The next attack followed four days after they murdered Jamal Khashoggi. It was October 6, 2018 and this time the victim’s fiancée was the target, Hatice Cengiz. The Saudi royal family had silenced their partner by force. Now each of her words should be monitored. This is indicated by technical traces that can be found on Hatice Cengiz’s mobile phone and that an international journalist consortium collected and analyzed. The research was coordinated by the non-profit network Forbidden Stories and technically supported by the Security Lab of the human rights organization Amnesty International.
The telltale traces on Hatice Cengiz’s cell phone are inconspicuous: small files, changed file names. But if you know what to look for, they are noticeable and reveal the signature of the Pegasus spy program, a cyber weapon capable of stealthily taking control of a cell phone. According to the forensic analysis of the operating system, Hatice Cengiz’s cell phone was attacked for the first time with Pegasus on October 6, 2018. The program infiltrated the device’s systems and began collecting data. Shortly thereafter, it was sending hundreds of megabytes of data to the monitors. This analysis was confirmed by the Citizen Lab, the IT security laboratory at the University of Toronto that has been dealing with surveillance software for years.
The espionage attacks thus coincided with the exact period in which Cengiz was desperately waiting for a message from the man she wanted to marry. He entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, at 1:15 p.m. on October 2. After that he had not reappeared.
The Saudi consulate where Khashoggi disappeared is on a quiet, narrow side street in one of the less lively parts of Istanbul. Glass bank towers dominate the horizon, but here small villas with well-tended gardens dominate the picture. A high wall, riddled with surveillance cameras, shields the building. Two gray metal gates with the crossed sabers of the Saudi coat of arms on them lead into the interior.
Khashoggi went through the smaller of the two gates on October 2, 2018 while his fiancée was waiting outside. He wanted to get a certificate he needed to marry Hatice. But he never came out again. Today it is clear that he was murdered in the consulate and that his body was dismembered and taken away. As research by the journalists’ consortium shows, a number of people were then targeted for possible surveillance who had to do with the dead person and the investigation into the circumstances of his disappearance. The intended tool for this: the Pegasus cyber weapon.
This spy software was developed by the Israeli company NSO. It can infiltrate almost any mobile phone in the world without being noticed. Once Pegasus is installed, the program intercepts every word, message, and step taken by the owner and monitors everything that happens on the device. The company says it only sells its tools to government agencies. And only so that these terrorists and serious criminals can investigate. Many perpetrators would be caught thanks to Pegasus.
But that’s only part of the picture. For years NSO has been criticized for selling Pegasus to governments that misuse the software, for example to monitor critics, oppositionists and journalists. When asked, NSO said it would “investigate all credible allegations of abuse and take appropriate action based on the results of those investigations.” These measures also included “shutting down customer systems” — “something that NSO is both capable and ready to do, as has been demonstrated several times in the past”.
Thanks to a data leak from more than 50,000 phone numbers captured by NSO customers, the journalist consortium was able to speak to dozens of espionage victims worldwide and secure technical evidence. The research shows that Pegasus is regularly used in several countries not only to search for terrorists or serious criminals. NSO stated that it did not “have access to the data of its customers’ targets”.
The case of Jamal Khashoggi and his fiancée Hatice Cengiz is by no means the only one — but like no other it illustrates how tempting the possibilities of Pegasus are; how big and how wide the gray area is in which authorities can operate with the tool almost uncontrolled; and how little human rights count.
Jamal Khashoggi was originally not a critic of the Saudi Arabian royal family. On the contrary. He came from a respected family, his grandfather was a doctor and treated the king. Khashoggi had excellent connections among the Saudi Arabian elite and the royal family and was considered to be one of the best-informed journalists in the country. Khashoggi was also ideologically in line for a long time. There is a photo of him, taken in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. There he kneels on the tower of a tank, next to him Osama bin Laden, who later became leader of al-Qaeda. As a journalist, Khashoggi reported on the fight of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupiers. He interviewed bin Laden several times and expressed sympathy for the fighters.
