Bee stung: Was Jamal Khashoggi the first casualty in a Saudi cyberwar?

Bel Trew

Jamal Khashoggi was at the heart of an “online army” of Saudi activists fighting a misinformation cyberwar, according to friends who fear he may have been targeted because of his support.

Mr Khashoggi, who was confirmed dead by Saudi state TV more than two weeks after he was last seen entering the country's consulate in Istanbul, recently gave $5,000 (£3,800) to “Geish al-Nahla” or the Bee Army, an opposition movement offering cyber protection to Saudi activists needing a safe platform to speak out in the oppressive Kingdom.

It is the brainchild of Mr Khashoggi’s friend Omar Abdulaziz, 27, a Canada-based Saudi activist, who claims he was also targeted with a plan to make him disappear. Saudi Arabia did not respond to requests about Mr Abdulaziz .

The revelations come amid reports by experts of a massive increase in both the activity and presence of pro-Saudi automated Twitter accounts since Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2. These bot or troll accounts, which activists believe may be linked to the regime, have threatened Mr Khashoggi’s supporters and tried to replace Twitter hashtags about his vanishing, with ones praising Saudi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mr Abdulaziz, who has claimed asylum in Canada, told The Independent the regime had tapped his phone and so knew of Mr Khashoggi’s involvement. Other members in the 600-strong “Bee movement” also believe Mr Khashoggi was targeted because he had helped them.

“Part of what made [the regime] angry with Jamal was because he was specifically working on this project targeting social media. He was the one who was funding us,” Mr Abdulaziz said.

“Since 2016 the Saudi government started to create these bots that have been behind an online propaganda drive targeting us.

“Jamal and I and a group of our friends, said we have to stop this,” he continued.

Mr Abdulaziz claimed he was targeted by a similar plan to disappear him in May when prominent Saudi figures tried to lure him to his embassy in Canada. When he refused to go he was targeted by spyware in an email which tracked his phone calls, after which he was told to stop his online activism. He claims his two younger brothers and eight friends were then arrested to further intimidate him.

“[The regime] tried to get me to go to the Saudi embassy when I refused they arrested my brothers and friends, they hacked my phone, they vanished Jamal. It’s crazy,” Mr Abdulaziz said.

After repeatedly denying any involvement in the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, Saudi state TV reported on Friday that the journalist died after a fight with the people who met him in the consulate on Ocotber 2.

Saudi’s government controlled al-Akhbariya television - quoting the results of the preliminary investigation from the nation's public prosecutor - said Mr Khashoggi died unintentionally during a “fist fight” with people who “met him during his presence at the consulate”. However, it did not disclose where his remains were taken.

It is the first time Saudi officials have admitted the journalist is dead, having initially claimed Mr Khashoggi had left the consulate after a visit on 2 October. The last time The Washington Post columnist was seen alive was entering the diplomatic residence.

Saudis announced that King Salman has dismissed deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al Assiri and Crown Prince Salman’s nearest adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, who oversees the kingdom’s communications strategy and is believed to be the brains behind its pro-government “troll army.”

Saudi media also reported that 18 more suspects have been arrested and remain under investigation in connection to Mr Khashoggi’s death.

Leaks from the Turkish investigators allege he was brutally tortured to death during a botched interrogation spearheaded by a 15-man hit squad, who then disposed of his body.

Turkish forensic officers arrive at the Saudi consulate to conduct a new search over the disappearance and alleged slaying of writer Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, early Thursday. (AP)

But the Kingdom, one of the west’s closest allies, is fast becoming a global pariah. Dozens of banks, economists, media corporations and politicians, including US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, have pulled out of Saudi’s investment summit next week as more revelations about the Kingdom’s brutal crackdown on dissent have emerged.

Activists now fear Mr Khashoggi was targeted because he had joined the Bee Army in an attempt to consolidate the opposition.

