The high-ranking Saudi intelligence official, Major General Ahmed al-Assiri, visited Israel on a number of occasions to discuss the purchase of Pegasus, a patch of highly complicated software used for hacking and espionage. He made clandestine trips to Israel on behalf of Crown Prince MBS for the Israeli spy tool that is said to have helped the kingdom track dissidents abroad.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Assiri, an aide to the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and another of bin Salman’s closest aides, Saud al-Qahtani, had been part of the covert Saudi outreach towards Israel.
Both of them were sacked in October for playing a role in the gruesome assassination of dissident journalist Khashoggi, which is widely believed to have been ordered by bin Salman, known as MbS.
Sources told the Journal that Qahtani, the crown prince’s media adviser, was working on softening Israel’s image in the Saudi press. He was also involved in Riyadh’s purchase of spyware technology from Israeli firms.
“Qahtani was the key player in all of this,” said one Saudi official. “He wanted the best and he knew that Israeli firms offered the best.”
Neither Qahtani nor al-Assiri provided comment for the story, said the Journal.
Saudi-Israel backchannel takes hit after Khashoggi’s murder
Sources told the Journal that a secretive US-backed initiative to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel faces setbacks after the crown prince, who spearheaded the effort, was implicated in Khashoggi’s killing, which sparked global outrage.
“Things have definitely cooled off right after Khashoggi’s murder,” a senior Saudi government official told the Journal, saying Riyadh does not want to be mired in another scandal.
“The last thing the kingdom wants is for this to come out now and cause another backlash,” the source said.
The paper said that the kingdom was considering investing $100 million in various Israeli technology companies, but since the Khashoggi killing, the deal has been shelved.
In 2017, NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, along with Q Cyber Technology, signed a $55 million deal with Saudi Arabia to buy the Pegasus spyware.
Earlier this month, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist based on Montreal, Canada, launched a legal action against the NSO after it was revealed that it was the hacking of his phone conversations and chats with Khashoggi that led to his assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
Late in November, Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz revealed Riyadh’s behind-the-scene attempts to buy Pegasus 3 technology from Israel’s NSO Group Technologies last year.
The spyware needs only a phone number to ensnare a device. As soon as a phone is breached, the speaker and camera can be used for recording conversations, according to the report. Even encoded apps like WhatsApp can be monitored via the spying software, it added.
Saudi Arabia has expanded secret ties to Israel under bin Salman, the son of King Salman who is viewed by many as the Kingdom’s de facto ruler. The young prince has made it clear that he and the Israelis stand on the same front to counter Iran and its growing influence in the Middle East.