A lawsuit filed on Sunday in Tel Aviv on behalf of a Saudi Arabian activist living in Canada aims to hold an Israeli software company with government ties accountable for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The lawsuit claims that by selling its Pegasus software to oppressive governments, NSO Group is breaking international laws. The suit was filed on behalf of Montreal-based activist Omar Abdulaziz, who was in touch with Khashoggi.
“The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say. The guilt is killing me,” said Abdulaziz, whose WhatsApp messages with Khashoggi were hacked.
In one set of messages, the men were discussing the possibility of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) pardoning the activists who successfully pushed for women to have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi wrote:
“Arrests are unjustified and do not serve him (logic says), but tyranny has no logic, but he loves force, oppression and needs to show them off. He is like a beast ‘pac man’ the more victims he eats, the more he wants. I will not be surprised that the oppression will reach even those who are cheering him, then others and others and so on. God knows”
And MBS probably knew all about these messages, thanks to NSO’s software. He denies having anything to do with Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment at the hands of a 15-member Saudi kill squad, which ambushed the journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this fall.
A U.S. intelligence report released in November indicated that the operation would have been impossible without the crown prince’s direct knowledge, but President Donald Trump dismissed the report, saying he believes MBS’s version of the events.
While NSO’s site appeared to be down on Monday morning, the organization is thought to have over 500 employees, with 175 people on LinkedIn reportedly working there. Of those employees, several work outside Israel in countries such as Lebanon, France, India, Mongolia, Brazil, Malawi, and Malta.
In a statement, the company said, “Our products have a long track record of assisting governments in preventing suicide bombers, stopping drug lords and sex traffickers, and helping safely return victims of kidnapping. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract.”
Haaretz reported in November that the company is negotiating the purchase of Fifth Dimension, a startup developing law enforcement investigative tools. Fifth Dimension is headed by former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
NSO’s software is approved by the Israeli government is marketed as anti-terrorism or security software, but, according to cyberactivst groups, has been used by repressive governments to crack down on human rights activists around the world, including an Amnesty International staffer.
The discovery of an infection (or hack) in Canada by Citizen Lab (a multidisciplinary research lab at the University of Toronto) in October, linked Abdulaziz to Khashoggi.
Citizen Lab found that Pegasus has infected servers in 45 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Canada, the United States, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
Like the Saudi journalist, Abdelaziz was a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and the two men were planning a social media campaign that would work to counter some of the Saudi state’s propaganda.
But Saudi officials, having read some 400 of those messages, found out about it. “God help us,” wrote Khashoggi when he wrote to warn Abdulaziz about the breach.
Abdulziz’s lawsuit is just one of several NSO is facing.
In its investigations, Citizen Lab includes NSO Group’s responses, which do not appear to add up to much. For instance, one of the company’s principals, Shalev Hulio, writes that they’ve repeatedly tried to meet with Citizen Lab researchers, but the researchers never received such an invitation.
MBS, meanwhile, attended the Group of 20 economic summit (G20) in Argentina over the weekend, where he was greeted most warmly by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who laughed and high-fived him.
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) November 30, 2018
Putin’s country is also known for murdering journalists at home and targeting dissidents overseas. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth pointed out that MBS was received most warmly by leaders who don’t tolerate dissent:
You can tell a man by his friends: so far the only leaders at the G20 summit to pose for gratuitous photo ops with the Saudi crown prince (despite Khashoggi, Yemen, domestic repression) are Xi Jinping, Modi, and Putin. https://t.co/lnR6Etfscs pic.twitter.com/dhhuUGDKts
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) December 1, 2018
While he has maintained his steadfast support for MBS — even discounting his own intelligence community’s assessment of the prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, President Trump seems to have kept a low profile throughout the event.
He engaged only briefly with MBS at the event, telling reporters, “We had no discussion. We had no discussion. We might. But we had none.”
Last week the Republican-dominated Senate passed a resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, where its coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians.