• World

‘Saudi Arabia Wants to Stop My Work.’ Activists Are Facing New Threats For Continuing Jamal Khashoggi’s Efforts

14 minute read

On April 25, two men from the Norwegian Police Security Service knocked on Iyad el-Baghdadi’s door in the capital, Oslo. The bearded, bespectacled activist is sometimes confused with his political opposite, the ISIS leader of the same name. (His Twitter page announces, Not that Baghdadi.) But the men at the door were there for a different kind of danger. The officers flashed their badges and got to the point: Baghdadi’s life, they told him, could be at risk. They urged him to come with them right away.

Followed by a second team watching for tails, Baghdadi was driven by the officers to a safe location with an electronically shielded room where the agents told the longtime democracy activist what was going on. In recent months, Baghdadi has continued the fight begun by Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered on Oct. 2 by a hit team from Riyadh. Now the CIA had warned the Norwegians that Baghdadi was in danger, he and officials in Norway and the U.S. tell TIME. “Saudi Arabia wants to stop my work, even if they need to get physical to do it,” Baghdadi says.

He is not alone. In recent weeks, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials have sent out similar warnings to Arab activists in Canada and the U.S., two people who received them and other sources familiar with the matter tell TIME. Dissidents based in Europe, the Middle East and North America are nervously exchanging warnings about hacking attempts—and worse. A troubling picture has emerged: eight months after Khashoggi’s death, the fight for political free speech he championed against the autocratic Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rages on.

The fight is about more than just a group of exiled dissidents standing up against one Middle Eastern tyrant. Some experts in national security view the unfolding battle as part of a larger, defining war of our time: the contest for control of information. “What’s happening in Saudi Arabia today is seen by an increasing number of governments around the world as a road map for how the future will look,” says Bill Marczak of Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity and human-rights investigative project at the University of Toronto.

Iyad Baghdadi
Iyad Baghdadi From asylum in Norway, the Arab sping activist presses on with projects to undo autocrats’ malign influence in both social and traditional mediaOle Berg-Rusten—AFP/Getty Images

That helps explain why the Saudi threats have drawn the attention of international authorities. The U.N. official charged with investigating and reporting extrajudicial executions, Agnès Callamard, has called for urgent action to protect the safety of individuals she says are directly threatened by Riyadh. “I have sent appeals to two governments regarding information I had received of credible threats against individuals in their jurisdictions,” Callamard tells TIME, “asking them to take all necessary steps to protect them and their families.” Callamard says she wants “all governments” to be on the lookout for similar, unreported threats. In the U.S., House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff tells TIME his committee is investigating the latest Saudi threats and will “consider what actions the U.S. should take in response.”

The new threats illuminate Khashoggi’s extraordinary legacy. He started his dissident effort hesitantly, a review of text messages and other communications made available to TIME reveals. By the fall of 2018, when he traveled to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to make arrangements for his upcoming marriage, Khashoggi was discreetly but deeply involved in projects involving a loose network of pro-democracy and human-rights activists around the globe, including Baghdadi and others.

It was in Istanbul that the Saudi death squad lay in wait, but if Khashoggi’s horrific murder was intended to cow other activists, it had the opposite effect. “The attention that was given to Jamal’s case definitely reignited the hope for a lot of Arab dissidents to just be more active, in general,” said Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American human-rights activist and a Khashoggi friend who spent nearly two years in a Cairo prison. “It gave people so much more courage to be more outspoken.”

The dissidents’ projects have endeavored to reclaim social media—especially Twitter, the most influential public forum in the Saudi political universe—as an open space for political dissent. Authoritarians like the crown prince fight back with electronic surveillance and domination of social media. Experts at detecting spyware infections in mobile phones report “a new wave of suspicious occurrences among Saudi activists that are not easily explained other than by the presence of hacking or surveillance,” says Marczak, who works with Saudi dissidents.

Authorities now worry that MBS, as the crown prince is known, is stepping up his counterattack, despite the U.S. having publicly judged him as almost certainly responsible for Khashoggi’s death. A similar warning to the one given Baghdadi was passed through the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police regarding the Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who worked with Khashoggi, three sources familiar with the episode tell TIME. Abdulaziz says he has been instructed not to discuss his situation, but that he recently began taking security precautions.

