Forensic experts hired by Amazon.com owner Jeff Bezos on Tuesday alleged that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hacked the billionaire’s phone through his WhatsApp account.
They claim the prince sent a video file to Bezos in May 2018 through his personal WhatsApp account with help from Israeli hackers and extracted gigabytes of data – text messages and photos – over the next few months.
Mohammad bin Salman and Bezos met in 2018 at a dinner reception in Los Angeles where the two exchanged phone numbers. The prince was in the United States to meet business executives and attract investment into his country to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy in the post-oil era.
He had launched a PR campaign to rebrand Saudi Arabia into a modern investment-friendly country and found most takers in the United States and England. Newspapers in the US ran full-page advertisements laying out the crown prince’s plans for his country’s future.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Within months of alleged hacking of Bezos phone, a Saudi hit squad brutally murdered the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October, 2018. The journalist was murdered in Istanbul at the Saudi consulate. Khashoggi was there to renew his passport.
The Washington Post – owned by the Bezos since 2013 – wrote a series of scathing investigative articles highlighting Mohammad bin Salman’s role in the murder.
At first, the prince denied any wrongdoing but multiple investigations led by the Central Intelligence Agency and the United Nations said some of the 15 members of the hit squad were close with Crown Prince.
Bezos’ forensic experts seem to think the hacking just months before Khashoggi’s murder is not a mere coincidence. They allege the two events are inter-connected, but have not issued any facts to corroborate these claims.
However, it was not Khashoggi’s murder that made Bezos suspect something was wrong.
On Jan 8, 2019, Bezos announced he was ending his 25-year-old marriage.
But within hours of his twitter announcement, US tabloid The National Enquirer published a story claiming the billionaire was in an affair with a TV anchor Lauren Sanchez.
The newspaper claimed to have a “cache of lewd selfies” sent by Bezos to Sanchez.
Bezos later claimed in Medium post titled “No thank you, Mr Pecker” that he was being blackmailed by the American Media Inc (AMI) – owner of The National Enquirer – to admit that he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” He said the newspaper owner threatened to release 10 lewd images.
Pecker asked Bezos to stop investigating in to how and where the newspaper got its information from and tried to force him into denying any political involvement.
It was during these conversations that Bezos began to suspect Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the matter. In his post, he wrote, “for reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve [with Pecker].”
But this week’s revelations have pinned entire blame on the crown prince. The Guardian newspaper reported that Bezos’ forensic analysts argue the leaks were a result of the hack that was carried out by the Crown Prince in 2018.
Saudi Arabia’s US embassy denied these allegations calling them “absurd”. But United Nations experts say the prince’s involvement needs to be investigated.
But with more revelations expected in the coming weeks, the hack has raised a lot of eyebrows over the crown prince’s conduct. The pressure is also mounting on the United States to ramp up pressure on the crown prince who is likely to lead the Arabian peninsula for the next few decades.