Eyad Hamid, a journalist with The New Arab‘s Arabic service, was twice approached by an as-yet-unidentified agent to discuss his coverage of the UAE’s use of NSO technology in the hacking of phones belonging to Qatar Emir Tamim al-Thani and Lebanon Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, among others.
Hamid was needled in both meetings – which it has emerged were secretly recorded – about whether the state of Qatar was behind his reports.
“My answer,” said Hamid, “was simply that the documents came to me from a source I know personally, and that the case was backed up by verifiable documents.”
Hamid, a Syrian doctoral student at the University of London, was contacted by a woman calling herself Sara Jansen, who told the journalist that she was the secretary of Jamil Abbasi, a representative of the “MGP Management group”.
Subsequent investigations suggest the “MGP Management group” either does not exist or is a front organisation.
Jansen told Hamid the organisation would start providing scholarships to Syrian students as part of its charitable activities. She invited him to apply for a generous bursary.
After accepting his application, he was invited to a meeting with Abbasi in a London hotel in mid-December 2018. “Abbasi” soon diverged from the usual interview topics and began to question Hamid about the sources of his reporting on NSO, seemingly, Hamid said, to push him to say “the whole thing was directed by the highest authorities of Qatar”.
The journalist again met with “Abbasi” in mid-January, ostensibly to hear back about whether he had received the scholarship. During the meeting, “Abbasi” asked Hamid if he had read the Citizen Lab report about the Pegasus spyware.
Citizen Lab gained attention in 2018 for its repeated investigations of NSO, whose Pegasus spyware researchers say was used to target activists in the Middle East. The UAE has been using the spyware since as early as 2013 to target local human rights activists, as well as Saudi and Qatari officials.
Two researchers working for Citizen Lab who exposed the hacking of Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz’s phone were lured into conversations with undercover operatives, it was reported in January.
“We were on our guard and did not take the bait”, said Mazen Masri, a legal adviser in an Israel-based lawsuit against NSO, after he and Alaa Mahajana, Abdulaziz’s lawyer in the case, were pursued for weeks by people representing themselves as wealthy executives with lucrative offers of work.
The Citizen Lab researchers were contacted twice over the past two months by men identifying themselves as “socially conscious” investors. The watchdog group believes these meetings, during which the researchers were quizzed for hours about their personal lives and work exposing the NSO, were also secretly recorded.
As well as The New Arab‘s Hamid and the two Citizen Lab researchers, three other people have been targeted by undercover operatives, AP reported on Monday. All six were approached by men identifying themselves as representatives of companies with extremely thin online presences.
These other three are lawyers involved in two lawsuits against NSO, in Israel and Cyprus. One case involves Omar Abdulaziz, and the other Mexican journalists and activists allegedly targeted by the company’s spyware.
The targets said the operatives attempted to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks, as well as into revealing sensitive information, in order to discredit reports and litigation on the group’s spyware.
“There’s somebody who’s really interested in sabotaging the case,” said Masri. He went on to say that the operatives were “looking for dirt” on people involved in investigations and legal cases.
Neither the NSO Group or its owner, the American private equity company Francisco Partners, responded to requests by AP to comment on the new claims. NSO had previously denied any involvement in covert meetings with the Citizen Lab researchers.
Christiana Markou, a lawyer pursuing a case in Cyprus on behalf of Mexican plaintiffs, was flown out to London, ostensibly to discuss attending a conference. The conversation was quickly steered towards the lawsuit, with the operative asking who funded it.
Secretly recorded footage of Hamid and Markou meeting with the operatives was broadcast on Israeli television. In the programme, Hamid says that he and and the others targeted were represented as being “under Qatari control”.
Israeli TV show Uvda and the New York Times identified one of the operatives as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a former Israeli security official. Israeli private investigation company Black Cube has been investigating lawsuits against NSO, Israel’s Channel 12 reported on Sunday. NSO has denied hiring Black Cube.