Correspondent in New York
A security agency of the Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) installed spyware on the phone of the wife of the Saudi dissident murdered in 2018 Jamal Khashoggi, according to an investigation by ‘The Washington Post’.
The operation occurred in April 2018, a few months before Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the Saudi Arabian regime – especially his Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS–, was killed by a Saudi command at his country’s consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
The woman’s name is Hanan Elatr, and in April 2018 she had just become a fiancée of Khashoggi, who was living in exile in the United States, near Washington.
Elatr was working as a flight attendant supervisor for Emirates Airline when she returned home from Toronto on April 21, 2018, after a working flight. She was detained by a group of security officers at the Dubai airport. They handcuffed her, blindfolded her, took her home to do a document search and her computers and detained her in a high security center. There they interrogated her about Khashoggi’s activities and asked for her mobile passwords.
A forensic analysis by Bill Marczak of Citizen Lab –A research group linked to the University of Toronto and that focuses on detecting cyber espionage–, has concluded that in that operation UAE agents installed Pegasus spyware.
“We found the smoking gun on his phone,” Marczak told the newspaper, which examined Elatr’s phones. Marczak explained that he could not confirm that Pegasus, a program
developed by the Israeli company NSO, succeed in attacking Elatr’s phone. But in his analysis he found that the agents did not try to type the web address under which the spyware runs a second time, which is the usual practice when the first attempt fails.
The evidence obtained by Marczak is the first in which the United Arab Emirates is linked to spying on people from Khashoggi’s inner circle, and a few months before his murder.
Elatr’s questioning and wiretapping occurred immediately after the two were engaged and two months before their wedding in June 2018. Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was kidnapped and executed, to process papers for a second marriage, the one he planned to contract with the Turkish Hatice Cengiz.
The new revelations join those that the ‘Post’ – where Khashoggi collaborated as a columnist – made in July, in which he claimed that Pegasus was used to try to enter Elatr’s mobile through text messages on six occasions, five in November 2017 and one more in April 2018. NSO has denied that its software was used for that purpose, which goes against Marczak’s findings.
The UAE is one of the countries that has most avidly used this spy program to attacking activists, journalists and even members of their own Royal House. The country is also an ally of Saudi Arabia, with whom it has an intelligence cooperation agreement to share information, and has acted against Saudi dissidents.
US Intelligence has concluded that Khashoggi’s assassination was done with the approval of MBS, despite the Crown Prince’s denial.