How Saudi Arabia Tracks Down And Pressures Critics Abroad The Saudi government is accused of continuing to track down and threaten dissidents and other rivals who are living as far away as Canada and the United States.

'To Protect Myself And My Family': Saudi Critics Abroad Fear Long Reach Of The Crown

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When journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Turkey by Saudi agents two years ago, it caused worldwide condemnation. But some Saudis and outside experts say the kingdom has been pursuing other critics abroad, threatening them and their families back home, especially when they criticize Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Saad al-Jabri (ph) is a man who knows a lot of secrets. He used to be a senior intelligence official in Saudi Arabia with lots of sensitive information about the royal family. Now, he says, he's being targeted by the regime and has gone into exile. Former CIA chief John Brennan says he was a valuable partner to the U.S.

JOHN BRENNAN: He had a wide-ranging network of contacts around the globe with a lot of officials of other intelligence services and security services throughout the Middle East, but also beyond.

NORTHAM: But al-Jabri ran afoul of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. There were two issues. Al-Jabri was aligned with one of the prince's rivals. And Brennan, whose book "Undaunted" chronicles his years in national security, says al-Jabri began questioning some of the crown prince's decisions.

BRENNAN: MBS took offense to Saad's outspokenness. And also, Muhammed bin Salman is very concerned about what Saad may do in terms of exposing some of the activities that are going on inside of Saudi Arabia under MBS.

NORTHAM: As MBS began widespread arrests of businessmen, activists and critics, al-Jabri realized he could be next and left Saudi Arabia. He ended up with some of his family in Canada. Saad al-Jabri declined an interview, but his son Khalid al-Jabri spoke to NPR. And he says soon after leaving the kingdom, his father received a text from the crown prince.

KHALID AL-JABRI: And it was very soft, very cordial. It was apologetic. It was about, you know, we had our disagreements, but I need you back in government. And he made it sound like just let's come and have a clear-the-air talk, and we'll go back business to usual. We didn't buy that.

NORTHAM: They thought it might be a trap. Khalid says within a few days, two of al-Jabri's teenage children were barred from leaving the kingdom. The text messages became more aggressive and threatening.

AL-JABRI: It was ultimatums. It was saying, you have one hour to tell us where you are. You know, I'll send the jet to get you. Otherwise, we will use all legal means and other means that will be harmful to you.

NORTHAM: According to a recent lawsuit filed in Washington by al-Jabri, in 2018, the crown prince dispatched a hit team to Canada, where al-Jabri was living. The lawsuit alleges that a team of Saudi agents planned to assassinate al-Jabri in a way similar to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered two years ago this month at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Khalid says Canadian authorities blocked the hit team at Toronto's airport.

AL-JABRI: Two of the people that attempted entry who had luggage with some kind of cleanup tools belong to the same department that the forensic doctor who dismembered Jamal belonged to.

NORTHAM: The Saudi Embassy in Washington didn't comment on this case or other questions from NPR. But like Khashoggi, al-Jabri's situation illustrates a disturbing trend Saudi watchers are citing in other countries, which is how far the crown prince is willing to go to silence political opposition and dissidents.

RON DEIBERT: Especially those that have prominence in social media and in international media because they present a threat to the regime's credibility and legitimacy.

NORTHAM: That's Ron Deibert, director of Citizens Lab (ph) at the University of Toronto, which tracks the use of spyware by authoritarian regimes. He says Saudi Arabia has become very sophisticated at tracking citizens electronically on cellphones.

DEIBERT: They take these very powerful tools that are marketed to them to fight ostensibly crime, national security issues and so on and direct them towards regime opponents and journalists who cover Saudi issues.

NORTHAM: For years, Omar Abdulaziz's YouTube talk show "Say It" poked fun at the Saudi royal family, including the crown prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OMAR ABDULAZIZ: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: Abdulaziz did not respond to requests for an interview but wrote in The Washington Post that after his phone was hacked in 2018, relatives and friends back in Saudi Arabia were arrested. He says he's refused Saudi pressure to return home. In another case, U.S. prosecutors last year charged two former employees of Twitter with obtaining personal information of Saudis. Speaking at a recent conference, Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, says this is part of an ongoing national strategy by the Saudi regime.

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ADAM ERELI: Their infiltration of Twitter by their own agents was designed to obtain and then transmit back to the Saudi government the names, addresses and, very importantly, contact lists of users in Saudi Arabia who were then subsequently rounded up.

NORTHAM: For the targets of that spying, life is frightening even if they're not in Saudi Arabia. Ali al-Ahmed is a critic of the royal family who lives in the U.S. but worries about his safety.

ALI AL-AHMED: Absolutely, I fear, of course. Every day I go into my car, I think about it. I look under my car. I look around the house, and I do everything I can to protect myself and my family.

NORTHAM: Saad al-Jabri, the former intelligence official, was not able to protect his family. In March this year, Saudi security forces arrested his 20-year-old daughter and 22-year-old son. The family hasn't heard from them since.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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