Omar Abdulaziz
Omar Abdulaziz The Saudi dissident, who has asylum in Canada, joined forces with Khashoggi to undermine Saudi digitial surveillance and harassment, especially on TwitterFranßois Ollivier—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Baghdadi says he was warned his family was in danger as well. “It seems that I am physically safe in Norway but that I am vulnerable if I travel, says Baghdadi. “My family resides in Malaysia; they are refugees, my parents and sister. They said don’t go there. Don’t travel outside the E.U. And tell them to get out immediately.”

Khashoggi, for his part, saw it coming. “The message is clear,” he wrote in one of his final columns on the Saudi tyrant. “No independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed.”

Few would have guessed, when Khashoggi arrived in Washington in June 2017, that the war would reach this point. Khashoggi didn’t fit the stereotype of a high-living Saudi expatriate. His only new blazer was from Men’s Wearhouse (he declined the deep discount for the second one that came with it). He lugged around a thermos for his strong, home-brewed coffee and waited a year to buy a car. He worked from his condo in a nondescript Virginia suburb he had taken a shine to a decade earlier when he was a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy.

Even in exile, Khashoggi remained an establishment figure. He had left Saudi Arabia abruptly, after a critical jab at the Riyadh government for its embrace of Donald Trump cost him his column at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. But he was not in the business of defying the royal court. He told friends that his plan was to stick to the sidelines, writing policy stories about the region as a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington. But the fellowship fell through after a visa complication, and there was no plan B. “Need a job,” Khashoggi messaged longtime friend Maggie Mitchell Salem, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer. “I might start writing.”

What followed, in the final 15 months of his life, were dramatic changes, both in the journalist and in the Saudi establishment he had carefully challenged but always served. The changes in attitude were recorded almost in real time in some 4,000 WhatsApp text messages shared with TIME by Salem, a friend of 15 years. The texts track Khashoggi’s initial reluctance to assume the role of dissenter; his growing determination to speak out on behalf of fellow Saudis; and a queasy knowledge of the growing risk to his family, if not to himself. “God have mercy on my kids, it’s a turning point for me,” he typed on Sept. 17, 2017, after the Post said it would run his first column.

Having navigated the House of Saud his entire career, Khashoggi began his self-imposed exile assuming that constructive criticism remained the best, if not only, way of coaxing change. At first, he obeyed the government’s order to stay off Twitter. Attacking MBS personally would brand him a dissident and outsider, rendering him less influential. “I don’t want to appear like I’m picking on him,” Khashoggi argued in one text. Later he added, “It’s a balancing act.”

It wasn’t easy. On Nov. 4, 2017, he was headed to the Kennedy Center to see The Book of Mormon when he heard the crown prince was rounding up senior government officials and princes. “Skipping play, have to write something,” he messaged hastily, “it’s a seismic event for Saudi.” But after composing a sharply critical column, he then tweeted apparent support for the crackdown. He conceded that MBS’s “justice is selective, but as a realest [sic] I accept it.”

The nuance was wasted on MBS. Beginning in March 2018, the crown prince would spend weeks touring the U.S. in a charm offensive meant to rebrand the desert kingdom as a startup worthy of Western investment. But to Saudis, he showed an iron fist, jailing scores of advocates and independent thinkers, including female activists who supported his most famous reform, allowing Saudi women to drive.

The kingdom policed Twitter with a particular zeal. The platform is the closest thing the kingdom has to a town square, and bin Salman was determined to control it as the state had long controlled newspapers and television. His government employed an army of trolls to shout down dissident voices. Long before his name surfaced in connection with Khashoggi’s death, on the receiving end of phone calls from his killers, the crown prince’s media enforcer, Saud al-Qahtani, issued public threats against Twitter dissenters: “Add every name you think should be added to #The_Black_List using the hashtag,” he tweeted. “We will filter them and track them starting now.”

Khashoggi had a Twitter following of 1.7 million, and by early 2018 he was increasingly critical of MBS. The combination triggered a torrent of retorts from what Khashoggi and others viewed as state-controlled troll farms. “I hate them for doing this,” he wrote to Salem, “but, it’s ok.” There came a point, however, when it was no longer O.K. “I’m losing hope,” he wrote in a June 26 message. “He’s getting uglier.” On Aug. 6 he confided to Salem that because of “Arab tyranny that’s spreading I’m willing to go [a] step beyond.”

