UAE Targeted Khashoggi's Wife With NSO Spyware Before His Murder, Analysis Finds

A forensic analysis published by the Washington Post phone links an Emirati agency to a hack of Hanan Elatr's phone. NSO, maker of the Pegasus malware, maintains the findings are 'false'

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Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks on his cellphone at the World Economic Forum in 2011
Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks on his cellphone at the World Economic Forum in 2011Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP

The wife of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was targeted with NSO's Pegasus malware in the months before his murder, according to a report published on Tuesday by the Washington Post, pinning the blame on the United Arab Emirates.

According to the report, Hanan Elatr's devices were hacked while she was stopped for questioning regarding Khashoggi, her fiance at the time, at a Dubai airport in 2018.

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Israeli firm NSO continues to deny their software was used to target Elatr, but the researcher who conducted the forensic analysis for the Post called his findings "a smoking gun."

The analysis, performed by University of Toronto research group Citizen Lab, indicates that a UAE governmental agency tried installing the Israeli-made software using a text message just months before Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Citizen Lab was unable to verify whether Pegasus was successfully installed, but said it found no further attempts to install it after the first one, apparently meaning it succeeded. 

The United Arab Emirates is a Saudi ally. Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile, was critical of the Saudi government.

The analysis is based on an examination of Elatr's two phones, which were given back to her by Emirati authorities after her release. The examination was conducted at the behest of the Washington Post and Elatr herself.

After the Post's original story about NSO last July, the company has claimed to have thoroughly checked client records and asserted that none of their clients used the spyware against Khashoggi or Elatr. NSO's chief executive at the time, Shalev Hulio, told the Post, "We checked and she was not a target. There are no traces of Pegasus on her phone because she was not a target.”

The NSO Group's attorney, Thomas Clare, called the latest report "false."

The Washington Post mentioned that the UAE has been one of NSO's most known clients, a claim Abu Dhabi has consistently denied.

In 2018, a Haaretz investigation reported that Israel's NSO offered Saudi intelligence authorities a system to hack cellphones, just months before the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a purge against his opponents.

NSO’s technology allows its clients, usually state intelligence agencies, to remotely hack into cellphones. This includes iPhones, making use of a loophole in Apple’s defenses that was only recently made public.

In past months, world powers have ratcheted up the pressure on spyware companies like the NSO Group, following extensive revelations of how their software was used in a far-reaching crackdown on human rights activism, journalists and political opposition.

In early November the United States put NSO and another Israel offensive cyber firm, Candiru, on its blacklist of companies harming U.S. national interests.

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