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First Area of UAE-Israel Cooperation: Spying on Dissidents and Journalists

Published: August 27, 2020
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Abu Dhabi (AMA) – Once again, media outlets reveal Israeli cooperation with Gulf countries in the field of espionage and the sale of special capabilities and expertise that will help Gulf governments track down dissidents. The Israeli NSO company in question is also mentioned in a very important and sensitive topic related to its advanced spyware, “Pegasus,” which enables penetration of mobile phones.

This time, the Hebrew newspaper, Haaretz, discussed the issue of Israeli-Gulf cooperation in terms of espionage, stating that the NSO company recently sold programs to opponents like the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries. According to what the newspaper on Sunday, deals, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were carried out through official mediation.

The report came to confirm that the Emirati normalization with Israel was an inevitable result of deep and sensitive cooperation between them.

What is NSO?

An Israeli technology company focuses on electronic intelligence. At the top of its services are to spy on and penetrate mobile phones, and to steal their data. It is founded in 2010 by Neve Carmi, Omri Lavie, and Shalev Hulio, and has about 500 employees at its headquarters in Herzliya near Tel Aviv. Its annual revenue reached about $40 million in 2013 and increased to $150 million by 2015. In June 2017, its owner, Francisco Partners Management, put it up for sale for one billion dollars and the deal completed in 2019.

NSO services are all over the world and deals with many governments, but its name has been associated with countries accused of widespread human rights violations, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. It sold an old version of its program to the Mexico government in 2012 in order to combat drug trafficking gangs there. However, The New York Times said in 2016, that the authorities used the program to spy on opposed journalists and lawyers.

The New York Times reported that UAE bought programs that helped it eavesdrop on the leaders of neighboring countries and the editor of an Arab newspaper in the British capital. The Israeli government treats its products like any arms exporting company. It requires it to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Defense (the Ministry of War) to export any of its products abroad.

The company claims to provide technical support to the world’s governments in order to help them fight terrorism and crime. However, international human rights organizations accuse it of designing and developing programs used in hacking and espionage operations against human rights activists and journalists in many countries.

The NSO Backstory:

Going back a little and looking for details about NSO reveals that its history is not bright white. In May 2017, hackers managed to penetrate the Qatari News Agency, Qena, website, and its accounts on social media, publishing false statements about the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that led to igniting the most violent political crisis in the region.

On July 20, 2017, the Qatari Ministry of Interior announced that it had identified two internet addresses in UAE that were used to carry out the hacking. The American newspaper “New York Times” confirmed, on January 24, 2018, that UAE was behind hacking the Qatari agency, adding that it was done with the knowledge of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Piracy was not satisfied with sabotaging the security of the Gulf but rather pursued activists and human rights defenders and spied on them. On this regard, the “Kitzen Lab” Foundation, affiliated to the University of Toronto, Canada, reported that there are agents, belong to the Saudi government as it claimed, whose mission is to spy on the cell phones of the Saudi opposition activist, Omar Abdulaziz.

The Canadian Foreign Ministry (October 2, 2018) issued a statement saying that it takes “seriously” allegations of Saudi spying on an opponent.

Adam Austin, a spokesman for the Canadian foreign minister, said that they are “aware of such reports” and are “looking into them,” adding that his country is firmly committed to freedom of expression even on the Internet.

Revealing the Source

The secret of tracking down and overthrowing opponents and the success of cyberpiracy was short-lived. As it turned out later that Gulf-Israeli cooperation achieved all this.

In October 2018, the Al Khaleej Online website revealed, according to senior diplomatic sources, that Saudi Arabia had succeeded, after difficult negotiations, in obtaining the latest technologies of spy devices from Israel.

The sources added to Al Khaleej Online that the Saudi-Israeli deal was estimated at more than 250 million US dollars, pointing out that “the UAE obtained nearly a year ago advanced Pegasus spy devices and modern reconnaissance aircraft from Israel. However, what was transferred to Riyadh is the most advanced and accurate of any military equipment sold to any other Arab country.”

BBC News Hour (March 20, 2019) said that Saudi Arabia is spying on its students studying abroad, especially in the United States of America. They are monitored, according to interviews conducted by the site with eight current and former Saudi students, in which they talked about their experience with the Saudi government’s monitoring.

An extensive Reuters investigation (January 30, 2019) revealed the UAE’s involvement in recruiting former agents of the US National Security Agency and US intelligence for spying on its “enemies” and hacking their phones and computers.

According to the agency, the secret Emirati project called “Raven” or “Black Crow” includes more than 12 US intelligence agents in order to monitor other governments, gunmen, and human rights activists who criticize the regime.

In October 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the Israeli company, accusing it of helping countries such as UAE and Bahrain hack into the phones of journalists, dissidents, and other parties, including government officials to know their activities.

According to the American CNBC agency, Facebook has accused Q-Cyber, a subsidiary of NSO, as a second defendant in the case.

Activity in the Gulf

Returning to what was published by the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz in its latest issue, NSO is one of the most active Israeli companies in the Arabian Gulf.

The newspaper stated that the Pegasus spy program, developed by the company, allows security and law authorities to hack phones and copy data and information stored in them.

The program can also control these phones to photograph and record remotely, without the owner’s permission, such as pressing the list of stored names, programs, applications, or documents.

It added, “Israel formally mediated between the companies and the Gulf States, and officials participated in marketing interviews conducted by the company with officials in the intelligence services of Arab countries, and some of these meetings were held in Israel.

It stated, “NSO has formed a special team to work with the Gulf countries, and all its employees have foreign passports. This staff is the most profitable department in the company and make the company annually hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to the Hebrew newspaper, the company gives every Arab country a designation consisting of the first letter of the country’s name and a type of car.

It explained that Saudi Arabia is called “Subaru” in its documents, Bahrain “BMW,” and Jordan “JAGUAR.” The company prohibits mentioning the name of the countries.

The newspaper emphasized that the Israeli company “concluded recently contracts with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi, and Ras Al Khaimah.”

It indicated that the company had recently hired two discharged from the Israeli security services in order to provide it with analyzes of intelligence information, as well as to penetrate phones. As a result of that, the Gulf countries have difficulties to extract specific intelligence information from the huge amount of messages and cellular files.”

According to what the Hebrew newspaper reported, observers confirm that the Emirati normalization, which was welcomed by Bahrain, and which Saudi Arabia did not condemn “officially,” indicates that it was based on a solid base of intelligence cooperation.

This post originally ran on Almasirah and appears here with permission. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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