Saudi dissident sues Israeli spyware firm over Khashoggi killing

Omar Abdulaziz says NSO Group helped Saudi government hack his phone and uncover his conversations with the slain journalist

Quebec-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Quebec-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz. (Screen capture: YouTube)

A Saudi dissident close to murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi is suing an Israeli spyware company, charging that they helped Riyadh monitor his communications with Khashoggi, The New York Times reported Sunday.

According to the report, the suit was filed in Israel by the Montreal-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, accusing the NSO Group of hacking his phone in the service of the Saudi government.

Abdulaziz charged that he was repeatedly pressed by the same people who have been accused of killing Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to return to Saudi Arabia. He recorded some of the conversations.

Following this, according to court papers, 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 Herzliya-based company NSO Group’s spyware, the report said.

This photo from August 25, 2016, shows the logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building in Herzliya, Israel. (AP Photo/Daniella Cheslow)

He was later informed by Canadian internet watchdog Citizen Lab that his phone might have been hacked and the Saudi government was behind it.

The NSO Group has been the subject of much controversy in recent years, with  Citizen Lab claiming 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.”

Pegasus infects individuals’ phones by sending them text messages that tempt them to click an attached link. If the target clicks on the link, the company gains full control over the phone, including its contents and history, and the ability to activate its microphone and camera at will.

The lawsuit was filed by an Israeli lawyer, Alaa Mahajna, in cooperation with Mazen Masri, a lecturer at the City University of London, the New York Times said, quoting the lawyer as saying they intend to argue that the resulting exposure of the collaboration between Abdulaziz and Khashoggi “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr. Khashoggi.”

In this image made from a March 2018 video provided by Metafora Production, Jamal Khashoggi speaks during an interview at an undisclosed location. (Metafora Production via AP)

The lawsuit also claimed that just after his phone was hacked, Saudi security forces raided the home of Abdulaziz’s family in Jidda and arrested two of his brothers who remain in detention.

In a statement to The Times of Israel on Sunday, the NSO Group argued the lawsuit was “completely unfounded” since it “shows no evidence that the company’s technology was used.”

The company 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 continued.

“Furthermore, the lawsuit refers to details which are false,” it said. “For example, it refers to NSO engaging with a Mexican company called Balam; NSO has had absolutely no connection with that company. The lawsuit appears to be based on a collection of press clippings that have been generated for the sole purpose of creating news headlines and do not reflect the reality of NSO’s work.”

Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, but there have been increasing behind the scene ties as both countries face off against common foe Iran.

Speaking to an Israeli audience last month fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden also linked NSO to the Khashoggi killing.

“How did they know what his intentions were? How did they decide he was someone they needed to act against that he was worth the risk?” he asked.

“And the reality was they had bugged one of his friends and contacts using software created by an Israeli company. We don’t know the chain of consequence because this company will never comment on this, but it’s one of the major stories not being written about.”

Snowden, a former contractor with the US National Security Agency, leaked thousands of classified documents to the press in 2013 that revealed the vast scope of surveillance of private data put in place after the 9/11 attacks.

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