A prominent Saudi dissident in Canada says he was in constant contact with Jamal Khashoggi over the summer, and speaking to the U.S. resident about ways they could team up to challenge a communications crackdown in their homeland.
But then the two men learned their conversations might have been overheard. “He wasn’t shocked. He wasn’t surprised. But then we believed they [the Saudis] were listening to us for the last few months,” said Omar Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old living near Montreal.
In an interview, Mr. Abdulaziz said the two expat critics of the kingdom became fast friends after Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, got in touch with him last year. One idea they bonded over was figuring out ways to create secure social-media accounts for ordinary Saudis.
This discussion resulted in a plan to meet in Montreal, he said. “He told me he was coming to Canada. … He was on his way to visit me, but he said: ‘You know what? I am going to finish my marriage papers [in Turkey], then I’ll come,'" Mr. Abdulaziz said.
Two weeks ago, the 59-year-old Mr. Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He is feared to be the victim of a grisly assassination conspiracy, possibly hatched by top Saudi officials.
“We need to provide a platform for Arab voices,” Mr. Khashoggi wrote, lamenting the clampdown on free speech that has shrouded the region since 2010, when people using social-media as a new means of mobilizing began overthrowing Middle East autocracies in a movement known as the Arab Spring.
The surviving governments, such as Saudi Arabia’s, learned lessons. These states have seized control of communications channels, with many social-media platforms overrun by paid commentators who attack critics, and computer programs that post government-friendly messages over and over.
Meantime, ordinary citizens risk jail sentences if they denigrate the state. “Since the Arab Spring, the social-media sphere in the Middle East has been co-opted by political actors as a method of control,” said Sam Woolley, research director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future.
Mr. Abdulaziz sees himself as filling the vacuum in the public discourse. Years ago, the young Saudi successfully claimed refugee status in Canada. He now airs criticisms of his homeland via Twitter and YouTube from Sherbrooke.
Such outspoken views have made him popular back home and among dissidents in the diaspora. But he has lately discovered even he is not beyond reach of the state.
In an interview, he said two of his brothers were recently jailed in Saudi Arabia as a pressure tactic against him. He also alleges a Saudi government agent came to Canada to see him and urged him to return. Mr. Abdulaziz declined.
On Oct. 1, a day before Mr. Khashoggi disappeared in Turkey, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab released a report that said Mr. Abdulaziz’s iPhone had likely been hacked.
The report said the U of T-based researchers discovered that Saudi dissidents’ devices were being targeted with powerful computer viruses that could secretly siphon all manner of data. It said Mr. Abdulaziz’s iPhone was among those that may have been compromised.
The Citizen Lab warned him weeks before the report was released and he immediately told his friends. “For Jamal [Khashoggi], that was the first number he contacted me on,” Mr. Abdulaziz said. He added that “on the 17th of August I told him that my phone was hacked.”
They had started communicating about a year earlier, when Mr. Khashoggi had recently moved to the United States as a sort of Saudi exile himself. Their conversations began in an exchange of texts.
Initial wariness on Mr. Abdulaziz’s part was won over by an almost paternal affection from Mr. Khashoggi. “This guy, he was checking on me every single day. He was asking me whether I’m going to school, attending classes, eating my meals, sleeping well,” said Mr. Abdulaziz, who studies at Bishop’s University.
In their conversations, they came to wonder whether voicing their own opinions was enough, especially given that their essays or videos online would be shouted down in Saudi Arabia.
“Sometimes, they were threatening me and Jamal. So many times, this is what really happened,” Mr. Abdulaziz said.
“So we said: ‘No let’s have our own army.’ We had to counter their attack. We had to tell the people the truth,” he added.
Mr. Khashoggi embraced activism by starting a U.S. group called Democracy in the Arab World Now. With Mr. Abdulaziz, he discussed a less formal approach.
In Saudi Arabia, setting up a social-media account can be risky. For example, Twitter asks users for phone numbers or e-mail addresses when they register new accounts as a means of authentication. The problem is that almost all states can compel communications companies to release user information.
Mr. Abdulaziz says he proposed that he and Mr. Khashoggi buy cheap, text-only cellphone plans in North America and use them to authenticate untraceable social-media accounts for Saudis at home with North American numbers. All they had to do was give them the phone numbers attached to the microchips they bought.
“I told him [Mr. Khashoggi] we need money to get SIM cards to link our Twitter accounts to these numbers,” Mr. Abdulaziz said. “So he said: ‘I’m the one who’s going to pay that for you, don’t worry.’"
He said his U.S. friend transferred about $5,000 to him.
It was a cheap way to counter Saudi state messaging, he said. “They are spending billions on these projects. Now, we are dodging them, attacking them, which is like burning their own money, their own work, destroying what they built,” Mr. Abdulaziz said.
“They didn’t like that.”