An amazing alliance
Later, however, he condemned Osama bin Laden’s radicalism and the attacks of September 11, 2001, for which he was responsible. And the older Khashoggi got, the more important freedom of expression and democratic principles became to him.
The press in Saudi Arabia is anything but free; it is supposed to be the mouthpiece of the powerful. Not least because of the Arab Spring, Khashoggi’s attitude changed, also towards the royal family. He became a critic of a culture that demands silence and obedience. At first he saw the aspiring Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a beacon of hope for reforms and modernization. But Khashoggi rejected his authoritarian type of leadership, missed participation and freedom of the press and wrote about it in his texts. That was enough to lose the support of the royal family: his columns were no longer allowed to appear and he was banned from working.
In 2017, Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia. He had the feeling that he was no longer safe there. His wife divorced him, he could no longer see his children, and his property was confiscated. He emigrated to the USA and from then on analyzed the Arab world in the Washington Post . Above all, he wrote about his home country and the new strong man, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS for short — and thus created a powerful enemy for himself.
Read also: The Saudi crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman
Even though his father, King Salman, is still alive and officially ruling the country, MBS has long been in power as Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister. At first everyone believed that the Crown Prince would open up the country and rebuild it for the time after the oil boom. He developed grand plans and allowed new freedoms. Now women are allowed to drive cars, international pop stars give concerts, and tourists should flock to the country. With MBS, the Saudi Arabia monarchy got a modern look. But at the same time the Crown Prince modernized the surveillance. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest buyers of weapons, including digital weapons. MBS has turned the country into a spy power made, not least thanks to Pegasus and an unexpected and discreet Saudi-Israeli alliance.
This alliance began in spring 2017 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Limassol, Cyprus, a five-star hotel overlooking the Mediterranean. There, members of the Saudi government apparatus met several times with representatives of various Israeli companies. Among them: NSO. The Saudis wanted to buy cyber weapons and were willing to spend millions. But there were obstacles that had to be overcome beforehand. NSO must get any deal approved by the Israel Defense Forces Ministry. Basically, NSO is allowed to sell the Pegasus cyber weapon to foreign states and governments — but not to Saudi Arabia at the time. To this day, the Gulf Monarchy is officially considered an enemy in Israel, even traveling there is not easy for Israelis.
It took more meetings before the deal was finally perfect — and a bit of booth magic: At one of the meetings, the NSO people asked the Saudis to get new cell phones and bring them with them. The journalists’ consortium was told by a source familiar with the deal who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons. One of the Saudis was supposed to insert his SIM card and tell the NSO team his cell phone number. Shortly afterwards, they showed him photos of his own face and played him the last few minutes of the conversation. Unnoticed, they had taken over the device with Pegasus, converted it into a bug and recorded everything. The intelligence agent was very impressed, says the source.
Most recently, the Israelis even met with members of the royal family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the trip, several sources report. The Israeli Defense Ministry also agreed: Saudi Arabia was allowed to buy the latest version of the NSO’s Pegasus spy weapon for allegedly 55 million dollars. If there were any moral concerns about the new customer, then they evidently did not matter. The Israeli government did not comment on the deal when asked.
Almost at the same time, Khashoggi left his homeland and emigrated to the USA. From then on he avoided Saudi Arabia, but continued to travel a lot in the region. Again and again in Turkey , especially in Istanbul. There he met the Turkish Middle East scientist Hatice Cengiz in 2018. It wasn’t a classic love story, she says today. But they were soul mates and shared the same ideals and ideas.
It is precisely these ideas of the couple, of civic engagement and freedom of expression, of dialogue and discussion, that Saudi Arabia sees as a provocation. Anyone who shares them, even promotes them, will quickly be targeted by the regime. Khashoggi felt safe in Istanbul, says Wadah Khanfar, who himself was a journalist for many years and a close friend of the murdered man. Here Khashoggi had debates, attended events and met like-minded people.
