|Date: Sep 3, 2018|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|UAE official allegedly asked Israeli firm to spy on Hariri|
|Joseph Haboush| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: An Emirati security official allegedly asked an Israeli-owned company to intercept the phone calls of Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri as far back as 2014, according to a source who spoke to The Daily Star Friday. The allegations were first reported by the New York Times, but the details surrounding Hariri have not previously been made public.
The source, who is familiar with lawsuits being brought against spyware companies in Israel and Cyprus, said that Ahmad Ali al-Habsi from the UAE’s Supreme Council for National Security asked Cypriot company Circles to tap the calls of four individuals in an email sent on Aug. 6, 2014. The email, one of several leaked documents, was presented as evidence in the cases.
Circles and Israeli company NSO are subsidiaries of Luxembourg’s OSY, according to the source. “The three companies all work together,” they said. “The ultimate ownership is mixed American-Israeli, but it is Israeli-run,” they added.
The four targeted individuals, the source said, were Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, Abdul-Aziz al-Khamis, Saudi Prince Mitaib bin Abdullah and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Khamis is the editor of the London-based newspaper Al-Arab, while Mitaib is the son of the late King Abdullah.
Three of the four numbers were verified by those bringing the lawsuit as belonging to the three Gulf politicians while Hariri’s number was not.
The Daily Star was unable to confirm that the number in the leaked documents does indeed belong to Hariri. The prime minister-designate’s office declined to comment.
“There were attempts to intercept these phone calls ... and on Aug. 10, 2014, the company emailed the UAE official saying it was successful in tapping Khamis’ phone calls,” the source said.
“There is evidence that there were attempts to intercept the others’ phone calls, but none of actual interception,” the source added.
To intercept the calls, the company allegedly sent text messages to the targets in hopes they would click on the link, the New York Times said. If they click, “the spyware, known as Pegasus, is secretly downloaded, enabling governments to monitor phone calls, emails, contacts, and potentially even face-to-face conversations conducted nearby.”
The text messages were carefully tailored, the Times said, with “seemingly innocuous invitations like ‘Ramadan is near – incredible discounts’ and ‘keep you car tires from exploding in the heat.’”
The cases against the companies are being brought in both Cyprus and Israel. Five Mexican nationals working as human rights activists filed lawsuits in both jurisdictions, while one Qatari journalist filed a lawsuit in Cyprus against the local company. According to the source, this same spyware was used to arrest Emirati activist Ahmad Mansoor last year. Mansoor became famous in August 2016 when he worked with security experts to reveal three previously undisclosed weaknesses in Apple’s mobile operating system after he was allegedly targeted with a phishing text message he didn’t open. He was later arrested in 2017 for online posts, and Amnesty International said his iPhone had been targeted using elite spyware in an attempt to turn it into a tracking device.
The source said the lawsuits were being put forth in order to expose human rights violations of the Israeli companies. “We are asking for an injunction to stop this company and all of its affiliates from selling this product to specific countries.” Another one of the main reasons for this lawsuit is to expose that the companies do not only provide information on safety threats. “They [spyware companies] say they just sell systems, but there is evidence of further involvement,” the source said, noting that the cases are being pursued as a civil claim since criminal claims “will take years.” The New York Times reported that NSO had declined to comment pending a review of the lawsuits, while the UAE Embassy in the U.S. did not respond to a request for comment.