On 21 September Mr Khashoggi made a public, albeit cryptic, declaration of support for the movement. Using the Bee Army’s first tentative hashtag “what do you know about bees” he tweeted “They love their home country and defend it with truth and rights,” which got liked and retweeted nearly a 1000 times.

“He wrote a lot critically before in newspapers but it was only when we started to organise the opposition [with the Bee movement] that [the regime] got upset,” Mr Abdulaziz said.

The 27-year-old said he too was targeted and has not spoken to any relatives since August when he claimed two younger brothers were arrested and tortured because he refused to give up the Bee project.

“I have no idea what is happening to my family,” Mr Abdulaziz added.

He wrote a lot critically before in newspapers but it was only when we started to organise the opposition that they got upset

Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist

Fellow “Bee” Abdulaziz al-Almoayyad, another Saudi dissident in exile, agreed.

“[The regime] is most afraid of the people working together. It always touches their buttons. And Jamal was important,” he said.

Mr Almoayyad explained that the Bee Army was designed to help people living in Saudi Arabia and other oppressive regimes in the Middle East, a safe platform to speak out.

In Saudi, traditional media is heavily policed by the authorities. Social media is one of the few venues left to speak out or access information that might counter the state line.

“If people write any opinion or information on Twitter the government will know who they are, even if they use an alias,” Mr Almoayyad said.

The Bee Army gave people a “safe alternative” by teaching them how to use encrypted browsers and virtual private networks (VPNs).

“We also give them phone numbers so they can safely activate an anonymous Twitter account. By doing that we gave Saudi activists a safe way to express themselves,” he added.

While the activists have stepped up their activity online so have the pro-regime side, which has purchased software to create “armies” of trolls, according to Marc Owen Jones, a lecturer in the history of the Gulf Arabian Peninsula at Exeter University.

Dr Jones, who has monitored Saudi bots for two years, said he has seen a massive surge in pro-regime Twitter activity, and the creation of troll accounts, since Mr Khashoggi went missing.

“There was such a huge spike in October in bot accounts and the use of the hashtags praising the crown prince, it’s absurd,” he said.

“There are points where on some days there are 10s of 1000s of tweets from Saudi bots or trolls in Arabic,” he added.

He said the hashtag announcing Mr Khashoggi’s “kidnapping” disappeared from the list of top trends in Saudi Arabia after just a few hours, implying an army of trolls had worked to deliberately bury it.

“In its place were banal hashtags,” he explained.

One of them was the nonsensical “the kidnapping of ants and cockroaches” which Bee Army members believe was deliberately designed to confuse Twitter’s algorithms and intimidate activists.

In Arabic, it appears fairly similar to the original hashtag “the kidnapping of Jamal Khashoggi” and quickly began trending in Saudi. Activists said the troll accounts that used the hashtag were tweeting it at them with violent threats and images of torture intended to terrify people out of tweeting about Mr Khashoggi.

Dr Jones said that some of the Saudi organisations he believes to be behind the most prolific creation of automatic accounts have purchased specific software to help them. One of them is Saudi 24, a Saudi news outlet that boasted millions of Twitter followers until it was suspended by Twitter on Thursday.

There was such a huge spike in October in bot accounts and the use of the hashtags praising the Crown Prince, it’s absurd

Marc Owen Jones, lecturer on the Gulf at Exeter University

By following the metadata from the bots Dr Jones traced a lot of these accounts back to an Alexandria-based Egyptian programmer called Ali Mohammed Saleh, who has publicly advertised software designed to create Twitter accounts automatically.

On Mr Saleh’s page, which includes links to Saudi 24’s Twitter account, he also advertised software that allowed him to automate dozens more “new sites” that are designed to look like credible new agencies.

Many of these accounts have been behind tweets and pieces trying to drown out criticism of Saudi Arabia with praise of the crown prince. They have also published content discrediting Mr Khashoggi by saying he was a traitor, an Islamist or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"In Saudi it is almost certain there is some sort of troll farm. It would be naive not to assume this," he said.

I’ve seen increased suspicious activity since Khashoggi was disappeared,” he added.