Former NSA Chief trained Saudi hackers before Khashoggi murder
IronNet, the company founded by retired Gen. Keith Alexander, has signed an agreement with a Saudi Arabia cyberwarfare institute led by the official who oversaw Khashoggi's murder.
Former NSA Director Keith Alexander struck a deal with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in early 2018 and the cyber institute led by one of his closest aides, Saud Al-Qahtani, to assist the Saudi ruler in training the next generation of Saudi hackers to take on the Kingdom's adversaries, according to a report by The Intercept.
While the agreement between Alexander's IronNet and the cyber school was widely reported at the time in intelligence industry outlets and the Saudi press, it received no scrutiny for its association with AL-Qahtani, despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi that he allegedly orchestrated just a few months later.
According to an announcement made in early July, Alexander officially signed the agreement with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence, and Advanced Technologies — a school established to train Saudi cyber intelligence agents — at a signing ceremony in Washington, DC.
Al-Qahtani’s proxy at the signing noted in a statement that “the strategic agreement will ensure [Saudi Arabia is] benefiting from the experience of an advisory team comprising senior officers who had held senior positions in the Cyber Command of the US Department of Defense.”
Alexander's for-profit cyber security firm IronNet would collaborate closely with the Saudi Federation of Cybersecurity, Programming, and Drones, a college affiliate dedicated to offensive cyber operations and overseen at the time by Al-Qahtani.
Saudi Arabia’s agreement with IronNet was part of a host of moves to step up its cyber capabilities, coinciding with a campaign against the Kingdom’s critics abroad.
Khashoggi received a series of threatening messages, one of which was from Al-Qahtani, warning him to remain silent. Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul after his family and close associates discovered listening malware electronically implanted on their smartphones.
It was there that a team dispatched by Al-Qahtani detained and tortured the Saudi government critic. Al-Qahtani, according to reports, beamed in through Skype to insult Khashoggi during the ordeal, allegedly instructing his team to “bring me the head of the dog.” Khashoggi was then dismembered with a bone saw.
What was Al-Qahtani's role?
Qahtani's role as an enforcer on behalf of Bin Salman was well known prior to Khashoggi's murder, and it has closely followed the young prince's meteoric rise as Saudi Arabia's effective leader.
He was instrumental in the abduction and interrogation of hundreds of Saudi elites in 2017, who were held captive at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh and forced to pledge loyalty and money to MBS. According to reports, Al-Qahtani personally led the questioning efforts.
According to the brother of Saudi women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, Al-Qahtani also directly participated in Al-Hathloul's torture the following year.
Al-Qahtani expands Saudi cyberwarfare tools
Al-Qahtani has made it his personal mission to acquire and expand Saudi cyberwarfare tools on behalf of the Kingdom. He has spent over a decade directly negotiating the accumulation of computer and phone infiltration technology, in addition to the deal with IronNet and other top-tier American cyber experts.
In October 2017, he was named president of the Electronic Security and Software Alliance, later renamed the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming, and Drones, an official state-backed effort to expand Saudi Arabia's cyber offensive capabilities.
Cybersecurity researchers discovered powerful hacking technology implanted on Khashoggi's family's phones, most likely by agents of the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally. Several people received malicious text messages that infected their phones with Pegasus, a tool developed by the NSO Group that allows the NSO Group to remotely access a target's microphone, text messages, and location.