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'To Protect Myself And My Family': Saudi Critics Abroad Fear Long Reach Of The Crown

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends an Arab summit at al-Safa Royal Palace in Mecca on May 31, 2019.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends an Arab summit at al-Safa Royal Palace in Mecca on May 31, 2019.

Saad Aljabri knows a lot of secrets. The former senior intelligence official in Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry was a valued partner of the U.S. government, a man who had access to troves of sensitive information about terrorism suspects, informants and the vast Saudi royal family.

But Aljabri ran afoul of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and went into exile in 2017. The royal has been hunting for him ever since, he says.

In August, Aljabri brought a U.S. federal lawsuit against the crown prince, alleging King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud's powerful son tried to use Aljabri's children to lure him back to Saudi Arabia as well as "personally orchestrated" attempts to kill him in North America.

The case follows a disturbing trend in several countries, Saudi Arabia watchers say, of how far the Saudi crown prince is willing to go to silence rivals or dissidents. Researchers say the efforts include tracking down critics who have left Saudi Arabia, hacking into cellphones and arresting their relatives back home.

The efforts also include permanently silencing a dissident, as in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two years ago this month. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Prince Mohammed was involved in planning the killing. The crown prince has denied having prior knowledge of the crime.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia prepares to address the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2016, in New York City.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia prepares to address the U.N. General Assembly in 2016. The following year, he was ousted as crown prince.

A royal rival

When he was still in government, Aljabri got on Prince Mohammed's bad side in several ways. Aljabri was aligned with the then-counterterrorism czar, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was a rival to the throne. Aljabri also began publicly questioning some of Mohammed bin Salman's decisions, including the devastating Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, according to former CIA Director John Brennan, author of the new memoir, Undaunted.

"MBS took offense to Saad's outspokenness," Brennan says, using the crown prince's initials. "Also Mohammed bin Salman is very concerned about what Saad may do in terms of exposing some of the activities that are going on inside of Saudi Arabia under MBS."

In 2017, Prince Mohammed began widespread arrests of businessmen, activists and critics. When King Salman removed Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew, from the line of succession to make his son the crown prince, Aljabri went to Turkey and ultimately ended up with his family members in Toronto.

Texts turn threatening

Aljabri declined an interview, but his son Khalid Aljabri, a cardiologist who lives with his father in Toronto, spoke to NPR.

He says that soon after leaving the kingdom, his father received a cordial text message from the crown prince.

"You know, we had our disagreements but I need you back in government," Khalid Aljabri remembers the message saying.

"He made it sound like just, 'Let's come and have a clear-the-air talk and we'll go back to business as usual,' " he says. "We didn't buy that."

The family thought it might be a trap.

Within a few days, Khalid says, two of Saad's children who were still in Saudi Arabia, ages 17 and 18 at the time, were barred from leaving the kingdom. The text messages became more aggressive and threatening.

"It was ultimatums, saying, 'You have one hour to tell us where you are,' you know, 'I'll send the jet to get you. Otherwise ... we will use all legal means and other means that will be harmful to you,' " Khalid recalls. He says his father has kept the texts as evidence.

Dispatching Tiger Squad

Saad Aljabri alleges that Crown Prince Mohammed has been trying to have him killed for the past three years. The lawsuit says that is largely because of the former official's knowledge of the kingdom's inner workings and dealings and his ties to U.S. intelligence officials. "Dr. Saad is uniquely positioned to existentially threaten Defendant bin Salman's standing with the U.S. government," the suit says.

People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lit candles during a gathering outside Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul, on Oct. 25, 2018.
Yasin Akgul / AFP via Getty Images
People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and candles during a gathering outside Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, weeks after he was believed to have been killed by assassins linked to the Saudi government.

In mid-October 2018, the suit alleges, the crown prince dispatched members of his "personal mercenary group, the Tiger Squad," to Canada to hunt Aljabri. According to the file, the squad was sent two weeks after killing Khashoggi, on Oct. 2, 2018.

Khalid Aljabri says his father got an "early heads-up" from former colleagues and U.S. intelligence officials not to go anywhere near a Saudi embassy. The suit says Canadian authorities blocked the hit team at Toronto's airport.

"Two of the people that attempted entry ... had luggage with some kind of cleanup tools belong to the same department that the forensic doctor who dismembered Jamal belonged to," Khalid says.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington didn't comment on this case or answer other questions from NPR.

Canada's government did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment. But in a statement to national news outlets, Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said: "We are aware of incidents in which foreign actors have attempted to monitor, intimidate or threaten Canadians and those living in Canada."

Saudi officials have long worked to monitor and encourage critics and activists to return to the kingdom — or be forcibly repatriated, according to international human rights groups. That includes renditioning female activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, from neighboring countries.

The great Saudi hack

To head off criticism, Saudi officials have flooded social media with praise for Prince Mohammed and the kingdom, according to Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which tracks the use of spyware by authoritarian regimes. The kingdom used people who were either paid or "pressured by the regime to post content that's favorable to them," he says.

Deibert says the regime has become very sophisticated at tracking citizens electronically on cellphones, allowing officials to see their location, emails and social media conversations.

"They take these very powerful tools that are marketed to them to fight ostensibly crime, national security issues and so on, and direct them towards regime opponents and journalists who cover Saudi issues," he says. "Especially those that have prominence in social media and in international media because they present a threat to the regime's credibility and legitimacy."

Two years ago, researchers at the Citizen Lab said they discovered that the phone of Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi talk show host in Montreal who was critical of the Saudi royal family, was hacked with Saudi-linked spyware.

Abdulaziz was a confidant of Khashoggi and said the two had been discussing plans to raise awareness about human rights in Saudi Arabia.

"Jamal was killed two months later. For sure, the conversations between us played a major role in what happened to Jamal," Abdulaziz told NPR in 2018.

That year, Saudi officials arrested Abdulaziz's relatives and friends in Saudi Arabia to put pressure on him, he wrote in The Washington Post.

Abdulaziz was also being followed on Twitter, according to U.S. prosecutors who last year charged two former employees of the social platform with obtaining personal information of Saudis criticizing the regime. It is the first time federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with deploying agents inside the U.S.

Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, worked at Twitter as a "site reliability engineer." The federal complaint says he accessed "data of over 6,000 Twitter users," including Abdulaziz. Another employee, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, allegedly received payments of up to $300,000 for information gleaned from his job at Twitter. A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen, was also charged with spying. He is described in the complaint as a principal in a social media marketing company that works for the Saudi royal family.

Placing agents inside Twitter was part of an ongoing national strategy by the Saudi regime, according to Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.

"Their infiltration of Twitter by their own agents was designed to obtain and then transmit back to the Saudi government the names, addresses and, very importantly, contact lists of users in Saudi Arabia who were then subsequently rounded up," Ereli said at a recent conference.

For the apparent targets of spying, life is frightening even if they're not in Saudi Arabia.

Ali al-Ahmed is the founder of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C., and a critic of the royal family. He lives in the U.S. but has safety concerns.

"Absolutely, I fear, of course, every day I go ... look under my car, I look around the house," he says. "And I do everything I can to protect myself and my family."

Saad Aljabri, the former intelligence official, was not able to protect his family. In March, Saudi security forces swarmed his home near Riyadh and arrested his daughter and son, both in their early 20s.

The U.S. State Department has called the detentions of Aljabri's family members " unacceptable" and said it has repeatedly pressed Saudi Arabia to release them.

But the family hasn't heard from them.

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