A number of abusive text messages sent to an Al Jazeera investigative programme was the first clue that eventually led to the discovery of an unprecedented hacking operation against dozens of staff from the Qatar-based network as well as freelance journalists world wide.
Researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto claimed on Sunday that the UAE and Saudi Arabia used spyware sold by an Israeli private intelligence company to access the phones of at least 36 journalists, producers and executives from Al Jazeera, as well as that of a London-based reporter with the Al Araby network.
The spyware app, sold by an Israeli private intelligence firm was allegedly used to hack the phones of dozens of Al Jazeera journalists in an unprecedented cyber-attack that is likely to have been ordered by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to leading researchers.
Unknown to the hackers, the Citizen Lab researchers had been monitoring one of the victims phone for the previous six months, Tamer Almisshal, the host of the programme, told the Guardian on Monday.
Almisshal said he had asked Citizen Lab to install a VPN on the phone in January after receiving threatening messages and calls on the phone from different unknown numbers. “Through different applications I was getting threats against me personally – ‘Don’t talk about this story or you’ll be like [the murdered journalist Jamal] Khashoggi’ – even threats of hacking,” he said.
Citizen Lab said in its report into the hack that Almisshal’s phone appeared to have been hacked by tools developed by Israel’s NSO Group, whose spyware is alleged to have been used in previous surveillance campaigns in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Saudi Arabia’s new strategy of intimidation is like no other. Not only have they sent a death squad to illegally murder Jamal Khashoggi, but they use his death as a warning to other opponents of the Saudi regime. By hacking journalists phones and intimidate them into dropping articles or investigations into the brutality of the Saudi regime constitutes to a major violation of the Geneva conventions as well as international laws.
The Saudi embassy in London and the UAE embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.