When Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, he didn’t know he was walking into a killing zone. He had become the prime target in a 21st-century information war — one that involved hacking, kidnapping and ultimately murder — waged by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his courtiers against dissenters.
How did a battle of ideas, triggered by Khashoggi’s outspoken journalism for The Post, become so deadly? That’s the riddle at the center of the columnist’s death. The answer in part is that the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries that supported Saudi counter-extremism policies helped sharpen the double-edged tools of cyberespionage that drove the conflict toward its catastrophic conclusion in Istanbul.
MBS, as the crown prince is known, promised change, but he delivered instability. The digital arsenal he assembled became an instrument of his own authoritarian rule. MBS came to the information space armed, figuratively speaking, with a bone saw.
Ground zero in this conflict was the Center for Studies and Media Affairs in Riyadh, run by Saud al-Qahtani, a smart, ambitious official in the royal court who played Iago to his headstrong, sometimes paranoid boss. Qahtani and his cyber colleagues worked at first with an Italian company called Hacking Team, and then shopped for products produced by two Israeli companies — NSO Group and its affiliate, Q Cyber Technologies — and by an Emirati firm called DarkMatter, according to many knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Gradually, Qahtani built a network of surveillance and social-media manipulation to advance MBS’s agenda and suppress his enemies. [Continue reading…]