'I know why Jamal was killed': Saudi activist in Canada says hacked phones led to Jamal Khashoggi's murder
Omar Abdulaziz is still calling for justice for Khashoggi’s assassination and is giving young Saudis a voice
For months, Omar Abdulaziz was racked with guilt over the murder of his friend and fellow activist Jamal Khashoggi.
"I know why Jamal was killed. It's because of me," he says in The Dissident, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye.
The film looks at the killing of the Saudi journalist and the Saudi Arabian government's alleged efforts to quash its critics and evade accountability for its crimes. It's directed by Academy Award–winning director Bryan Fogel.
'You're not just a journalist — you're a dissident'
Abdulaziz's story of activism is woven throughout the documentary, providing intimate insight into Khashoggi's final months and the events that preceded his murder.
Abdulaziz recounts how he sought asylum in Canada in 2014 after comments he made online drew the Saudi government's attention. As a Saudi dissident living in Montreal, he went on to build large Twitter and YouTube followings for his outspoken criticism of the regime.
Khashoggi and Abdulaziz first contacted each other in 2017, he says, while they were both living in self-imposed exile. And in 2018, Abdulaziz enlisted the journalist's support for a new project.
The Saudi government had hired an army of Twitter trolls, he says in the film. They were believed to be headed by Saud al-Qahtani, then a close adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS). Known as "the flies" among activists, they were charged with stifling dissent in the Saudi Twittersphere, amplifying government propaganda and swarming critics with abuse.
Abdulaziz proposed a plan to fight back against the flies: creating his own legion of volunteers, each using two or three phones to manage hundreds of Twitter accounts. Dubbed "the bees," they would organize to protect specific tweets or hashtags from the flies, rising above the Saudi government's propaganda machine and promoting free speech inside the kingdom. Khashoggi agreed to help fund the effort.
In the film, Abdulaziz recalls warning him: "Once you start working with us, it's completely another game. You're not just a journalist — you're a dissident."
Jamal Khashoggi: from trusted insider to outspoken in exile
For many years, Khashoggi was considered a trusted Saudi royal family insider — well-practised at walking the line of what could, and could not, be said in the kingdom. The Arab Spring marked a turning point in his career, the film suggests; he was inspired by the protesters who were taking on authoritarians in Egypt and elsewhere.
But soon, anti-democratic counter-revolutions broke out, and according to his former colleagues, Khashoggi believed it was Saudi wealth backing these counter-revolutions. Khashoggi became more publicly outspoken and critical of the Saudi monarchy, particularly as it was silencing opposing opinions.
By mid-2017, Saudi activists and thought-makers were being rounded up and jailed, spurring Khashoggi to flee the country. But after settling in Washington, D.C., he continued to write.
Ultimately, his disagreement with the policies of the Crown Prince, published from self-imposed exile in outlets like the Washington Post, branded him as a traitor to the regime — and is believed to have led to his murder.
The Dissident recounts how a 15-man hit squad was allegedly sent to Istanbul to kill and dismember Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2, 2018.
In November, the Washington Post reported that the C.I.A. had assessed with high confidence that MBS himself ordered the operation to kill Khashoggi. "Everything suggests that the Crown Prince must be investigated," notes Agnès Callamard, the former UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in the film. "Even though, so far, he hasn't."
Abdulaziz's family and friends were being jailed back home
In The Dissident, Abdulaziz recounts how two Saudi agents and one of his brothers came to Montreal in March of 2018 in an apparent bid to return him to the kingdom. After he refused, Abdulaziz learned that two of his brothers and more than 20 of his friends had been arrested and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.
"I spent the next few weeks counting how many people they arrested, how many people they jailed, trying to figure out what happened to my beloved ones," he tells the CBC. "It was really a mess."
Around that same time, Abdulaziz was contacted by researchers at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab. While investigating the global use of Pegasus spyware, developed by surveillance company NSO Group, they were able to confirm that Abdulaziz's phone had been hacked, allowing access to his call logs, contacts and messages. And they had a high degree of confidence that the Saudi government or its security agencies were likely responsible.
