NSO Spyware Used Against Belgian Journalist, Likely at Behest of Rwanda, Reports Say

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A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, last month.
A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, last month.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Two Belgian civilians – a journalist and his wife – were cyberattacked using spyware built by Israel's cyberespionage firm NSO Group, likely by the Rwandan government, Belgium’s military intelligence service has said, according to reports in Belgian media on Friday. 

Two Belgian media outlets, Le Soir and Knack, are currently publishing reports as part of the Pegasus Project. First released in July by a global consortium of journalists, the investigation has shed light on the use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware against journalists in countries like Azerbaijan and Hungary. NSO, meanwhile, denies the findings of the reports and claims that the company is being persecuted.

According to the Belgian reports, Belgium’s ADIV military intelligence service, which answers to the country’s Defense Ministry, has confirmed that two Belgian civilians, the journalist Peter Verlinden and his wife Marie Bamutese were targeted by NSO’s spyware. Verlinden is an African affairs reporter for Belgian public broadcaster VRT. Bamutese is a Rwandan refugee who holds Belgian citizenship.  

The authors of the reports were privy to an official military intelligence document that stated “although the full investigation is still ongoing, the service confirms that these two civilians were most likely attacked with the Pegasus program. Due to the timing of the attack and the victims’ profile, we assess that the attack was carried out by the Rwandan government.”

Verlinden said that in mid-August, he and his wife received a telephone call from the military intelligence service, who asked to scan their cell phones. He said that they agreed, and that towards the end of that month, their iPhones were examined over five days, at the end of which the service concluded that their phones had been infected with Pegasus spyware. Taking into consideration the journalist’s relationship with the Rwandan government, Verlinden said, “we weren’t very surprised.”  

According to the intelligence service, the couple began to be tracked in September and October 2020. At this time, Rwanda was facing international criticism for the arrest of human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, who had saved 1,200 people during the country’s 1994 genocide, as dramatized in the film "Hotel Rwanda." Project Pegasus revealed that Rusesabagina’s home was also targeted by Pegasus spyware.

This marks the second time since Project Pegasus began that a Western intelligence agency has confirmed that journalists had been infected by the spyware. In late July, France’s ANSSI confirmed that the phone of a senior journalist from the France 24 television channel was infected with the program.  

Rwanda is a known client of NSO. The country started using the company’s tools in 2017, months after then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited in July 2016. Israel has increasingly used offensive cyber technology as “diplomatic currency”; Rwanda was tapped as a potential “third country” to take in African refugees seeking asylum in Israel. According to Freedom House, Rwanda is rated as “Not Free.”

In response to the Belgian media’s report, NSO said: “We cannot comment on general assessments by anonymous figures. From the scant information that was presented to us, it seems that there is no connection between the incident and NSO and our technology. If we receive evidence of misuse, we will investigate it, and if such a thing is found, we will use the sanctions at our disposal, including terminating the program.”

The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

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