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New analysis further links Israeli spyware to Khashoggi’s murder

A person holds a sign bearing the image of Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, during a symbolic funeral prayer. (Photo by AFP)

New forensic analysis has revealed that operatives of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) installed the Israeli Pegasus spyware on the mobile phone of the wife of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi just months before his torture killing.

The analysis, conducted by the Canada-based Citizen Lab privacy and security research laboratory, further exposed that executives of Pegasus’ maker – NSO group – lied when they claimed last summer that Khashoggi and his associates, including his Emirati wife, Hanan Elatr, were targeted by the spyware in a surveillance operation on behalf of the UAE government, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

According to the report, a forensic investigation of two Android cellphones owned by Elatr discovered that an unknown individual used one of the phones to visit a website that uploaded the Israeli spyware onto the phone. This occurred after UAE security agents at Dubai’s airport confiscated the phone from Elatr just months prior to Khashoggi’s murder in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Further analysis by the Citizen Lab also suggested the website was controlled by NSO group on behalf of “a customer” in the UAE.

Phone numbers belonging to Elatr and to Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, were also found in a list of 50,000 numbers in a data leak that revealed potential targets of the Pegasus spyware, the report adds.

The list also contained numbers belonging to hundreds of more government officials – including French and South African presidents, the Pakistani prime minister and several Africa-based US embassy officials – along with a total of 180 journalists that included major US and European news outlets.

The reported data leak was part of a larger investigation by a coalition of news outlets around the world. The investigation, branded The Pegasus Project, exposed a massive targeting of journalists, human rights activists and politicians.

According to the daily, the international probe found that authoritarian governments have used Pegasus against journalists, human rights defenders, diplomats, lawyers and pro-democracy opposition leaders, with new revelations continuing to roll out. France found traces of the spyware on the phones of five of its ministers. After initial denials, Hungary also admitted using the spyware.

The deep technical sophistication of surveillance exploits developed by the Israeli spyware company was recently revealed in a blog post from Project Zero, a Google security research group. The post offered details of a “zero-click” exploit for iMessage in which a target’s cellphone would be compromised simply by sending them an SMS message containing a link, without the need for the target to open or read the message.

NSO’s operations have long been shrouded in secrecy. In the face of growing evidence of the company’s willingness to assist repressive and authoritarian regimes around the world, including the surveillance of some American officials, however, the US government has begun to take action against the Israeli company.

According to the report, the Israeli regime’s military requires NSO to get its approval before selling Pegasus to a country to ensure that the sale is in line with interests of the occupying regime. NSO says it has sold Pegasus to 60 government agencies across 40 countries.

NSO was recently placed on a blacklist by the US Department of Commerce, forbidding US companies from providing NSO with goods or services. Even a group of US lawmakers has urged the imposition of stricter sanctions on NSO Group and other spyware firms, which would freeze bank accounts and bar their employees from traveling to the US.

The UAE, a federation of monarchies in the Persian Gulf, has been one of NSO’s most notorious clients, the report underlines. The despotic regime has used Pegasus against anti-regime activists, journalists and even a royal princess attempting to escape her father, the international media investigation and others have found. In October, a British court revealed that NSO Group ended its contract with the UAE because Dubai’s ruler had used it to hack the phones of his ex-wife and her lawyer, a member of Britain’s House of Lords.

In the past, the UAE has also denied allegations that it used Pegasus against human rights activists and other civil society figures.

The UAE, meanwhile, remains a close ally of Saudi Arabia. In 2013, the two countries signed a mutual security agreement promising cooperation on intelligence and law enforcement matters. The UAE has spied on Saudi dissidents abroad and sent them to Riyadh, according to human rights groups and a recent lawsuit filed in a US federal court in Portland, Oregon, on behalf of an imprisoned Saudi human rights activist.

According to The Post, Elatr – Khashoggi’s fourth wife after his three divorces – feels forgotten in the wake of her husband’s murder. “She found out he had disappeared via Twitter after waking up from a long flight, alone in her apartment in Dubai. While she was dealing with the likelihood he had been murdered, she was also learning that he was planning to marry another woman.”

At the time, Khashoggi’s new fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, was waiting for him outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He had gone there to obtain a document necessary to marry her. Instead, he was murdered with the approval of Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, US intelligence later affirmed. 

Elatr, meanwhile, has struggled for attention. Many of Khashoggi’s friends in Washington did not know about his marriage to her in Virginia in June 2018.

“Nobody knew her. Jamal had kept it a secret,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, a longtime human rights advocate and the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Mideast-focused organization founded by Khashoggi. “I don’t know what was going on in his head.”

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