Saudi Arabia 'used Israeli Pegasus spyware' against UN Yemen investigator

Saudi Arabia 'used Israeli Pegasus spyware' against UN Yemen investigator
2 min read
20 December, 2021
The UN-backed human rights expert was targeted by the spyware weeks before releasing a damning report accusing Saudi Arabia of war crimes.
Kamel Jendoubi, the chair of a UN panel tasked with investigating war crimes in Yemen, was targeted by the Pegasus spyware [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty]

Saudi Arabia tried to hack the mobile phone of an UN-backed expert who was investigating war crimes in Yemen, a non-profit media group claimed on Monday. 

Tunisian human rights expert Kamel Jendoubi was chair of a panel tasked by the UN to investigate possible war crimes in Yemen when his phone was targeted by Pegasus, a spyware sold by the Israeli NSO group to a vast number of repressive governments. 

Jendoubi's mobile number appeared on a leaked database of numbers believed to be potential surveillance targets of NSO's clients, said Pegasus Project, a consortium of media investigating the use of this spyware.

"As international investigators, we are supposed to be at least protected. But I am not at all surprised. I've been apprehensive about this since 2019," Jendoubi told the Pegasus Project.

The targeting took place in August 2019, weeks before the panel headed by Jendoubi released a report claiming that the Saudi-led coalition had committed "serious violations of international humanitarian law" in Yemen that could lead to "criminal responsibility for war crimes".

Jendoubi was appointed in 2017 by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to lead an investigation into possible abuses committed in the war in Yemen, which has pitted government forces - backed by a Saudi-led coalition - against the Houthi rebels.

The UN mandate for the investigation was abruptly stopped in October following pressure by Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly been accused of war crimes in Yemen.

Experts at Amnesty International's Security Lab and Citizen Lab found evidence that a client of NSO had attempted to hack the device, but could not establish if the hack had been successful.

Pegasus allows its operator to intercept calls, read text messages, infiltrate encrypted apps, and track the location of an infected phone. It can also turn a mobile phone into a listening device.

Saudi Arabia leads an Arab coalition against the Yemeni Houthi rebels, who had ousted the internationally recognised government from power in 2014. 

Tens of thousands of people have died and millions displaced in what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.