Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and a cyber institute led by one of his top aides who oversaw the killing of prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reportedly signed a deal with the former head of the US National Security Agency (NSA) months before the gruesome murder.
According to a report published by American non-profit news organization The Intercept, retired General Keith Alexander’s company IronNet signed an agreement with the Prince Mohammed Bin Salman College of Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Technologies-- a school set up to train Saudi cyber intelligence agents—led by Saud al-Qahtani at a ceremony in Washington, DC in early 2018.
“The strategic agreement will ensure [Saudi Arabia is] benefiting from the experience of an advisory team comprising senior officers who had held senior positions in the Cyber Command of the US Department of Defense,” Qahtani’s representative at the signing said at the time.
The deal was made as part of efforts to step up the kingdom’s cyber capabilities amid a campaign against the kingdom’s critics abroad, and to train the next generation of Saudi hackers to take on its enemies.
Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, used to be a vocal critic of the Saudi regime and the crown prince.
The then Washington Post columnist received a series of threatening messages, including one from Qahtani, warning him to remain silent.
According to reports, he was lured into the diplomatic mission under the pretext of being provided with papers for his wedding. It was there that a team dispatched by Qahtani suffocated and dismembered the Saudi journalist while his fiancé waited outside for him.
The assassination brought widespread condemnation on Bin Salman, who has publicly denied any knowledge of the operation.
The Intercept revealed that IronNet's agreement tied to the alleged mastermind behind the killing of Khashoggi is not listed on its website, and it is not known if the business relationship still stands, or what the extent of it ever was.
The Saudi Arabia relationship, according to former IronNet employees, has largely been shrouded in secrecy, even within the firm. The report revealed that several other US firms with recruits from the US Air Force, Army and NSA, are also selling cyber spyware to the kingdom.
In 2019, a Saudi court cleared Qahtani of any charges in connection with the assassination. Five other members of the hit squad were given death sentences and four more sentenced to prison terms of 24 years. However, human rights activists have since described the sentences as a mockery.
The CIA and MI6 both believe Qahtani had been the central figure in Khashoggi’s assassination.
He is also said to have been central in the high-profile purge of princes and senior officials across Saudi Arabia, ordered by bin Salman without formal charges or any legal process, the hacking of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s mobile phone and a directive to hack two Guardian reporters in 2019.
Moreover, Qahtani is accused of interrogating and personally overseeing the torture of detained female Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul in 2018.