Oslo, Monday, 13 May 2019; Iyad El-Baghdadi addressed the widely-reported threats against him by the Saudi government in a press conference.
This transcript has been adapted into an op-ed, read at Washington Post.
Thank you. Last week, the story broke that I had been contacted by the PST about a threat. The story – and the details that followed – generated a lot of media attention. I chose to hold this press conference in order to make myself available to as many journalist as possible in as efficient a way as possible – but also to provide some extra details.
I have a short statement, after which I’ll take your questions.
On Thursday, April 25th, PST agents arrived at my doorstep. They showed me their badges and asked me to come with them. They took me to a secure location and then told me that they have received a tip from a partner intelligence agency that indicated that I was the target of a threat.
There’s already been a lot of reporting on this, so I will not go over the details again. Instead I’ll emphasize a few key points that were not clear from the initial reporting.
Note that two weeks passed after the incident before it broke to the media, with the Guardian leading. I wish here to thank the Guardian’s reporters who worked on this story for the great job they did in confirming its key details. A couple things to mention here.
- First: It was The Guardian that came to me, and not me who went to them. The Guardian had independent sources from which they learned about the threats, and they contacted me to confirm. They have NOT shared their sources with me.
- It was also The Guardian who confirmed that the “partner intelligence agency” was in fact the CIA. I had a strong idea but I did not know for fact until The Guardian confirmed it.
When The Guardian contacted me, I confirmed the news but I also convinced them to hold off on breaking the story until I coordinate with Norwegian authorities. The story finally broke on Tuesday, May 7th.
The decision to go public with the threats was not taken lightly. I started weighing the option of going public from Day 1, and the advice I received from independent security experts was that publicity would serve as a deterrent to targeting me now, since the world would be watching. It’s safer for me to be in the middle of the town square than to be in the shadows.
And while the decision to go public was discussed with the authorities, it’s important to note that the PST cannot and did not endorse this decision either way. They emphasized that they will officially neither confirm nor deny the reports once they break to the media. This is standard practice.
Additional reporting published in TIME Magazine on May 9th confirmed that US intel had also passed tips concerning at least two other activists – Omar Abdulaziz in Canada and a US-based activist who prefers to remain unnamed at this point. Omar Abdulaziz was placed under protection by Canadian authorities, meanwhile the US-based activist was barred from travel to certain countries he had planned to visit.
The reporting pointed that our association with Jamal Khashoggi was the likely reason behind these threats – something I wish to expand upon.
Some reporting has speculated that I’m a target because I’m a “critic” of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. While that’s true, I do not believe that it was just criticism that has led to this.
During a recent risk assessment, we identified 6-7 projects I was working as particularly sensitive. Some of these projects are very much in development, so I cannot discuss their details. However I can speak about a subset of these.
Now to better be able to explain, I’ll have to speak a bit about the relationship between MBS’s rise to power, and the state of free speech in the Arab public sphere, and how that relates to these projects and to Jamal Khashoggi. I’ll try to be brief.
The 2011 Arab uprisings saw the rise of a new Arab public sphere. While conventional media in the Arab world was under tight control, the social media space wasn’t. For this reason, this new Arab public sphere flowered online, with Twitter ultimately becoming the most important space.
The rise of the counter-revolutionary axis around 2014 throttled free expression in key Arab countries, but the Saudi public sphere continued to thrive. This was aided by Twitter’s immense popularity in Saudi Arabia, and its large online population.
MBS’s rise to power began in 2015, and it was soon clear that a priority was destroying this new Arab public sphere, and achieving complete domination over it.
I won’t get into the details of how they did it – but they succeeded spectacularly. By 2018 (2017), Arabic-language Twitter went from being the heart of the new Arab public sphere to being a swamp presided over by Saudi troll-master Saud Al Qahtani and his minions. The leading Twitter intellectuals from Saudi Arabia were silenced, jailed, exiled – or dead.
MBS and Qahtan managed to subvert Twitter – from a tool of free expression, to a weapon for social control and for propaganda. They use Twitter to manufacture or engineer public opinion, to push out propaganda, to mob dissidents, to disrupt conversations, and to deliver threats.
You know we know a lot about Saudi hacking capabilities but in my informed opinion, the most valuable piece of software MBS owns isn’t Pegasus, it’s Arabic Twitter.
MBS *has* killed for Twitter before, and it looks like he’s not done killing for Twitter yet.
Now my late friend Jamal Khashoggi was anguished about the state of free expression in the Arab world, and he realized the power and importance of Twitter. During the last year of his life, he started three significant ideas aimed at reclaiming this public sphere – three Twitter-focused projects. Each of these projects represented a different methodology and a different line of attack.
Upon Jamal’s death, Omar Abdulaziz inherited one of these projects. I inherited two.
The third activist – the US-based one who also received a warning from US intel – also co-inherited one of these two.
Now I won’t get into WHAT these projects were, at least not as part of this statement. But I will emphasize that the methodology developed for one of these two projects was employed by my team starting from February 2019 to investigate the Saudi state-controlled Twitter campaigns against US businessman and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
You see at the time of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Bezos was in a curious situation. He was someone who had extensive business interests in MBS’s Saudi Arabia (and a personal relationship with MBS). At the same time, he was the owner of the Washington Post, for which Jamal Khashoggi worked. When Bezos decided to stand by the Washington Post, MBS saw it as betrayal.
Not to get into too many details, but it seems that MBS and Qahtani employed their Twitter-based networks, their cyber capabilities, their financial leverage, and their connections to certain personalities in the Trump universe, to take a series of actions aimed at punishing Jeff Bezos.
