Riyadh 'purchased Israeli spyware' to snoop on suspected critics

Riyadh 'purchased Israeli spyware' to snoop on suspected critics
Israeli spyware system Pegasus 3 was purchased by Riyadh in the lead up to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's purge of opponents in 2017.
3 min read
25 November, 2018
MbS has faced global outrage over his involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi [Getty]
Saudi Arabia purchased a range of sophisticated Israeli spyware technology in the lead up to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's purge of regime opponents, in which dozens of highly influential individuals - including members of the royal family - were arrested and allegedly tortured under the guise of corruption crackdown.

A close associate of Riyadh's former head of intelligence, Abdullah al-Malihi, and the intelligence chief Nasser al-Qahtani, met with representatives of NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli cyber technology firm.

The first of three meetings, which discussed the firm's latest sophisticated espionage tool, the Pegasus 3, took place in Vienna and subsequently Cyprus, in 2017, Haaretz revealed.

The system would allow the Saudis to hack into the phones of regime opponents inside the kingdom as well as dissidents around the world, the Israeli daily reported.

During the initial meeting, the Israeli firm was able to demonstrate how their system can easily hack into a mobile device, listen in and record, just by obtaining the phone's number.

Once a phone is infected with Pegasus spyware, hackers have full access to a range of contents stored on the phone including messages, emails and pictures, according to the internet watchdog Citizen Lab.

An agreement was made between the Israeli businessmen and Saudi royals to purchase the Pegasus 3 system for $55 million, according to a European businessman with connections in the Gulf states. 

NSO slammed the reports as baseless gossip.

"The company's products assist law enforcement agencies in protecting people around the world from terror attacks, drug cartels, child kidnappers for ransom, pedophiles, and other criminals and terrorists," NSO said in response to the Haaretz investigation.

In September, a Citizen's Lab report revealed a number of Gulf states - likely the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - are using Pegasus spyware to snoop on activists.

It revealed that the UAE has the highest intensity of "infections" from the Israeli-made spyware, suggesting that suspected dissidents have been widely targeted. 

The site has previously highlighted the case of Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was targeted with the spyware after clicking on a link sent to his phone promising to reveal "new secrets" about detainees tortured in UAE jails. 

Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in jail in 2018 for critical social media posts, after he was detained by UAE authorities in 2017.

Amnesty International revealed this year that a member of staff and a Saudi activist working with the organisation has been targeted using Pegasus. 

"The same operator responsible for that targeting appears to be conducting surveillance across the Middle East, as well as in Europe and North America," the report states. 

The revelations come amid global outrage over the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul.

After persistent denials and numerous contradictory explanations, Riyadh finally admitted Khashoggi was killed in the consulate and his body was dismembered. Turkish intelligence and CIA reports concluded the murder was orchestrated among the highest circles of the Saudi royal family, implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The spyware is being used by government agencies in 46 countries, the report found, including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, and Yemen.