Hacking a Prince, an Emir and a Journalist to Impress a Client - The New York Times
The lawsuits also shed new light on the political intrigues involving Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies, which have increasingly turned to hacking as a favorite weapon against one another.
The NSO Group’s actions are now at the heart of the twin lawsuits accusing the company of actively participating in illegal spying.CreditDaniella Cheslow/Associated Press
The U.A.E. does not recognize Israel, but the two appear to have a growing behind-the-scenes alliance. Because Israel deems the spyware a weapon, the lawsuits note, the NSO Group and its affiliates could have sold it to the Emirates only with approval by the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Leaked emails submitted in the lawsuits show that the U.A.E. signed a contract to license the company’s surveillance software as early as August 2013.
A year and a half later, a British affiliate of the NSO Group asked its Emirati client to provide a sixth payment of $3 million under the original contract, suggesting a total licensing fee of at least $18 million over that period.
An update the next year was sold through a different affiliate, based in Cyprus, at a cost of $11 million in four installments, according to leaked invoices.
Tensions between the U.A.E. and its neighbor Qatar reached a boil in 2013 over a struggle for power in Egypt. Qatar had allied itself with the Egyptian Islamist movement that won the elections after the Arab Spring. Then the U.A.E. backed a military takeover that cast the Islamists into prison instead.
In the escalating feud, each side accused the other of cyberespionage. Hackers broke into the email accounts of two outspoken opponents of Qatar — the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, and an American Republican fund-raiser who does business with the U.A.E., Elliott Broidy. Mr. Broidy has filed a separate lawsuit accusing Qatar and its Washington lobbyists of conspiring to steal and leak his emails.
Other hackers briefly took over the website of the Qatari news service to post a false report of an embarrassing speech by the emir to damage him, and later leaked Qatari emails exposing awkward details of Qatari negotiations over the release of a royal hunting party kidnapped in Iraq. Allies of Qatar blamed the Emiratis.
The leaked emails disclosed in the new lawsuits may also have been stolen through hacking. Lawyers involved said the documents were provided by a Qatari journalist who did not disclose how he had obtained them.
The messages show that the Emiratis were seeking to intercept the phone calls of the emir of Qatar as early as 2014.
But the Emirati target list also included Saudi Arabia. In the email discussions about updating the NSO Group’s technology, the Emiratis asked to intercept the phone calls of a Saudi prince, Mutaib bin Abdullah, who was considered at the time to be a possible contender for the throne.
The Emiratis have been active promoters of Prince Mutaib’s younger rival, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Last year, the crown prince removed Prince Mutaib from his role as minister of the national guard and ordered his temporary detention in connection with corruption allegations.
In a telephone interview, Prince Mutaib expressed surprise that the Emiratis had attempted to record his calls.
“They don’t need to hack my phone,” he said. “I will tell them what I am doing.”
According to the emails, the Emiratis also asked to intercept the phone calls of Saad Hariri, who is now prime minister of Lebanon.
Mr. Hariri has sometimes been accused of failing to push back hard enough against Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese movement backed by Iran. Last year, the U.A.E.’s Saudi ally, Crown Prince Mohammed, temporarily detained Mr. Harari in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and forced him to announce his resignation as prime minister. (He later rescinded the announcement, and he remains prime minister.)
Mr. Alkhamis, who resigned in 2014 as the editor of the London-based newspaper Al Arab, called the surveillance of his phone calls “very strange” but not unexpected, since he had published “sensitive” articles about Persian Gulf politics.
The U.A.E.’s use of the NSO Group’s spyware was first reported in 2016. Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati human rights advocate, noticed suspicious text messages and exposed an attempt to hack his Apple iPhone. The U.A.E. arrested him on apparently unrelated charges the next year and he remains in jail.