When Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, he didn’t know he was walking into a killing zone. He had become the prime target in a 21st-century information war — one that involved hacking, kidnapping and ultimately murder — waged by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his courtiers against dissenters.
How did a battle of ideas, triggered by Khashoggi’s outspoken journalism for The Washington Post, become so deadly? That’s the riddle at the center of the columnist’s death. The answer in part is that the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries that supported Saudi counter-extremism policies helped sharpen the double-edged tools of cyber espionage that drove the conflict toward its catastrophic conclusion in Istanbul.
Ground zero in this conflict was the Center for Studies and Media Affairs in Riyadh, run by Saud al-Qahtani, a smart, ambitious official in the royal court who played Iago to his headstrong, sometimes paranoid boss.
Qahtani and his cyber colleagues worked at first with an Italian company called Hacking Team, and then shopped for products produced by two Israeli companies — NSO Group and its affiliate, Q Cyber Technologies — and by an Emirati firm called DarkMatter, according to many knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Gradually, Qahtani built a network of surveillance and social-media manipulation to advance the crown prince’s agenda and suppress his enemies.
“He breaks things,” is how one well-connected Saudi who knows Qahtani described him. With the patronage of the crown prince, “he had a lot of carrots, and a lot of sticks.”
I had a glimpse of the Saudi passion for digital surveillance technology during visits to the kingdom in April 2017 and March 2018. Both times, I was invited to see a new counter-terrorism center within the royal court, which the Saudis dubbed a Digital Extremism Observatory. It was a hyper-modern facility, with scores of technicians sitting at computer screens monitoring Arabic Twitter and other social-media platforms.
The enemy was extremism, Saudi officials insisted, repeating the message that the crown price was delivering to American and European officials. What most observers, including me, didn’t understand was how quickly those tools could be adapted to combat dissident Saudi voices such as Khashoggi’s.
The Saudis knew that Israel, their historical nemesis, had the most sophisticated cyber tools. And according to American, European and Saudi sources, the Saudis increasingly looked to buy technology from Israeli cyber companies.
The result was one of the most intriguing intelligence alliances in the history of the Middle East, as Israeli companies began sharing with the Saudis some of their cyber secrets. Three former U.S. officials say the Saudis specifically sought to purchase a sophisticated phone-hacking system called Pegasus, created by NSO and its affiliate, Q Cyber.
An attorney who represents NSO Group and Q Cyber, when asked about reported sales to Saudi Arabia, wouldn’t confirm or deny any of the firm’s clients. “They’re a supplier of a product. The customer makes representations that the product will be used in a way that’s lawful in that country. Obviously, there are sometimes abuses,” the attorney said.
Khashoggi, as one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known journalists and leading “influencers,” was inexorably drawn into this conflict. Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi dissident living in Canada, encouraged Khashoggi this summer to help recruit “electronic bees” to neutralize Qahtani’s “army of flies” online, according to a lawsuit filed in Tel Aviv last Sunday.
Khashoggi and Abdulaziz didn’t realize that the Saudis were able to spy on their messages, thanks to Israeli-supplied Pegasus surveillance tools, according to the lawsuit. The Pegasus surveillance gave the Saudis information that “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder … Khashoggi,” the suit contends.
An NSO spokesperson challenged the allegations made in the lawsuit. “While as a matter of security we will not discuss whether a particular government has licensed our technology, this lawsuit is completely unfounded. It shows no evidence that the company’s technology was used. … We follow an extremely rigorous protocol for licensing our products — which are only provided after a full vetting as well as licensing by the Israeli government. “
Qahtani is “currently banned from traveling and is under custody,” a Saudi official told me Thursday. He was fired in October from his job at the royal court and was later sanctioned by the Treasury Department, which said that Qahtani “was part of the planning and execution of the operation” that killed the Post journalist.
This is a ghastly murder story, but as in any complicated case, we look for clues about how and why the killing took place. This killer’s motive was control of information.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.