On February 10, 2021, prominent Saudi dissident and women's rights activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul was released from Saudi prison. Al-Hathloul is banned from travel and threatened with more prison time if she does not stay silent.
In Saudi, she is deemed a national security threat and is a convicted terrorist. But on the world stage and according to Human Rights Watch, her conviction is a "travesty of justice." Al-Hathloul fought for women's rights, including the right for women to drive, the right for women to travel without male guardianship, and providing shelter for women experiencing domestic violence in the kingdom. Al-Hathloul, who obtained her bachelor's post-secondary education in Canada, is a courageous and daring young woman. She paid an unreasonably heavy price for her ordeal with the Saudi monarchy, including 1001 days in jail.
While in prison, Al-Hathloul sustained waterboarding, flogging, and sexual assault. Her torture was supervised by Saud Al-Qahtani, the Crown Prince Mohammed Ibn Salam (MBS) advisor; the former personally threatened her by saying, "I will kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you in the sewer system, but before that, I will rape you."
The Saudi monarchy enjoys a long history of silencing dissent at home and abroad. They rely on "friendly" governments to repatriate their citizens and kidnappings operations in "uncooperative" countries, like in Europe; some are imprisoned, some undergo house arrest, and others disappear. Under MBS, renditions are being pursued with ruthless zeal.
In Al-Hathloul's case, the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, arrested her in March 2018; she was then placed on a private Saudi jet and flown to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the same time, her husband, Fahad Al-Butairi, who was in Amman, Jordan, was also arrested, placed in a private jet to Saudi prison. He has since been released, but has deactivated his Twitter account and gone silent. Al-Butairi, previously a comedian, was dubbed as "Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia" with a huge online following. Al-Butairi and Al-Hathloul are now divorced, but human rights activists have described their forced divorce circumstances as mysterious.
In addition to directly targeting dissidents, the Saudis impose arbitrary bans on travel outside of the country, freeze the state opponent's assets, and in some cases, unlawfully arrest family members of the critic. It is assessed that these restrictions are part of a more extensive system of organized repression and that the number of Saudi subjects who are under travel ban probably runs into the thousands.
In 2015, when King Salman Al Saud took the throne and later installed his son MBS in the royal succession, Al Qahtani began assembling a team drawn from the Saudi intelligence services and military to suppress dissent, amongst other operations. Al-Qahtani is said to have grouped a special – Firqat el-Nemr Arabic for Tiger Squad for espionage activities. Some of these Saudi intelligence operatives are said to have received training by Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company, under a State Department license in the United States. The training and the American project to help modernize and provide training to Saudi intelligence services are currently on hold.
The NSO's Pegasus Malware Connection
But just how did Al-Hathloul become a prominent national security threat for the Saudi monarchy? Why was she worthy of the attention by Al-Qahtani, the same man the CIA assessed as responsible for the late Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi's gruesome assassination? Under what authority did they collect the technical intercepts later used to convict her of terrorism and under the Saudi Anti-Cybercrime laws.
Al Qahtani, appointed as the President and Chairman of the Saudi Federation For Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones (SAFCSP), sought surveillance technology from the Israeli cyber warfare vendor NSO. The NSO's Pegasus malware, almost undetectable and allows for full access to a victim's mobile device, including chats, emails, and photos. It can also be used to manipulate remotely and turn on the user's microphones and camera and render it a real-time surveillance tool.
According to Amnesty International, NSO – Pegasus has been used to target an Amnesty International employee and numerous journalists and activists, including in Bahrain, Egypt, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco, Qatar, Turkey and the U.K.
The evidence gathered by Saudi prosecutors to charge and sentence Al-Hathloul were undisputable technical reports compiled by the Anti Cybercrime Section of the tweets and video clips posted by Al-Hathloul inciting women to drive cars in Saudi territory and seeking to influence public opinion. Another technical report issued by the Anti Cybercrime states that she had several campaigns to influence public opinion, sedition, and organizing collective action. She is also said to have tweeted material that offended the monarchy.
In Canada, the Citizen Lab found evidence assessed with high confidence that the cellphone of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi human rights activist and Canadian permanent resident, was targeted and infected with NSO Group's Pegasus spyware. Abdulaziz was in regular contact with the late Khashoggi, and following the latter's assassination, Abdulaziz was warned by Canadian security officials of a serious threat to his life. Abdulaziz is mindful of Saudi attempts to lure him back to his homeland, where he thinks he will be arrested and tortured after having escaped one attempt by Saudi agents already. The ongoing Saudi pressure to have him return included the unlawful arrest of his two brothers and friends.