Later, in February, there was an attempt to blackmail Jeff Bezos and to secure his silence, after he had launched his own investigation into the attacks against him.
That blackmail attempt failed, because Bezos simply said NO and decided to expose it, by writing a post on Medium.
Immediately after seeing the Medium post, my team started investigating the matter. I wrote some preliminary thoughts on Twitter soon after, and a couple days later I was contacted by Gavin de Becker, who is the head of Jeff Bezos’s investigation team, and we established a working relationship.
This relationship culminated in an extensive report that was submitted by Gavin de Becker to federal investigators in March. Ahead of that, in late February, I wrote a detailed report for the Daily Beast – that revealed the extent of the Saudi campaign against Jeff Bezos.
In late March, Gavin de Becker wrote an article himself – also for the Daily Beast – summarizing the conclusions of his investigation. The investigation concluded that the Saudis were in Bezos’s phone.
I’d like to say here that all of the work that my team did with Jeff Bezos’s investigation team, and all the work we continue to do, was done with no contractual relationship and with no compensation discussed with Bezos or with his security firm.
Now returning to the threats. It was during my work with Bezos’s investigation team that I felt that I had crosshairs on my back. In February, I expressed my concerns to a number of Norwegian friends and asked for their advice. In March, after receiving more indications that I’m a target, I filed a police report with Oslo police. In fact, when the PST showed up at my doorstep on April 25th, I wasn’t the least surprised. I believe my first reaction was “What took you so long?” (I did not know at the time that the PST had received a tip from the CIA).
Now I’d like to address the subject of what this incident means in the broader context of MBS’s rise. It seems to me that MBS is shedding his “reformist” image and entering a new phase. The image of the enlightened reformer has served him well, and it’s gone and not coming back. The new phase seems to be one of naked repression, and of “owning” what he really is – a brutal, bloodthirsty, corrupt tyrant. MBS is NOT done killing. This is NOT a one-off incident, it’s part of a new wave of repression.
The threats against me and my colleagues is not a “new escalation”. It is not surprising at all that MBS would go after dissidents. The only surprise is that anybody’s surprised.
Now some may be wondering why MBS would still be out to target dissidents after the backlash after Jamal’s murder. Some would point to the shameful lack of accountability – and they’d be right.
In recent reporting, MBS is being presented as someone who’s unaccountable and that there’s nothing anybody can do about it. He’s even sometimes compared to Putin, some coverage actually shows him shaking hands with Putin. I actually think you should show him not with Putin but with Jared Kushner. MBS is ONLY unaccountable – and unhinged – because the administration most capable of taking him to account is currently his bigger enabler.
But there’s another factor that’s important to consider. One of the most poignant messages I have received last week came from a human rights activists living in an Arab country. “If you’re being threatened and you’re in Norway”, he said, “then what chance do I have here?”
MBS has already benefited. He has sent ripples of fear into dissident communities, sending a message that if you oppose him, then you’re not safe, regardless where you are. Even here, even in Norway.
In a dark way, this actually mirrors the logic of targeting of Jeff Bezos. Again, if someone like Jeff Bezos, the richest man on earth, can be targeted and potentially blackmailed, then who’s safe?
There is a second way in which he has benefitted. As those who can check my Twitter mentions can see, I’ve been receiving a vast amount of abuse from Saudi-controlled accounts, and the majority of the abuse focuses on the fact that I’m a Palestinian.
Ahead of the so-called “Deal of the Century”, which is expected to be declared in a month, MBS’s propaganda engine is doubling its effort to insult and dehumanize Palestinians. They describe us as as treasonous, money-grabbing, untrustworthy, hypocritical, disloyal, and ungrateful. All of this is in order to make the case domestically that Palestinians are not worth supporting, and that the terrible deal that will be declared is the best we deserve. The fact that I’m a Palestinian just happened to serve their narrative well.
In closing I’d like to express my gratitude to the Norwegian security authorities for the care and protection they have provided. The threats against me seem to be a long term problem and so to me this is like settling into a new lifestyle. I am not in a position to make any comments about security arrangements, but I can confirm that two different Norwegian institutions are involved – and I think that as Norwegians and residents of Norway, we have every right to be proud of their professionalism and competence. Having seen the work of these agencies from the inside, I can confirm to you that they are serious professionals whose work is impressive and comprehensive.
I’m not a Norwegian citizen yet but as a prospective Norwegian I must say that I’m proud of this country and of the light that it is in the world today.
A final message to Norway is about the Norwegian Oil Fund, the world’s richest and most successful sovereign wealth fund. Let it be known that Norway’s money continues to be invested in Saudi Arabia. I will not comment. I will leave this to the conscience of Norwegian citizens.
I would like to thank the Fritt Ord foundation in Norway for funding some of my work, including some of the most sensitive investigations. I am honored and humbled by your support.
I would, of course, like to thank my family here at Civita – I don’t know what I would have done without you, guys.
MBS is a perfect embodiment of Arab tyranny in its most hysterical, its most paranoid – and hopefully its final stage. It is their fear that is driving this hysteria.
If you look at the Arab region today, you see authoritarian hysteria, failed states, terror groups, civil wars, proxy wars, economic crises – but also inspiring popular uprisings and stiff popular resistance. This may seem like absolute chaos, but in fact this is exactly what a democratic transition looks like.
History is in good hands. The nations of the the so-called “free world” need to choose which side of history to stand on.
We’re not free until we’re all free, and we’re not safe until we’re all safe.
Thank you. I’ll take your questions.