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Jeff Bezos, blackmail and the Saudi crown prince

January 25, 2020

Amazon boss and WaPo owner Jeff Bezos' phone was reportedly hacked by the Saudi crown prince's regime. The UN wants an investigation; the allegations touch the highest echelons of US power and echo internationally.

Combo photo: Jeff Bezos Mohammed bin Salman

In April 2018, Hollywood producer Brian Grazer invited a number of high-profile guests to his villa in Santa Monica. The occasion: A visit from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), as part of his global charm offensive promoting Saudi Arabia. Weeks before, MbS visited with US President Donald Trump in the White House. Among the guests at the event was Jeff Bezos — Amazon boss, world's richest person, and Washington Post owner. What exactly Bezos and MbS discussed then is unknown. But one thing is certain: The two exchanged phone numbers, which were linked to their WhatsApp accounts.

On Wednesday, United Nations experts called for an official investigation into reports that MbS had Bezos' phone hacked via a WhatsApp message — presumably to keep tabs on the reporting of The Washington Post, for which Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote. Seven months later, Khashoggi was brutally killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Another three months later, the tabloid National Enquirer published explosive details about Bezos' personal life, after which he launched an investigation, was blackmailed and went public with the story.

Iyad El-Baghdad is a Palestinian-born writer, head of the Kawaakibi Foundation in Oslo and a pro-democracy activist. He is a vocal critic of the Saudi Arabian government, and says he personally worked with Bezos' security team, which led to his falling into the sights of the Saudi regime. Now living under asylum protection in Norway, he spoke to DW about the tangled web of actors involved and what it means for Riyadh and its relations with the West.

Iyad el-Baghdadi gives a speech
Iyad El-Baghdad is a pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of the Saudi regimeImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/J. Reinhart

DW: How did you get involved in the Jeff Bezos hack story?

Iyad El-Baghdadi: The story from my perspective started in August 2018. That's when my late friend Jamal Khashoggi gave me a call. He had the idea of establishing a disinformation monitor. You know, a way for us to look at the propaganda output of Arab dictatorships, particularly the Saudi dictatorship. Unfortunately, you know my friend was killed too soon and we couldn't actually start the disinformation monitor as a formal project, but we started looking at the output of the Saudi propaganda machine. And after Jamal's murder we could notice that there was a concentrated propaganda campaign against Jeff Bezos that started around the middle of October and then escalated in November. In November it became a countrywide propaganda campaign, blaming Jeff Bezos for The Washington Post’s coverage and taking all of that blame and putting it towards Amazon as well. We didn't know what to make of it at the time. We didn't know that there was a hack or anything like that.

Read more: Wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi inspired by global solidarity

Then, Bezos in February of 2019 wrote a Medium post saying that he had just experienced a blackmail attempt and hinted very strongly that Saudi Arabia was probably involved. We immediately put two and two together. Number one: We know that MbS has a problem with Bezos, that was very clear because the propaganda output of his regime was really aggressive against him. What we also know is that they had an ongoing business relationship. And we know that Jamal Khashoggi's murder came in the middle of that. So we published our findings online and two days later we were contacted by the head of security for Bezos (editor's note: Gavin de Becker, a longtime security consultant hired by Bezos), who said: "You guys are onto something and we have certain information we want to share with you as well." We established a working relationship and we started to coordinate things since then. What we didn't know is the stuff that was happening behind the scenes, because of course we didn't have access to, for example, Bezos' phone or his private communications.

Jamal Kashoggi
Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018Image: Getty Images/M. Al-Shaikh

What did the work between you and the Bezos team look like?

Once we started working with Bezos' team we could compare notes and things that happened. There was a back and forth and there are certain communications from MbS to Bezos that indicated that MbS somehow had access to private communications. In February, I had a long phone call with Gavin de Becker. Later, Gavin got on the phone with Jeff and they had a prolonged phone call as well. And then after that, Jeff got a message from MbS — I think a couple of days later — saying what you're being told is not true.

Read more: How Saudi Arabia monitors and intimidates its critics abroad

And this is what really raised the alarm for us: How did MbS know that Jeff is being told anything. So it became clear that there was not just a one-time hack. They probably are still in Jeff's phone. And we realized that they actually had been in the phone continuously until this point.

Why would you think MbS is interested in The Washington Post?

