Thursday, 4th April 2019

Saudi Arabia: Fall-out over Khashoggi murder hits intelligence consultants

The continuing impact of the Jamal Khashoggi murder on Saudi relations with western countries shows little signs of abating. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s association with the episode is denied by Riyadh but the issue is still feeding into myriad reports about problems with his father King Salman Bin Abdelaziz and rival factions in the Al-Saud (GSN 1,076/1).

An early April report that MBS has purchased property and provided stipends for the late journalist’s children was picked up by media worldwide. There have been more reports – some sourced from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other US agencies, including officials disaffected by President Donald Trump’s ‘understanding’ approach to MBS – of splits at the top of the Al-Salman leadership. The New York Times on 17 March reported that MBS had “authorized a secret campaign to silence dissenters” including the “surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens.” Citing American officials who had read classified intelligence reports, it said the campaign had been in place for over a year before Khashoggi’s death.

Saudi-watchers are divided on MBS’s domestic position. One prominent observer says the monarch is still in full charge and, despite his age, still has daily meetings “which are an indication of his immense appetite for work”. In this reading, Salman still expects to hand over to MBS and, while there are Al-Saud who disapprove of the heir’s actions, their numbers are limited.

Abroad, the situation is not so comfortable. Among those drawn into the Khashoggi imbroglio are western intelligence and cyber security firms whose services have been used for questionable operations and human rights violations by many Gulf security services.

Reports from numerous sources quoted by The Washington Post suggest a unit called the Rapid Intervention Group (RIG), set up under the Royal Court’s Centre for Studies and Media Affairs (CSMA), was used to conduct the Khashoggi operation and has targeted other exiled Saudi dissidents. The paper quoted CIA sources claiming RIG head Saud Al-Qahtani had 11 exchanges with MBS in a 24-hour period before and after the Istanbul operation to murder Khashoggi. It has since emerged that RIG members – some of whom participated in the Istanbul operation – were trained by Tier One Group, an Arkansas-based company with training facilities in Memphis and north of Amman, Jordan. Tier One has a licence to provide sensitive training of this nature, which in the United States is sanctioned by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, in a process overseen from a human rights perspective by the US Senate under the Leahy Law.

Tier One has now ceased providing such training to Riyadh. The group is owned by US private investment fund Cerebrus Capital Management, which also owns Culpeper National Security Solutions, which had been bidding for a contract to reorganise Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate. This bid is also now on hold.

US lobbying firms whose services cross over into social media monitoring are also under pressure. BGR Group and Squire Patton Boggs are among those to have had contracts with the CSMA; although BGR is known to have withdrawn. Of the 18 such US firms that Senator Elizabeth Warren has challenged over their dealings with Saudi Arabia, at least five have dropped it as a client.

While the US has a formal system for licensing and reviewing human rights-sensitive commercial contracting, in this instance it appears not to have worked very well; but other countries have no formal system at all. British and Israeli firms tend to seek informal permission from their respective government’s intelligence agencies, in part to remain in good standing when they are seeking business from those agencies.

Social media hacking firm NSO, founded in Israel but recently sold to UK-based private equity firm Novalpina Capital, has sold its Pegasus software to the CSMA – a Pegasus bug was found on the phone of exiled Saudi dissident Omar Abdelaziz (GSN 1,068/6). Italy’s Hacking Team also sold its software to Saudi Arabia, in a deal brokered by Qahtani, and has sold its Remote Control Systems software for mobile phone hacking to a wide range of clients, including Lebanon and Bahrain.

News that a forensic examination of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ mobile phone showed it was bugged on behalf of Saudi authorities has added to pressures on the industry. The situation places western intelligence authorities in something of a dilemma. It is clear Saudi intelligence and security services need mentorship and reform. As one intelligence officer blighted by long dealings with the kingdom told GSN, “Saudis are puzzled when you tell them that physical coercion of suspects is wrong – they think it’s normal.” But it doesn’t look as if either western governments or commercial agencies who have solutions to these problems will wish to engage with them, for fear of the ethical hazard of association.

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