… I was warned that they have their eyes on you."

Abdulaziz, who has permanent resident status in Canada, said he was unable to discuss the situation on orders from the Canadian authorities, but friends and associates confirmed that security officials had recently provided him with a similar threat briefing, which prompted him to go into hiding for several days.

The unnamed US-based pro-democracy advocated said he had been warned by a US security official not to undertake planned business trips to Tunisia, Greece, Cyprus and other countries as "there is chatter with your name on it, from the Saudis".

Activists in Saudi Arabia continue to face severe repercussions, including execution and alleged torture, for their work.

Eleven Saudi women activists are currently on trial in the kingdom on charges including communicating with foreign journalists and international NGOs.

Saudi authorities also detained a further nine human rights activists last month, many of whom had ties to the women currently on trial.