As you know, Jamal Khashoggi wrote for The Washington Post and about MbS in particular — but you know all dictators in general are very sensitive about their public image and their public perception because that's where their narrative of legitimacy is tied up. So it was very important for MbS to maintain a positive image in the world and you could see that he spent a lot of money on it. And he was very successful until March of 2018. He had a really big tour in the United States. He was very well received. He met with a lot of important people, not only Jeff Bezos. He met with Bill Gates. So he was he was treated as a hero, and that was really important for him.

Mohammed bin Salman and Bill Gates
MbS met with a number of high-profile US figures during his 2018 stateside trip, including Bill GatesImage: picture alliance/abaca

At the same time you had Jamal Khashoggi sitting at The Washington Post writing article after article, in one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in the world, critical of MbS — calling out MbS' narrative, saying that this is not correct or this is not true, et cetera. This was incredibly sensitive for MbS and he wanted to curb that. So around the same time that Bezos was hacked — we believe he was hacked on the 1st of May, 2018 — the Saudis also targeted dissidents in the UK, an unnamed Amnesty International researcher, and only [recently] we learned that there was an attempt to hack Ben Hubbard, The New York Times' bureau chief in Beirut. Of course it's quite possible that Jamal Khashoggi's phone was also compromised. We just don't have access to his phone because it's with the Turkish intelligence.

You were apparently also targeted.

This was in June last year, after the Bezos blackmail attempt happened. I was tipped off by a Saudi source saying that "you need to get rid of your phone immediately because they have succeeded in installing Pegasus on it" (editor's note: Pegasus is mobile spyware made by an Israeli firm). I immediately dumped my phone and I had to get on a much more complicated digital security infrastructure.

Read more: Jamal Khashoggi's murder unresolved, one year on

I read that you had to move out of your apartment?

That is something that's separate from the hack itself. But shortly after we actually broke the story about Bezos and shortly after Gavin de Becker proclaimed in an article that his investigation concluded that there was indeed a hack, a Norwegian intelligence officer showed up at my door and they took me away and said that I am the target of threats. And we understood later that threat came from Saudi Arabia and that the intelligence agency that tipped them off was the CIA. And since then I've been living under protection in Norway.

So are you saying it was not really related to the hack but you think it's related to the fact that you were in contact with Bezos' security team?

We don't have any proof that they compromised my phone any earlier but they might have. After that the Saudi disinformation networks were very aggressive against me and they were trying to discredit me. Fortunately, you know, I have a pretty boring private life. So I don't think they'll be able to get much. It's crazy to think that MbS can be this reckless, but there's a lot of things that are crazy about modern Saudi Arabia. It's also crazy to kill a journalist in your own consulate and dismember his body and burn his remains. That's the thing — you're not dealing with a rational actor here.

Why was the UN involved?

My team is focused on liberty and democracy in the MENA region and Saudi Arabia just happens to be the center of tyranny and dictatorship in that region. And we had this very explosive story. We were trying to figure out how to make it most damaging. The idea of going to the UN was about creating consequences for MbS himself because — keep in mind, the FBI cannot do anything about MbS. They can go after American citizens who were involved in the blackmail but they cannot go after him. So the UN is probably the right conduit for such an investigation and also the UN is independent.

Do you think that hacking the phone of the richest man in the world will have any sort of consequences for Saudi Arabia or MbS, or the country's relations with the West?

I think a lot of people, especially Europeans or people who live in the West or lived under democracies in general, unfortunately seem to have a very narrow understanding of what consequences would mean when it comes to a dictator, because a dictator is a sovereign. You're not going to drag him into a court of law, for example, and it's difficult to remove him from power because you don't try to run politics inside Saudi Arabia, and as you can see he actually has a good hold on power. He's trying to really create a police state.

Read more: Saudi Arabia: Between religion, oil dependence and reforms

We tell people that we actually do not want MbS to be removed from power too soon. This happens to be an opportunity in this case because MbS is really destroying the legitimacy of the Saudi regime, its legitimacy in front of its own people. This is very embarrassing. If you are a Saudi, you should be embarrassed by it, by what this government is doing in your name. It's also his legitimacy in front of Silicon Valley, which he really needs in order to implement his Vision 2030, which is an economic transformation plan. It damages his reputation across the world as a reformer. So it's a battle of narratives of legitimacy, and the consequences that we see really [are] to break this aura around him, and for it to be clear that this person is trouble, and that Saudi Arabia, and by extension the MENA region, deserves better than to be ruled by these kinds of characters.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.