Saad Aljabri knows a lot of secrets. The former senior intelligence official in Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry was a valued partner of the U.S. government, a man who had access to troves of sensitive information about terrorism suspects, informants and the vast Saudi royal family.
But Aljabri ran afoul of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and went into exile in 2017. The royal has been hunting for him ever since, he says.
In August, Aljabri brought a U.S. federal lawsuit against the crown prince, alleging King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud's powerful son tried to use Aljabri's children to lure him back to Saudi Arabia as well as "personally orchestrated" attempts to kill him in North America.
The case follows a disturbing trend in several countries, Saudi Arabia watchers say, of how far the Saudi crown prince is willing to go to silence rivals or dissidents. Researchers say the efforts include tracking down critics who have left Saudi Arabia, hacking into cellphones and arresting their relatives back home.
The efforts also include permanently silencing a dissident, as in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two years ago this month. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Prince Mohammed was involved in planning the killing. The crown prince has denied having prior knowledge of the crime.
A royal rival
When he was still in government, Aljabri got on Prince Mohammed's bad side in several ways. Aljabri was aligned with the then-counterterrorism czar, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was a rival to the throne. Aljabri also began publicly questioning some of Mohammed bin Salman's decisions, including the devastating Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, according to former CIA Director John Brennan, author of the new memoir, Undaunted.
"MBS took offense to Saad's outspokenness," Brennan says, using the crown prince's initials. "Also Mohammed 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."
In 2017, Prince Mohammed began widespread arrests of businessmen, activists and critics. When King Salman removed Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew, from the line of succession to make his son the crown prince, Aljabri went to Turkey and ultimately ended up with his family members in Toronto.
Texts turn threatening
Aljabri declined an interview, but his son Khalid Aljabri, a cardiologist who lives with his father in Toronto, spoke to NPR.
He says that soon after leaving the kingdom, his father received a cordial text message from the crown prince.
"You know, we had our disagreements but I need you back in government," Khalid Aljabri remembers the message saying.
"He made it sound like just, 'Let's come and have a clear-the-air talk and we'll go back to business as usual,' " he says. "We didn't buy that."
The family thought it might be a trap.
Within a few days, Khalid says, two of Saad's children who were still in Saudi Arabia, ages 17 and 18 at the time, were barred from leaving the kingdom. The text messages became more aggressive and threatening.
"It was ultimatums, 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,' " Khalid recalls. He says his father has kept the texts as evidence.
Dispatching Tiger Squad
Saad Aljabri alleges that Crown Prince Mohammed has been trying to have him killed for the past three years. The lawsuit says that is largely because of the former official's knowledge of the kingdom's inner workings and dealings and his ties to U.S. intelligence officials. "Dr. Saad is uniquely positioned to existentially threaten Defendant bin Salman's standing with the U.S. government," the suit says.
In mid-October 2018, the suit alleges, the crown prince dispatched members of his "personal mercenary group, the Tiger Squad," to Canada to hunt Aljabri. According to the file, the squad was sent two weeks after killing Khashoggi, on Oct. 2, 2018.
Khalid Aljabri says his father got an "early heads-up" from former colleagues and U.S. intelligence officials not to go anywhere near a Saudi embassy. The suit says Canadian authorities blocked the hit team at Toronto's airport.
"Two of the people that attempted entry ... had luggage with some kind of cleanup tools belong to the same department that the forensic doctor who dismembered Jamal belonged to," Khalid says.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington didn't comment on this case or answer other questions from NPR.
Canada's government did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment. But in a statement to national news outlets, Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said: "We are aware of incidents in which foreign actors have attempted to monitor, intimidate or threaten Canadians and those living in Canada."
Saudi officials have long worked to monitor and encourage critics and activists to return to the kingdom — or be forcibly repatriated, according to international human rights groups. That includes renditioning female activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, from neighboring countries.
The great Saudi hack
To head off criticism, Saudi officials have flooded social media with praise for Prince Mohammed and the kingdom, according to Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which tracks the use of spyware by authoritarian regimes. The kingdom used people who were either paid or "pressured by the regime to post content that's favorable to them," he says.
Deibert says the regime has become very sophisticated at tracking citizens electronically on cellphones, allowing officials to see their location, emails and social media conversations.
"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," he says. "Especially those that have prominence in social media and in international media because they present a threat to the regime's credibility and legitimacy."
Two years ago, researchers at the Citizen Lab said they discovered that the phone of Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi talk show host in Montreal who was critical of the Saudi royal family, was hacked with Saudi-linked spyware.
Abdulaziz was a confidant of Khashoggi and said the two had been discussing plans to raise awareness about human rights in Saudi Arabia.
"Jamal was killed two months later. For sure, the conversations between us played a major role in what happened to Jamal," Abdulaziz told NPR in 2018.
That year, Saudi officials arrested Abdulaziz's relatives and friends in Saudi Arabia to put pressure on him, he wrote in The Washington Post.
Abdulaziz was also being followed on Twitter, according to U.S. prosecutors who last year charged two former employees of the social platform with obtaining personal information of Saudis criticizing the regime. It is the first time federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with deploying agents inside the U.S.
Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, worked at Twitter as a "site reliability engineer." The federal complaint says he accessed "data of over 6,000 Twitter users," including Abdulaziz. Another employee, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, allegedly received payments of up to $300,000 for information gleaned from his job at Twitter. A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen, was also charged with spying. He is described in the complaint as a principal in a social media marketing company that works for the Saudi royal family.
Placing agents inside Twitter was part of an ongoing national strategy by the Saudi regime, according to Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.
"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," Ereli said at a recent conference.
For the apparent targets of spying, life is frightening even if they're not in Saudi Arabia.
Ali al-Ahmed is the founder of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C., and a critic of the royal family. He lives in the U.S. but has safety concerns.
"Absolutely, I fear, of course, every day I go ... look under my car, I look around the house," he says. "And I do everything I can to protect myself and my family."
Saad Aljabri, the former intelligence official, was not able to protect his family. In March, Saudi security forces swarmed his home near Riyadh and arrested his daughter and son, both in their early 20s.
The U.S. State Department has called the detentions of Aljabri's family members "unacceptable" and said it has repeatedly pressed Saudi Arabia to release them.
But the family hasn't heard from them.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.