Also, in Canada, a second man, Saad Al-Jabri, a former top Saudi intelligence chief, received a visit from Canadian officials with the same threat on his life. In August 2020, Al-Jabri later filed a lawsuit in Washington DC, alleging the Saudi government deployed spyware against him, plotted to kill him and detained his family members to coerce him to return to Saudi Arabia. The Tiger Squad sent to Canada were stopped by Canadian border security official, and it is alleged that they were carrying the same equipment needed to dismember a corpse.
Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service who also served as national security adviser to two prime ministers, said Dr. Al-Jabri's court-filed allegations are plausible. Bill Blair, the Minister of Public Safety, stated that he is "aware of the incidents which foreign actors have attempted to monitor, intimidate or threaten Canadians and those living in Canada. Al-Jabri is said to have been under "heavily armed" officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as private guards.
More recently, ten state-owned Saudi Arabia companies filed a lawsuit with the Ontario Superior Court of Canada alleging Al-Jabri embezzled billions of dollars. While the case is ongoing, the Canadian court has ordered a worldwide asset freeze against Al-Jabri and demanded he discloses his assets. In court, Al-Jabri contends the case is a "politically motivated attack."
It is evident that all three Al Hathloul, Abdulaziz and Al-Jabri were targeted by Al-Qahtani and Saudi State apparatus for political dissent; all three were targets of the most sophisticated spyware, enabling clandestine espionage operations, in foreign countries. Security experts describe the Saudi campaign appalling human rights organizations as ruthless and relentless. On at least three separate occasions, Saudi operations promoted the CIA to intervene or shared intelligence to alert dissidents about apparent threats from Saudi Arabia.
Saud Al-Qahtani and his co-conspirators have been sanctioned by the U.S., Canada and other western countries. While the Saudi government has, under international pressure, arrested a number of the Tiger Squad team that murdered Khashoggi, they have not arrested or charged Al-Qahtani. It is believed that MBS fired Al-Qahtani, but that the Saudi machine of repression remains intact, run by many of the same people who worked for Qahtani.
Canadian-Saudi Security Relations
U.S. President Joe Biden called Al-Hathloul's release "welcome news," affirming that she "was a powerful voice for women's rights." Since the Khashoggi murder, the State Department had limited some U.S. defence and intelligence contractors to Saudi. Additionally, in February 2021, the U.S. announced an end to U.S. support for the offensive operations in Yemen and some arms, making it clear that Saudi's abuse of human rights will be a factor long-standing strategic relationship between the two countries. And while Canada's relationship with Saudi Arabia is intimately intertwined with that of the United States, the Canadian government needs to reconsider Canadian security cooperation and arms export controls given Saudi human rights record and the new administration stand.
Last fall, a panel of independent experts monitored Yemen's conflict for the United Nations, named Canada, fueling the war. Canada is doing so through its ongoing $15-billion deal to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The Canadian government is being urged by a coalition of 39 human-rights, arms-control and labour groups to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The government continues to resist their calls, and in 2019, Canadian shipments of military goods to Saudi Arabia hit a record high.
In light of the most current information regarding a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) station in Riyadh, Canada is urged to re-examine its security information sharing practices with Saudi Arabia. Of note is that, unlike the CIA, the CSIS cannot collect security and intelligence information on Saudi Arabia or run sources in that country. Given the Saudi Arabia government's branding of human rights activists as terrorists, Canada should not share information on any Canadians with such a highly repressive regime.
The CSIS should also ramp up operations on the Saudi foreign interference activities in Canada and ensure the Saudi expatriate community's safety, including working with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in facilitating the granting of refugee protection to Saudi applicants. More urgently, the Canadian government is encouraged to consider granting Al-Hathloul, honorary Canadian citizenship for her heroic quest to advance human rights given her links to Canada. The country should also amplify Human Rights Watch calls on the Saudi government to quash the conviction that deems her women's rights activism – terrorism, and lift her travel ban and the suspended sentencing.
In an interview with Washington Post several months before his death, Khashoggi discussed the case of Al-Hathloul, describing the Saudi government actions as intimidation, to teach people a lesson, make them fearful." As a democratic human rights defender, Canada should do what is right by standing up for Al-Hathloul and help end her incredible ordeal.
Huda Mukbil is a Canadian counterterrorism expert and former senior intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).