Wadah Khanfar is a tall, thoughtful man. He is sitting in a black leather armchair in a spacious office on the outskirts of Istanbul. The window on the sixth floor overlooks the city’s old airport. Islamic writings stand next to historical treatises and American popular literature on the bookshelf. Like Khashoggi, Khanfar has seen a lot of the Islamic world. He was born in the West Bank, lived in Sudan, Turkey, Iraq, and Qatar. As a journalist, he has reported from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He helped out with Al Jazeerato build a globally recognized news channel and was General Director of the Al Jazeera network until 2011. He then founded a think tank called Al Sharq Forum, which advocates pluralism in the Islamic world. “The only thing that all Arab countries can agree on is their fight against freedom of expression,” he says.
Read more: Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia
Wadah Khanfar’s two cell phones are also infected with Pegasus, according to a forensic investigation by Amnesty International’s Security Lab. On them are precisely those data traces that suggest secret access. When he found out about the result of the investigation, Khanfar was visibly unsettled, but not surprised: he had already been convinced “that Hatice and I had been wiretapped”.
“I called everyone I knew”
Anyone spying on him will not reveal the traces. In addition to Saudi Arabia, there is a second suspect, the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates were also a customer of NSO, as research by the consortium shows. Leaked contract documents show that there were business relationships between NSO and the Emirates. Two authorities bought the surveillance tool there, one in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, assures someone who is very familiar with NSO. And the leaked data able to evaluate, suggest that some journalists and civil rights activists are viewed as potential targets by both states.
In fact, people from Khashoggi’s environment were being monitored even before he was murdered. For example, the dissident Omar Abdulaziz. He was born in Saudi Arabia, but is now Canadian because he left his home country for fear of prison and repression. In well-watched YouTube videos Abdulaziz had repeatedly criticized the Saudi Arabian government. He wanted to fight state propaganda on Twitter, says Abdulaziz. And push back trolls, who with their tweets threatened and made contemptuous of all those who expressed themselves critically about the country or MBS. Jamal Khashoggi wanted to help him with this project and therefore transferred money to Abdulaziz. Abdulaziz’s cell phone was infected with Pegasus in June 2018. This was confirmed by a study by the Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto.
Or Khashoggi’s second wife, a 52-year-old former flight attendant from Egypt whom he met at a conference. The two married in the United States in 2018 under Islamic law. The technical examination of her mobile phone by Amnesty International’s Security Lab shows that it was the target of Pegasus and thus the secret services — in 2017, probably because she had fled the Emirates herself. And again in 2018 when she started a relationship with Khashoggi.
After the murder, even more people got into the network, which was designed using the Pegasus spy software. The aim should have been to stay up to date with the murder investigations and to be able to better assess the political consequences.
The monitors did not even stop at the highest Turkish government circles. Yasin Aktay, for example, was a target, a key member of the ruling AKP party and an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reporters from the journalists’ consortium were able to speak to him in Istanbul at the beginning of July this year. Aktay says shortly after the murder he was warned by the Turkish Interior Ministry that his phone was being tapped. He should get a new one. In fact, his cell phone number is on the list of phone numbers that were recorded as possible targets and could be viewed by the journalists’ consortium.
Aktay was a friend of Khashoggi, someone he obviously trusted. His fiancé had told Khashoggi that if anything should ever happen to him, she should call Aktay. “It was probably also about my position in the Turkish government. He probably thought I was someone who could help him if something happened to him or his fiancée,” said Aktay in an interview with the consortium.