By then, Khashoggi was working with both Abdulaziz and Baghdadi. The activists saw Khashoggi as a game changer. Abdulaziz, 28, had been a critic of the Saudi government since his college days in Montreal, where he took to YouTube and Twitter to weigh in on the Arab Spring. He says the Saudi government revoked his scholarship, and in 2014 Canada gave him political asylum. A McKinsey & Co. report judged his Twitter account one of the three most influential in forming opinion of a Saudi public policy.

That made him a target. His Twitter account, like Khashoggi’s, was attacked by the swarming trolls and bots that served to undermine both their message and their morale. Their solution was to create a swarm of their own: the Bees Army. “It is an army, a peaceful one in the social media to counter the Saudi trolls and the propaganda,” Abdulaziz says. The effort involved sending foreign SIM cards to Saudi dissidents to thwart tracking.

It was only one of the projects Khashoggi embraced in the spring and summer of 2018. Making the rounds of dissenting voices in the Arab world, the journalist managed to overcome his reputation as an establishment loyalist. He spent hours one on one, often over tea or a cigar, discussing how to win back the public square. Among those he met with in this period was Baghdadi.

Palestinian by birth, Baghdadi had become a major figure in the Arab Spring, finding asylum in Norway after being expelled from the UAE, a Saudi ally. With Khashoggi and a third person who has recently been warned of a Saudi threat, but who has asked to remain anonymous because of safety concerns, Baghdadi began work on an institute devoted to monitoring and exposing the abuse of social media, especially Twitter, by repressive Arab governments. The institute, the Kawaakibi Foundation, is named for a 19th century Arab free-speech advocate. Baghdadi also founded ArabTyrantManual.com, an investigative outlet.

Khashoggi brought gravitas to dissident circles. He also brought the promise of funds, through connections he had made over decades. “People trusted him,” says Soltan, the Egyptian human-rights advocate. “He could reach former VPs and Prime Ministers and current Foreign Ministers with a phone call,” Soltan says, and that “was huge.”

The growing network posed a problem for the Saudi regime, and it took steps to fight back, the dissidents say. On June 28, a notification popped up on a phone owned by Abdulaziz, purporting to alert him to a package delivery. The link embedded in the pop-up led to a domain that would insert spyware called Pegasus, a product of the Israeli company NSO Group, which sells surveillance software to governments, including the Saudis, according to Abdulaziz, a lawsuit he and others filed against NSO and an analysis by Citizen Lab.

Abdulaziz went public with this hacking news in August, warning his confederates that the Saudis might know what the dissidents were doing. “God help us,” Khashoggi replied, according to Abdulaziz. In the weeks after, however, Khashoggi continued work on the projects. He got a visa to visit Abdulaziz in Montreal and made plans to meet Baghdadi at a conference in New York. On Sept. 7, Khashoggi sent word that he could not make it. He would go to Istanbul instead. Citizen Lab published a report on the Abdulaziz hack on Oct. 1, the day before Khashoggi was killed.

Khashoggi’s murder backfired on the Saudis. In a matter of hours, MBS went from smiling reformer to pariah. Baghdadi and Abdulaziz recommitted to their work, becoming prominent backers of a boycott of the Saudi “Davos in the Desert” conference scheduled just days after Khashoggi’s murder. But activists everywhere were energized. “They came together after his death,” Abdulaziz says. The Saudi embassy did not return multiple calls requesting comment for this story.

Baghdadi took on new projects. He worked with investigators hired by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, to uncover what they allege was the hacking of Bezos’ mobile phone by the Saudis, according to Bezos’ lead investigator, Gavin de Becker. “It’s not [just] that I was outspoken against MBS,” Baghdadi says.

But the fight for political free speech is as important as any battle in the larger war. “We are working on taking away his primary propaganda weapon,” Baghdadi says of MBS. The challenge, of course, is that the crown prince has other weapons too, and appears willing to use them. That was the judgment of the CIA, which has a “duty to warn” targets of violence when it comes across information indicating harm may come to them.

For Baghdadi’s part, the first warning came months earlier. He says it was in October that he heard from someone in the Saudi government, who wanted to pass on information he had learned in the palace. “He says, ‘Listen,’” Baghdadi recalls, “‘they’re preparing the list of people who are affecting MBS’s reputation in the global sphere, in the English-language media. And you’re near the top of the list.’”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com