Cybersecurity

Al Jazeera journalist files hack and leak suit against Saudi Arabian and UAE crown princes

Al Jazeera anchor Ghada Oueiss on Wednesday filed suit against Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, and a group of other officials for allegedly targeting her in a hack and leak operation.

Oueiss, who filed suit in the Southern District of Florida, alleged that the crown princes, along with a group of other Saudi and UAE officials and American citizens, carried out an operation intended to undermine her character and her journalistic career due to Oueiss's critical reporting on the Saudi Arabian and UAE governments. 

The almost two dozen defendants in the case are alleged to have coordinated in a hack and leak operation that used foreign and domestic influencers to undermine Oueiss's character. 

The defendants include Florida-based Sharon Collins and Hussam Al-Jundi, who allegedly engaged in what the court filing described as "tortious acts" against Oueiss, including publishing stolen information from Oueiss's phone and participating in a "conspiracy" against the journalist.

"Ms. Oueiss brings this action against all Defendants - domestic and foreign - responsible for the unlawful hacking and dissemination of her personal information worldwide," the court filing read. "Each actor must be held responsible for their unlawful actions and Conspiracy against Ms. Oueiss, and this lawsuit marks the beginning of a journey toward justice for Ms. Oueiss."

The group Oueiss filed suit against is the same group of Saudi and UAE officials alleged to have carried out the fatal attack on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

Oueiss alleged in the court document, filed on her behalf by Miami-based law firm Marcus Neiman Rashbaum & Pineiro (MNR) LLP, that after the killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, she "earned the attention of the Saudi regime" for steadfastly reporting on the case. 

In what the court document described as a "premeditated attack, intended to destroy her reputation, personal life, and career," Oueiss was then targeted by a "joint and coordinated effort" by the Saudi Arabian and UAE governments, according to the filing.

Oueiss wrote about the attack in a Washington Post op-ed published earlier this year, detailing an alleged hacking operation that successfully stole pictures of Ouiess in a swimsuit from her phone, doctored them to make her appear nude, and spread them on Twitter.

Oueiss noted that some of the pictures were retweeted over 40,000 times within hours, and that most of the social media accounts involved displayed links to the Saudi Arabian and UAE crown princes, including top officials close to the two crown princes.

This alleged effort by well-known officials led to disparaging hashtags involving Oueiss trending on Twitter in Saudi Arabia. 

"Although I was the target of this latest assault - no doubt because I regularly present critical reporting about Saudi Arabia and the UAE - the message to journalists across the Middle East is very clear: Don't criticize the crown princes," Oueiss wrote in the op-ed. 

Dan Rashbaum, a partner at MNR and the lead attorney on the case, told The Hill that Oueiss hoped to "shine a light" on how journalists were being targeted by these officials in filing the civil case in Florida.

"At a minimum, holding these people accountable, letting the world know that this is happening, and putting the world on notice that this activity is occurring," Rashbaum said of the case's goals. "As the litigation continues, there may be other avenues of relief, but at a minimum, it's a way of making the public aware of what these regimes and what these individuals in the United States are doing."

Rashbaum said he had not been in contact with either the Saudi Arabian or UAE authorities regarding the case. The Hill has reached out to the Saudi Arabian and UAE embassies in the U.S. for comment. 

Rashbaum noted that he and his team planned to "very aggressively" pursue the case in Florida, emphasizing that "some of the most gruesome activity has occurred down here. What they have basically done is they have now engaged in getting U.S. citizens to basically use social media to harass and abuse and essentially bully individuals like my client."

Oueiss, in a statement provided to The Hill, stood firm in pushing back against the online harassment. 

"This case is about the ongoing harassment and online attacks not just of me, but my many colleagues who also face such hate and threats to their lives simply for speaking truth to power and exposing wrongdoing everywhere," Oueiss said.

This is not the first time Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also serves as the nation's deputy prime minister, has been accused of wrongdoing in court. 

Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters reported that the crown prince's attorney had asked a U.S. court to throw out a case brought against him by a former Saudi intelligence official, which alleges that the crown prince sent a "hit squad" to Canada in 2018 in a failed attempt to kill the former official. 

The crown prince has also been accused of hacking the phone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. United Nations experts in January linked the hacking incident to retaliation for criticism by The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, over the killing of Khashoggi, who wrote for the Post. 

Khashoggi's fiancée filed suit in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia in October, with the suit alleging that the Saudi crown prince and 28 others planned Khashoggi's killing after hacking phones of his associates and learning about his pro-democracy and human rights work. 

Outbrain