Then, on Oct. 2, 2018, one day after Citizen Lab published a report detailing how Abdulaziz had been targeted with Pegasus, Jamal Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi government 'had everything'
After Khashoggi was killed, Abdulaziz put the pieces together. He was certain that the hack, which exposed his conversations with the journalist and others, had triggered the wave of horrific events that had engulfed him in the preceding months.
"By hacking my phone, [the Saudi government] have everything," he says in the film. "Everything. They knew that Jamal was communicating with activists and dissidents. They knew that he funded us."
"That's why Jamal was killed," says Abdulaziz. "That's why a group of my friends and brothers were arrested — dozens of them."
The thought plunged Abdulaziz into a dark place. "I don't know how I passed through these things. Honestly, I have no idea," he tells the CBC. "You know … I do believe that there is a God and he did his work … because the guilt was killing me by that time."
In July of 2021, journalists from an international consortium of news outlets reported that several other people close to Khashoggi had been identified as potential surveillance targets by NSO Group clients, which reportedly included the Saudis, before and after his death. Khashoggi's fiancé, journalist Hatice Cengiz, reportedly had her own phone hacked with Pegasus spyware only four days after the murder. NSO Group has denied its technology was associated with Khashoggi's murder.
The consortium also reported the numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as other politicians, human rights defenders and journalists from 50 countries had been selected by NSO clients as potential targets for surveillance.
'We have to keep speaking about what happened to Jamal'
Abdulaziz tells the CBC he has been disappointed in the Canadian government for its "weak" response to the evidence that suggests he was hacked and surveilled by Saudi agents. He has since sought justice on his own, filing a lawsuit against NSO Group.
To date, calls to hold accountable all the alleged authors of Khashoggi's brutal murder remain. In 2018, the United States and Canada sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals linked to the assassination. In early 2021, the Biden administration added to that list. But while a Saudi court convicted eight people implicated in assassination in a closed trial, the film notes that three top officials — including Saud al-Qahtani — were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The Crown Prince himself has also not been sanctioned by the international community, even after a 2019 report released by Callamard concluded that Khashoggi's death constituted "an extrajudicial killing for which the state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible."
The U.S. government has also since made public an intelligence report that concluded that MBS had "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi." The Saudi government has denied the Crown Prince's involvement, attributing the murder to a rogue group.
Abdulaziz calls the U.S. report's release "a good start," but adds that "we have to keep speaking about what happened to Jamal." He believes keeping the spotlight on the Saudi government may dissuade them from committing similar crimes and pressure them "to not go and torture every single dissident and activist and critic back … in Saudi Arabia."
Since Khashoggi's death, Abdulaziz has thrown himself back into activism, but the price has been steep. His brothers and friends remain in prison. One of his brothers has been tortured. He can't communicate with anyone in his family, but he refuses to be silenced.
Abdulaziz posts new videos to YouTube regularly. His channel currently has approximately 327,000 subscribers, and he estimates 75 per cent of his audience is in Saudi Arabia, where he says there is a real thirst for free expression. "People are suffocated in Saudi Arabia. They cannot breathe," he tells the CBC.
He is still pursuing "the bees" project, inspired by how many people are willing to participate. "Thousands of young people in Saudi Arabia and other countries, they're trying their best to be involved ... and they want to have a voice." But he remains worried about those tweeting from inside the kingdom, who risk being jailed or disappearing if they're identified. He is encouraging anyone looking to help the cause to use fake names and anonymous accounts.
Abdulaziz has also joined forces with other prominent activists and scholars, many of whom also live in exile, forming a new Saudi political party called the National Assembly Party, the first organized resistance during King Salman's rule. "We want to tell our people that it's our right to practice politics, to form political parties, to have more freedom in the country."
In spite of everything he's been through, Abdulaziz says he's hopeful that he'll see this transformation happen in his lifetime. But, he admits, "we have a very long journey."
Watch The Dissident on The Passionate Eye.