This is exactly what Hatice Cengiz made in October 2018 when she waited in vain in front of the consulate. When Khashoggi’s fiancée turned to him, he was worried and tried everything to help her. “I called everyone I knew,” says Aktay. Also the office of President Erdoğan. “I said it is a serious situation, we have to do something, what is your recommendation? I found out later that the President intervened personally.” Aktay also advised Hatice Cengiz to go to the police and report the disappearance of her fiancé. It was the beginning of the official investigation by Turkish authorities, in which other countries and even the United Nations later participated.
What this investigation uncovered was arguably one of the most gruesome political murders of recent years. The Saudi Arabian government knew that Khashoggi wanted to come to the consulate on October 2 to get the document he needed for the marriage and had everything prepared. The murder squad consisted of 15 men. Disguised as a diplomatic mission, he had come to Istanbul in two private planes belonging to a company in the Saudi palace. Seven of the men were members of the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF), the life guards of Crown Prince MBS. On the morning of October 2, they split up, ten of them going to the consulate, the remaining five to the consul’s residence, just a few streets away.
The BND chief flies to Ankara
They attacked him shortly after Khashoggi entered the consulate. “When I tried to imagine what had happened, I could almost see Jamal coming into the room, this heavy and gentle man, armed only with his pen and his friendliness and modesty,” said Agnès Callamard in a telephone conversation with members of the journalists’ consortium. Callamard is now Secretary General of Amnesty International, when she was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the case. She examined him for six months and also listened to the tapes of the murder. The Turkish secret service, for its part, has apparently been monitoring the Saudi consulate for a long time.
At the end of October, BND boss Bruno Kahl flew to Ankara in his official plane. The Turkish secret service MIT played the recordings for him, with one condition: Kahl was allowed to take notes, but not take a copy of the tape with him. Bald heard Khashoggi’s screams, the cold, cynical comments of the Saudi killers translated for him. Kahl is a seasoned security guard who has seen and heard a lot. But never before. He was shocked.
“In the beginning his voice is soft and friendly. But then, quickly, the sound changes,” says Agnès Callamard. His fear was clearly audible. As is now known, the murderers injected a drug into his arm and then pulled a plastic bag over his head. “I have asthma. Don’t do it, you will suffocate me,” were his last words. Afterwards, according to the audio monitoring protocol, only fighting noises can be heard. When Jamal Khashoggi stopped moving, his killers began to cut the body apart. From 1:39 p.m. onwards, the supervisors noted that an autopsy saw could be heard; the noises would have lasted for half an hour.
The residence is only a few streets away from the consulate, turn twice, past a small park with a children’s playground, a white-painted, two-story villa that looks a little shabby. It was there that the final act of the crime began. The perpetrators probably dissolved the body parts in acid or burned them — this point has not yet been clarified. The only thing that is certain is that there should be no trace of Jamal Khashoggi. The murderers also covered their own tracks as best they could. An employee of the Saudi secret service of similar stature to the victim apparently put on his clothes and left the consulate at 3:53 p.m. through the back exit, as recorded by a surveillance camera. For several hours he then moved through Istanbul,
But thanks to the sound recording by the Turkish secret service, the perpetrators couldn’t get away with it. Shortly after the fact, the media published the first excerpts.
After that, the Pegasus mission was expanded. For example, the head of the investigation at the Turkish public prosecutor’s office, Irfan Fidan, was targeted. In spring 2019, his mobile phone was added to the list of potential targets, according to the data available to the consortium. The number of a son of Khashoggi is also on the list of possible targets.
“I was a happy woman, as a researcher, as a thinker, as a person,” says Hatice Cengiz about her previous life. But with the murder of her fiancé, the image she had of the governments of the Arab states changed: “On that day they showed me what they really are, they showed their ugly, ugly face.”
Not only Hatice Cengiz had this impression. The brutal murder horrified the world. The United Nations sent special investigator Agnès Callamard. Chancellor Angela Merkel called for comprehensive clarification. Germany also stopped arms exports to Saudi Arabia. A training mission by the federal police, which had previously trained Saudi border guards, was also suspended.
