Pegasus Project international updates: French President calls Israeli PM to seek action, Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. allegedly snoop on their allies

FRENCH President Emmanuel Macron had reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last weekend over the alleged snooping of his personal number. North African nation Morocco is alleged to have put Macron under surveillance using the spyware Pegasus, developed by Israeli firm NSO Group.

Macron reportedly expressed his concerns and asked Bennett to ensure that the issue is properly investigated by his government. Bennett is said to have assured the president that the matter shall be looked into. He further told Macron that the allegations are from his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure. This news was reported by Israel’s Channel 12.

Taking up the issue seriously, Macron has earlier called a national security meeting to discuss the measures to prevent such surveillance in the future. It is also reported that he had changed his number after his name popped up on the list.

Meanwhile, Chaim Gelfand, Chief Compliance Officer at NSO Group denied the reports that Macron’s number was snooped upon, saying, “We can specifically come out and say for sure that the President of France, Macron, was not a target.”

A task force is being constituted by the Israeli government to manage the fallout from the revelations of selling the spyware to authoritarian regimes. A team including representatives from the Defence Ministry, Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Military Intelligence, and external intelligence agency Mossad will investigate the required “policy changes” regarding exporting the spyware to foreign governments.

Shalev Hulio, NSO Chief Executive welcomed the move, telling Israeli radio network Army Radio that the group would be “pleased if there were an investigation so that we’d be able to clear our name.”

The NSO group is known to have close relations with the Israeli government. Most of the employees of the tech firm are former Israeli cyber-intelligence officials. The exports of the company are strictly regulated by the Defence Exports Controls Agency, a department within Israel’s Ministry of Defence, and are allowed to only certain “friendly countries”.

Also Read: An explainer on the Pegasus Spyware

Saudi Arabia and UAE allegedly snooped on Prime Ministers, ministers, clerics of allied countries

 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) allegedly snooped on their allies in the region, according to the latest reports released under the Project Pegasus. The countries on their target list included Iraq, Yemen and Egypt.

The targets allegedly monitored by U.A.E. in Iraq include the incumbent Prime Minister, many ministers, bureaucrats, journalists and even clerics. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, is the most prominent person on the list. He was snooped upon when he was the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, before becoming head of the state in 2020.

Lieutenant-General Ali Al-Araji, who is currently serving as Secretary of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence was on the list for six months. Senior Shia clerics of Iraq such as Sayyid Ali al-Sistani and Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim were also targeted between 2017 and 2019.

Saudi Arabia has been the arch-rival of Iran in the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution which brought Shia Cleric Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Saudi Arabia, being a Sunni majority country, sees Shia-dominated Iran as its enemy. Their enmity also finds its root in the race to dominate crude oil in the region.

Saudi Arabia allegedly snooped on Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy head of the Popular Mobilization forces (PMF), a group of 40 Iraqi militias loyal to Iran. His two contact numbers were under surveillance before his assassination at Baghdad Airport. He was assassinated alongside Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite special operation force, the Quds Force, by an American drone on January 7, 2020. The incident almost brought the US and Iran on the verge of war. Iran finally retaliated by firing over a dozen ballistic missiles on American military bases in Iraq.

Yemen has been a battleground for the demonstration of power by Saudi Arabia and Iran. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. led the “Arab coalition” launched ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, a military campaign to support the legitimacy of the Yemeni government headed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The leaked data now suggests that President Hadi himself was snooped on by the U.A.E. along with his ministers and children. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr, whose term in office lasted for more than two years till 2018, was also on the list. He was targeted from 2016 till mid-2019.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have shared a close relationship in the region for many years. One important reason for their friendship is their common enmity with Israel and Qatar. Israel, being the only non-Islamic nation in the region, and Qatari leadership being closer to Iran, are seen with suspicion by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Saudi Arabia is said to have been spying on the Egyptian leadership from the end of March 2019, when most of the Arab countries were preoccupied with the Arab Summit in Tunisia. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry are some prominent figures that were spied upon.

Also Read: Pegasus Project latest: Spyware used in murder of Saudi journo Jamal Khashoggi, arrest of Dubai princess, snooping on Naga Leaders