Ex-NSA chief signed deal to train Saudi hackers ahead of Khashoggi’s murder

Early 2018, former National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander has struck a deal with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the cyber institute run by one of his closest aides, Saud al-Qahtani, to help the leader Saudi to train the next generation of Saudi pirates to face the kingdom’s enemies.

While the deal between IronNet, founded by Alexander, and the cyber school was widely reported in the intelligence industry media and in the Saudi press at the time, it received little attention. no scrutiny for his association with Qahtani, after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi he allegedly orchestrated just months after.

Alexander officially signed the agreement with Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Cyber ​​Security, Artificial Intelligence, and Advanced Technologies – a school established to train Saudi cyber intelligence officers – during a signing ceremony in Washington, DC, according to an announcement in early July.

Qahtani’s attorney at the signing noted in a statement that “the strategic agreement will ensure [Saudi Arabia is] benefiting from the experience of an advisory team made up of senior officers who have held leadership positions within the Cyber ​​Command of the United States Department of Defense. Alexander’s for-profit cybersecurity company IronNet reportedly works closely with the Saudi Federation of Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones, a college affiliate devoted to offensive cyber operations and at the time overseen by Qahtani.

Saudi Arabia’s deal with IronNet was part of a series of moves to bolster its cyber capabilities, coinciding with a campaign against the kingdom’s critics abroad. Khashoggi, then a columnist for the Washington Post and a prominent critic of Salman, received a series of threatening messages, including one from Qahtani, warning him to remain silent. Khashoggi, whose family and relatives discovered listening to electronically implanted malware on their smartphones, was then lured to the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul.

This is where a team dispatched by Qahtani detained and tortured the Saudi government spokesman. Qahtani, according to reports, teleported via Skype to insult Khashoggi during the ordeal, allegedly ordering his team to “bring the dog’s head to me”. Khashoggi was then dismembered with a bone saw.

IronNet’s deal related to the alleged mastermind behind Khashoggi’s murder is not listed on IronNet’s website, and it’s unclear if the business relationship still stands — or to what extent. IronNet and Saudi government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to former IronNet employees, has been largely shrouded in secrecy, even within the company.

Qahtani’s role of An executor named bin Salman, who was well known before Khashoggi’s murder, closely followed the young prince’s meteoric rise as the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, Qahtani played a central role in the kidnapping and interrogation of hundreds of Saudi elites, who were held captive at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where they were forced to pledge loyalty and money to Salman. Qahtani personally led the interrogation efforts, according to reports.

Later that year, he reportedly took part in the interrogation of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who was beaten and forced to resign. The following year, according to the brother of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, Qahtani also participated directly in the torture of al-Hathloul, where he made fun of her and threatened to do her. violate.

On behalf of the kingdom, Qahtani has made it his personal mission to acquire and expand Saudi cyber warfare tools. Beyond the deal with IronNet and other leading US cyber experts, he has spent more than a decade directly negotiating the buildup of computer and phone infiltration technologies.

Qahtani took the helm of official state-backed efforts to expand Saudi Arabia’s cyber-offensive capabilities in October 2017, when he was named chairman of a committee called the Electronic Security and Software Alliance, later renamed Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones.

Earlier this year, SAFCSP signed an agreement with Spire Solutions, a consulting firm that partners with a wide range of cyber intelligence entrepreneurs. Haboob, another cyber venture promoted by Qahtani, is a private company that recruits hackers for the Saudi government. Haboob chairman Naif bin Lubdah sits on the board of SAFCSP.

In 2018, Chiron Technology Services, another American cyber consulting firm, also signed a memorandum of understanding to provide training at the same Saudi hacker school advised by IronNet. Chiron’s team includes top talent recruited from the U.S. Air Force, military, and NSA, including Michael Tessler, who previously worked in the NSA’s Bespoke Access Operations Command, which handles security missions. high-level computer infiltration of foreign governments.

Jeff Weaver, Chiron’s chief executive, said in an email that his company had signed a memorandum of understanding “with the college to develop a cybersecurity curriculum in support of their technical degree programs.” However, no collaboration ever took place and they never asked us to contribute. We haven’t heard from them since 2018.”

Online cyber sleuths identified Qahtani’s multiple IDs on online hacking forums, where he was an active member looking to purchase hacking tools. A screenname used by Qahtani, for example, appears to have purchased a remote access trojan known as Blackshades, which can infect targeted computers to edit and grab files, activate the webcam, and record videos. keystrokes and passwords.

Cybersecurity researchers have identified powerful hacking technology planted on Khashoggi’s family’s phones, likely by agents from the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally. Several received malicious text messages that infected their phones with Pegasus, a tool created by the NSO Group to remotely access a target’s microphone, text messages, and location.

Qahtani, who was briefly under house arrest, was quickly cleared by the Saudi government of any wrongdoing in Khashoggi’s death. Five of the hitmen on the team sent to kill Khashoggi were sentenced to death, including Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, an intelligence officer who worked under Qahtani. Qahtani’s current relationship with the institute is unknown.

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2020.

Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP

After Khashoggi’s murder, many US companies have been pressured to end business deals with Saudi entities. Yet in the years since Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi Cyberwarfare Institute at the heart of the plot has continued to do business with Western defense industry leaders.

In 2019, BAE Systems, a major defense contractor based in the US and UK, entered into a training agreement with the MBS College of Cyber ​​Security. Last year, Cisco unveiled a training relationship with the Saudi Federation of Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones.

BAE, contacted for comment, distanced itself from the deal. “BAE Systems works with a number of partner companies based in Saudi Arabia,” a company spokesperson said. “ISE, one of our Saudi partner companies, was awarded a contract in 2019 by the MBS College for Cyber ​​Security to provide college establishment support services such as staffing and facilities management, but this contract has not been activated and is still in progress. hold.”

Alexander continued to work in the region as a member of Amazon’s board of directors. Intelligence Online, an outlet for intelligence contractors, said: “As a partner of Amazon, for which it offers native cloud traffic monitoring of its AWS, IronNet is helping the company win contracts public, especially since CEO Keith Alexander served on Amazon’s board of directors. .”

IronNet, however, has faltered in recent months, with two waves of layoffs this year and a lawsuit from investors. The company has touted meteoric growth, like many defense-related contractors, promising to exploit growing security threats. Much of the traditional U.S. defense industry has long sought lucrative foreign relations, particularly with the Saudi government, a path IronNet appears to have tried to follow.

And President Joe Biden, who promised during his election campaign to make the Saudi state a “pariah” over the murder, has since seemed to walk away from the scandal. In June, he traveled to Riyadh to shore up the US-Saudi alliance and demand an increase in oil production. The fourth anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder is October 2.

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