The masterminds behind the murder are in Riyadh, that much can be considered certain. The US secret service CIA stated in an analysis of the case that has since been published: “We are of the opinion that the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has approved an operation in Istanbul to catch or kill the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “
But does NSO share responsibility for monitoring the area around Khashoggi because it sold Pegasus to Saudi Arabia? NSO’s ethical guidelines require customers to use Pegasus solely for hunting criminals. Was NSO naive enough to believe that the Saudi Arabian regime would feel bound by it?
A trial without a defendant
NSO and the founder and head of the company Shalev Hulio have repeatedly said in the past few years that neither Jamal Khashoggi nor those around him had ever been attacked with Pegasus. This has been investigated internally and no relevant indications have been found, he said in January 2020
If I found out that our company has dramatically violated human rights, I would hand over my keys and leave the company — although I founded it once
In a recent statement, NSO affirmed “that our technology was in no way connected with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi, including wiretapping, monitoring, tracking or gathering of information.” This was investigated immediately after the murder.
In fact, research provides indications that NSO itself was shocked by the Khashoggi case and stopped its business relationship with Saudi Arabia in December 2018. The Pegasus spy tool was switched off and the Saudi authorities and services could no longer monitor anyone with it. This reluctance did not last long, however, because Saudi Arabia was probably back as a customer in the spring of 2019. At least that is what the data that were evaluated by the journalists as part of the Pegasus Project suggest. It is said to have been the Israeli government that wanted to ensure that Saudi Arabia did not go blind. At her request, NSO unlocked Pegasus again. In a letter from its attorneys, the company informed NSO that allegations, NSO accept government instructions regarding customers are wrong. NSO is also “not a tool of Israeli diplomacy” and “not a back door” of the Israeli secret service.
However, Saudi Arabia did not proceed more cautiously. In July and August 2020, the Saudi authorities attacked 36 journalists from the Al Jazeera news channel with Pegasus, a study by the Citizen Lab from Toronto showed.
There are now several lawsuits pending against NSO, including one from Khashoggi’s comrade-in-arms, Omar Abdulaziz, whose cell phone has been shown to be infected with Pegasus. However, none of the complaints have been finally decided so far.
It is also unclear whether the killers were brought to justice by Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia claims that eleven suspects have been brought to justice. Five were sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted to prison terms. But the names of the convicts were never disclosed. The process was secret.
Another trial against the alleged murderers is ongoing in Turkey, which the Turkish government has been conducting for a year. The Istanbul Court Palace is gigantic, ten stories high. Perpetrators should feel small in the face of the two larger-than-life statues of the goddess Justitia, which are in the main hall. In this case, however, it does not succeed, because the originally 20 men from Saudi Arabia whom Turkey has indicted are not present. Every few months the court meets to hear some witnesses who have not seen much and do not know much. On a Thursday at the beginning of July 2021, a driver from the Saudi consulate was on the witness stand. Before the murder he picked up three men from a hotel and drove them to the consulate, he says. The day after the crime he drove it again, from the consul’s residence to the part of the airport where only private jets take off and land. The three must have belonged to the killer squad. However, according to the witness, he did not notice anything of a murder.
Hatice Cengiz attends every single hearing. She sits in silence next to her lawyer at a small table to the left of the judge and watches the proceedings in the small, wood-paneled room of the 11th criminal court. “I don’t know what to expect from the trial at the moment. I’m waiting to see if something comes out of it,” she says in the hallway in front of the courtroom.
She is also disappointed, says the former UN special investigator Agnès Callamard. But a lot has been achieved. The investigations have completely changed the public image of the Saudi Arabian de facto ruler MBS. Nobody claims anymore that they want to modernize the country.
No justice was done in the traditional sense of the word. But before the court of public opinion, Mohammed bin Salman stands as a defendant
In the meantime, NSO has parted with Saudi Arabia as a customer. This time supposedly forever.
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Originally published at https://zaviews.blogspot.com.