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Behind The Suspected Saudi Arabian Hacking Of Jeff Bezos' Phone


This week, a U.N. investigation revealed that the Saudi crown prince was likely behind the hacking of Jeff Bezos' phone. Bezos is not only CEO of Amazon. He's also owner of The Washington Post. Now we're going to talk with one of the men at the center of the investigation.

Iyad el-Baghdadi has been a critic and a target of the Saudi regime. He was friends with Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at a Saudi Consulate in 2018, the same year Bezos' phone was hacked.

El-Baghdadi joins us now from Norway, where he lives.


IYAD EL-BAGHDADI: Hi. Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: I understand your first hint that the Saudis were out to get Jeff Bezos came from your monitoring of social media. Tell us about what you saw.

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, my little team actually does a lot of monitoring of Saudi disinformation networks and what the propaganda output that they put out over there is. And we noticed in October and November, after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, that there is a concentrated campaign against Jeff Bezos, really also tying amazon.com to The Washington Post and calling for a boycott of amazon.com based upon The Washington Post's reporting.

SHAPIRO: Their coverage of the Khashoggi killing.

EL-BAGHDADI: Their coverage of the Khashoggi killing.

SHAPIRO: So these Saudi disinformation networks are attacking Jeff Bezos for The Washington Post coverage, and then the National Enquirer reveals that Jeff Bezos is having an affair. And what did those Saudi disinformation outlets start to say?

EL-BAGHDADI: So there - we see activity then essentially saying he had it coming, kind of saying this is what happens to those who stand against Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: And was that a light bulb moment for you?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, honestly, I did not notice it then. I actually did not put two and two together until Jeff Bezos, about a month later, revealed that he's being blackmailed.

SHAPIRO: And at that point, I understand you started working with Jeff Bezos' security team. Is that right?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, that's when we put out whatever information we had about the disinformation attacks. And two days later, we were contacted by Gavin de Becker, who was tasked by Jeff Bezos to actually investigate what happened. And we started coordinating back-and-forth to actually get to the bottom of this.

SHAPIRO: What did Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have to gain from this hack and subsequent blackmail of Jeff Bezos?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, apparently, initially, it seems to have been an attempt to pressure him to curb The Washington Post's coverage. And after that, it became really a matter of revenge, really, a matter of punishing him. Unfortunately, with Mohammed bin Salman, we're not dealing with a rational actor. I mean, this all sounds really crazy. But also, it's crazy to actually lure a journalist to your own consulate and then kill him and dismember his body.

SHAPIRO: The Saudis have denied the U.N. report. They call the allegations absurd. What makes you certain that this investigation is accurate?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, a few things - first of all, this was all about The Washington Post. You have Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi writing article after article calling for more openness, calling for free speech and calling for less repression in his native country. This became a problem for Mohammed bin Salman. There is a clear motive here. The forensic report really was kind of the final nail in the coffin that actually showed us that not only did they have the motivation, but they also had the means.

SHAPIRO: You've been very clear that you're trying to shine an unflattering light on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Why is that important to you?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, just like all dictators, Mohammed bin Salman is actually very aware of his legitimacy deficit. It is very important to him to present himself as a reformer, to present himself as someone who has a positive vision for his country and who is making positive changes. This is very important for dictators in general, but especially for MBS, being a young, dynamic prince who is actually not very experienced and doesn't know a lot about the world.

This is caught up in all of the repression because the more dictators are empowered, the more they feel that their legitimacy is beyond question, the more repressive they become. When you empower dictators, that's what they do.

SHAPIRO: Iyad el-Baghdadi is an activist and critic of Saudi Arabia speaking with us from his home in Norway.

Thank you.

EL-BAGHDADI: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.