Pegasus: Providing Saudi and Emirati Eyes in Iraq

Rami El-Amin
Lebanese Journalist

Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies used Israel’s Pegasus spyware to massively monitor Iraqi ministers, MPs, ambassadors, journalists, activists and even clerics.

This article is part of The Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation coordinated by the Paris-based media institution Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s technical laboratory. The project investigates data linked to the Israeli digital intelligence group NSO, which sells advanced surveillance systems to governments around the world.

80 journalists representing 17 media organizations from around the world, including Daraj, worked to produce this series of investigations.

The first thing that came to mind while reading about the Pegasus spyware sold by the Israeli firm NSO to several Arab regimes was a series of questions: What if Saddam Hussein was still alive? What if such technology had fallen in his hands? How would he use it? How would he turn it into a tool of oppression and fear?

And, as your mouth falls open in amazement over the ability of this “evil” technology to penetrate “smartphones and violate the privacy of its users, you thank your Creator that it never fell into his hands.

But hey … don’t cheer too soon.

For this “evil” technology invented by Israel did end up in the hands of regimes that are very “Baath-like“ in the way they eavesdrop on their own people, enter homes and bedrooms through the microphones and cameras of their smartphones, and record, copy and photograph everything needed to blackmail opponents and maintain loyalty.

Saddam did not have such technology in his time. His spying and eavesdropping tools were primitive compared to what you are reading about now. Today, as some of the most prominent Arab tyrants, from Gaddafi and Ben Ali to Saddam and Hosni Mubarak, have fallen, the Pegasus project reveals a program that we can rightfully call a “weapon of mass electronic destruction,” due to its ability to blow up the firewalls twe believe protect us while using our smartphones.

It is not at all surprising that such eavesdropping devices were also discovered in Iraq. Many Iraqis, especially politicians, security personnel and journalists, believe there are hundreds of “callers” from intelligence services across the world listening in on them.

None of such beliefs were ever proven, but Iraqis mainly suspected the Americans and Iranians, the two sides that have been in open war on Iraqi territory for years. The “highlight” of their war was arguably the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani alongside the second man in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in the first week of 2020. For most Iraqis to learn they are under surveillance will not be shocking.

They lived under Saddam Hussein’s rule until 2003, then under American occupation, then endured the ensuing civil war, and lived through a war against ISIS that still has not ended. The reaction to the news of being watched is often a question: “What’s new?”

The answer to that question may come as a shock. For the Pegasus project reveals an astonishing program in its scope and ability to penetrate phones and eavesdrop on their owners. Once targeted, your phone will fall completely into the hands of those using this very sophisticated and evil technology invented by Israeli company NSO. You will be fully exposed. Your phone is like a time bomb held in your own hands.

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What’s New?

The Pegasus project shows how the Iraqi system, including its most sensitive parts, with the help of the Israeli spyware, is massively exposed to the intelligence agencies linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They put numerous Iraqi public figures under constant electronic surveillance.

Their own mobile phones allowed for a complex eavesdropping process, as well as access to such data as audio recordings, photos, videos, and written messages.

The program is very sophisticated. Arguably even the most seasoned Iraqi security officials were unaware of Pegasus’ ability to infiltrate phones and access content. And that while the targeted person never received a suspicious message or link. Among the Iraqi officials who have fallen victim to the wiretapping scheme, the Pegasus project revealed, was the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, Mustafa Al-Kazemi, before he assumed the post of Prime Minister.

The phone of a senior officer in the Iraqi army, Lieutenant-General Ali Al-Araji, who is currently serving as Secretary of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, was also tapped by a UAE operator for a period of nearly six months. The Israeli company, NSO, targeted the phones of three Iraqi presidents, creating the possibility of eavesdropping and accessing their data.

Various political figures including ministers, parliamentarians, governors, officers, security officials, ambassadors journalists, activists and even clerics, such as Sayyed Ali al-Sistani and Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim, were also targeted between 2017 and 2019, thus subjecting them to potential hacking, according to the leaked information in our possession, which proves the UAE is far more active in Iraq than its Saudi colleague.

Iran in Iraq under Surveillance

Interestingly, the advanced eavesdrop program did not use Saudi Arabia and the UAE to eavesdrop on Iranian phone numbers within Iran for reasons that seem related to an Israeli veto or an Israeli desire to be the one and only in wiretapping Iran. However, a remarkable large number of Iraqi figures related or close to Iran featured on the list of program objectives.

Among them Iraqi politicians who are allies of Iran, prominent PMF leaders, militia leaders loyal to Iran, journalists working in media close to Iran, as well as Iranian diplomats, including the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, whose phone was targeted by the UAE for several days in late 2018. The Iranian consulates in Basra and Najaf, and its employees, were targeted too.

The already mentioned Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the PMF and commander of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, who was assassinated alongside Soleimani by an American drone on January 7, 2020, was also targeted. A few months before his assassination, two phones linked to him were wiretapped by Saudi Arabia.

The leaked list includes other high-ranking PMF figures, including Qassem Musleh, the man arrested for killing demonstrators and activists, before being released on grounds of “inadequate evidence.” Musleh was subjected to an attempt to target his phone, by the UAE, between mid-2017 and mid-2019, that is, for two whole years. The UAE also attempted to target Thamer Al-Tamimi, which may suggest that his phone was subjected to monitoring between mid-2018 and mid-2019.

Saudi Arabia did the same with Faleh al-Fayyad, head of the Popular Mobilization Authority from 2014 to 2018. His phone was targeted in 2019.

In more than one place in the leaks, the name of former minister and current MP Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr organization, who is affiliated with the PMF brigades, appears. More than one phone number belonging to him or those close to him were placed under the possibility of monitoring.

The name Hassan Al-Sari (Abu Mujtaba), Secretary-General of the Jihad and Construction Movement (JCM), was also listed. His phone was wiretapped by the UAE for two consecutive years. Same is true Ahmed Al-Asadi, the JCM’s current deputy, who was targeted in 2017. In 2019, he became an official PMF spokesperson. This may indicate that the UAE, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, were able to hear even the softest whispers of some of the most prominent PMF officials on Iraqi soil.

The leaked information also included phone numbers of journalists and activists believed to have been wiretapped by Pegasus. Among the numbers we were able to verify was the one belonging to Iraqi journalist Faris Al-Mahdawi, who at the time was a reporter for the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel.

His phone was targeted by an Emirati operator. Al-Mahdawi left Al-Arabiya and now works for the American Al-Hurra channel in Baghdad Among the other journalists targeted is Sayyed Hamid, a correspondent for the Asia satellite channel, which is close to Iran. He too was targeted by an Emirati operator for over two years.

Kurdistan on the Pegasus Map

NSO and its two cherished clients take into account sectarian and ethnic diversity. They truly respect all components of Iraqi society, as in the leaks we also found many Kurdish numbers.

The most prominent numbers listed belong to current Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, son of the Kurdistan region’s former president Massoud Barzani. His phone was exposed to the possibility of being targeted by the UAE for about a year and a half. Those close to him, including one of his main security advisers, Hamdi Sinjari, were also subjected to a possible eavesdropping campaign, by the same party.

The leaked information includes many more Kurdish personalities. We could not verify all of them, but they are mostly active in public affairs, politics, security and media.

Media organizations participating in the “Pegasus Leaks”:

Forbidden Stories – Le Monde- Suddeutsche Zeitung -Die Zeit – Washington Post – The Guardian -Daraj – Direkt36 – Le Soir – Knack-Radio France – The Wire – Proceso – Aristeui Noticias – OCCRP- Haaretz – PBS Frontline

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