Israeli Cybersecurity Firm Accused Of Helping Saudis Spy On Khashoggi
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A lot of countries have a stake in figuring out the truth behind the death of Jamal Khashoggi. He was a U.S. resident. He died inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, so Turkey's involved, and Saudi fingerprints are everywhere. Now Israel may have a link - specifically, a secretive Israeli cybersecurity company. Another Saudi dissident is suing that company. He claims Saudi officials used the company's software to intercept his text messages with Jamal Khashoggi, which in turn led the Saudis to go after The Washington Post columnist. NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the line from Jerusalem to talk about this. Hey Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: Tell us more about these allegations, and what do we know about the Saudi dissident making them?
ESTRIN: His name is Omar Abdulaziz. He tells a very compelling story. He's a social media activist. He's a critic of the Saudi royal family. He lives in Montreal. And in his lawsuit, he says Saudi officials in Canada met him in May, told him Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was unhappy with his activism. They asked him to come to the Saudi consulate for further discussion, and he declined. And he says that he and Jamal Khashoggi started working together on an initiative to organize a group of Twitter activists against the Saudi regime. And then this dissident got a text message with a link, supposedly a DHL package delivery, and he clicked on the link and later, a Canadian group, Citizen Lab, said it believed that he fell victim to a cellphone spyware from an Israeli-based company, NSO. He spoke with NPR's Shannon Van Sant, and he said he thinks the Saudis intercepted his Whatsapp text messages with Khashoggi, and that was a deciding factor that led to his death. Here's what he said.
OMAR ABDULAZIZ: For sure, the conversations between us played a major role in what happened to Jamal. And they found out what we were working on and what are these projects and why Jamal was behind them.
MARTIN: What do we know about this company that makes the spyware?
ESTRIN: NSO is its name. It's a very secretive company. It doesn't have a website. It was founded by three Israelis. Their first names form the initials NSO. And there are Israeli reports that the company recently sold its spyware technology to Saudi officials. The company defends itself. It says its products are only sold to governments and to law enforcement to fight terrorism and crime, but Israel is actually involved in this company in that Israeli government officials have to give the OK to let it sell its products abroad. This company has faced a lot of controversy. Mexican human rights activists and others say Mexican government officials hacked into their phones using this company's spyware - same accusations from a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. Amnesty International also says the software was used against one of its employees, and Amnesty is accusing Israel of allowing the spyware to be sold to regimes that violate human rights.
MARTIN: Well, considering the company's connections to the Israeli government, is the suit likely to go anywhere?
ESTRIN: It seems like it's more of a symbolic lawsuit, Rachel, to draw public attention to this issue. I think it's going to be hard to prove these claims in court, and the Israeli Defense Ministry has constantly defended its vetting of NSO technology sales abroad. And I should add that Israel is not the only place in the world where companies are developing spyware technology, but it is - Israel is a big player in the field.
MARTIN: And presumably, Saudi officials aren't weighing in on whether or not they actually bought this technology, confirming any connection.
ESTRIN: They're not, and it's very interesting. Saudi and Israeli ties are kind of under the radar, but this may be an example of some of those ties.
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you so much, Daniel. We appreciate it.
ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.