Madawi Al-Rasheed said in an article she published on the (middleeasteye) website, translated by (homeland) George Orwell’s prediction has finally come true. I knew it was only a matter of time before the Saudi regime would try to hack my phone, using Pegasus software made by the Israeli private security company NSO Group.
This development highlights the consolidation of a new axis of evil: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have become a chorus of malign forces aiming to stifle activism and the pursuit of democracy in the region. Israel supplies knowledge. Others give money.
Madawi Al-Rasheed continued: The privatization of the Israeli security apparatus, and the proliferation of private companies founded by former defense and Mossad agents, pose a threat not only to the Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the occupied West Bank, but also to all citizens of the Gulf, with the sale of Israeli spyware to dictatorships throughout the Arab world. .
In return, Israel gains access to internal intelligence services and the deep states in the Gulf – enabling it to hold them hostage for a long time to come. Israel supports Gulf authoritarian regimes, believing that this guarantees its security forever. But Israel is wrong.
Madawi al-Rasheed believes that normalization with Israel is not only immoral because of the Palestinian plight. It also poses an existential threat to all Gulf citizens who seek political reform in their countries. The so-called “only democracy in the Middle East” has entrenched the apartheid regime so that no propaganda can save it, and strong public objections to Arab regimes’ normalization with Israel will intensify in the coming months and years.
The role of the Emirates
The UAE plays a major role in the story of surveillance and espionage by private Israeli companies. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fell under the influence of Mohammed bin Zayed, his Emirati counterpart. Forget the “tallest and busiest building and the ministries of tolerance and happiness” – which are at the heart of Emirati propaganda – and remember that bin Zayed is bin Salman’s mentor.
The two combine their hatred of democracy, political diversity, freedom of expression, and human rights. Both are now key to an axis of evil overseen by malign Israeli technology, whose purported raison d’être is to help governments catch criminals and terrorists. However, it is used against peaceful activists.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based NGO dedicated to advocating for journalists and human rights activists, has obtained more than 50,000 phone numbers that have been targeted by Israeli malware globally on behalf of NSO clients, particularly governments. They alerted various media and, with the support of Amnesty International, launched Project Pegasus.
The results showed that in April 2019, there was an attempt to hack my phone, but it was unsuccessful. While this is comforting, I am overwhelmed with feelings of vulnerability and intrusion.
To get proof from the Pegasus Project, I had to present the contents of my phone – in which my private and professional life was stored – to their technology team.
Madawi Al-Rasheed says: I sat in front of a computer screen for three hours, watching my virtual life travel to the AI lab, where a malware research was conducted. I received evidence of a failed hacking attempt in April on the same day.
Madawi Al-Rasheed adds: As a British citizen of Saudi descent, I have spent more than half of my life writing, researching and teaching. Don’t expect me to be hacked. But such professional activities are considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, where the regime is bent on controlling the narrative of the past, present and future.
She said, “My crime is that I penetrated this narrative using academic research skills and reaching out to Saudis whose voices remain silent. I focused all of my research on giving a voice to the voiceless, which inevitably includes interviewing Saudis inside and outside the country.” My exposure to official Saudi lies upsets the regime, which spared no opportunity to discredit me, accusing me of being an agent of Western governments, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and previously Libya and Iraq.
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She continues: In the 1990s, the regime targeted me with direct threats of violence — but with the advent of the Internet, these threats became virtual, propagated by agents of the system. The last episode is my phone hack.
Madawi Al-Rasheed added: In 2014, my Twitter account was hacked in search of sensational scandals, and possibly secret plots with other Saudi exiles. The hackers must have been disappointed not to find any of this, but they disclosed my private conversation with Sheikh Awad Al-Qarni, a major Islamic figure who sent me regards and asked me not to increase my criticism of the Islamic movement’s silence when it is prominent. Saudi human rights leaders have been arrested.
The regime’s spies launched a campaign to discredit Al-Qarni for sending a direct message to a non-veiled woman like me. Al-Qarni has been in prison for several years.
Madawi Al-Rasheed..a life in danger
I had nothing to hide, because everything I knew was documented and published in books and articles. I had no secrets, but that wasn’t the point. I cherished my privacy and hated Saudi interference in my life. I also worried about those who contact me from within the country, because their lives may be in danger.
Among the charges brought against Muhammad al-Otaibi, a human rights activist, is for storing my books and articles on his computer. He is still in prison. It is my responsibility to protect those who trust me and want their voices heard.
The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 coincided with tightening Saudi control over exiles in Britain, Canada and elsewhere. Shock over the horrific details of dismembering a peaceful journalist was compounded by fears of hacking. It was the first time that the exiles heard about NSO’s helping the Saudis hack the phone of a young man living in Canada, Omar Al-Zahrani, who reached out to Khashoggi about creating a media platform to expose Saudi propaganda.
The financial cost of securing my phone was enormous, but it was well worth it. While the April 2019 attack didn’t work on my device, I’m sure there will be more attempts in the future.
In 2019, I was involved in discussions with other exiles in three countries about forming a political party, which may explain the attempt to hack my phone at the time. The regime wanted more details about who would sponsor such a project — and who the perpetrators were. The project was implemented on September 23, 2020, the day the Kingdom celebrates its National Day, when a small group of activists, including myself, announced the creation of the Saudi National Council party Yahya Asiri, the Secretary-General, was hacked, and his name appeared in the Pegasus files.
Stand against injustice
I moved from academic activity to political activity because the Saudi regime committed heinous crimes, and the lives of the exiles, including mine, were in danger. The Saudi regime targeted me when I was an academic, and again after I became an activist. Such attacks are sure to continue in the coming months and years.
In April 2019, I was also writing a book on state-society relations. The villain was none other than bin Salman, who arrested hundreds of Saudis and led to the escape of dozens of others.
I was baffled by the Western media’s portrayal of the prince as a modern reformer, while Saudi prisons were filled with innocent prisoners of conscience, women were fighting discrimination, and a young diaspora was gathering around the world. My book, The Son King, was definitely a bogus bug.
In 2019, a new hypothetical Saudi opposition in exile began to form, standing up to oppression and dictatorship. The Saudi National Assembly party relies on social media to communicate and exchange ideas, which makes it very vulnerable, as shown by the murder of Khashoggi and the hacking of activists’ phones. In the wake of the Pegasus Project discoveries, NAAS will certainly return to ancient methods of mobilization, meeting, and activism.
Thanks to Israeli malware, Emirati complicity, and Saudi interference, the exiles will have to find safe ways to share information and mobilize. With many taking refuge in the US, Canada, Britain and across Europe, these countries have a responsibility to protect them from Saudi surveillance. Otherwise, there is a real danger that the Khashoggi saga may be repeated.
Diplomacy must be activated to prevent the axis of evil from spreading more fear, apprehension and possibly murder – and if that does not work, sanctions must be pursued, at least in Britain, where two of the founders of the National Rally reside.
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