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Civil war in Saudi cyberspace?

The confrontation in Saudi Arabia between “the Bees” and “the Flies” was popularised by the documentary “The Dissident”[1]. This struggle between a civil opposition movement on the one hand and the central government on the other is a perfect illustration of the modes of action and strategies deployed by different actors in the cyberspace, and more particularly the manipulation of social media.

Pierre-Yves Baillet

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Aware of the risk that social media can represent in a country where the population is young and highly connected, the Saudi royal family has learned from the effects of their use during the Arab Spring.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is indeed the target of several internal and external movements. Externally, it must deal with both the Yemeni conflict in which it is embroiled and the growing tensions with Iran and other Gulf states. Within its borders, the monarchy faces several opposition groups. First and foremost are the religious extremist organisations. These consider the royal family to be corrupt and corrupting because of its extreme wealth and alliance with the West. Among the most virulent organisations are the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP has chosen armed struggle to oppose regimes that it considers corrupt and corrupting. The Muslim Brotherhood has already resorted to armed struggle, notably in Egypt, but it has now changed its methods of action. It tries, when possible, to play the electoral game, as in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring. The Brotherhood has also set up its diplomatic network and is supported by (and even conniving with) states like Turkey and Qatar. However, AQAP and the Brotherhood use social media as a means of communication and dissemination for their propaganda and preaching. This is something that Saudi Arabia cannot tolerate.

A cyberwar

In addition to the extremists, the Saudi throne has to deal with opposition groups considered democratic such as the National Assembly Party (NAAS), founded in 2020. This is an unprecedented initiative under King Salman’s rule. Exiles have founded a dissident political party abroad. Among their ranks are figures such as academic Madawi al-Rasheed, activist Ahmad al-Mshikhs, or the son of preacher Salman al-Ouda, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017. Activists like Omar Abdulaziz are part of the “Bees Army” movement, or “Geish al-Nahl” in Arabic. This army reportedly provides cyber protection to Saudi activists, so they can express themselves freely. These activists oppose the Saudi monarchy by confronting online “trolls” employed by the regime, whom they have nicknamed “the Flies.” The movement is fighting “against misinformation and pro-regime social media trolls, and in favour of information about human rights violations.[2]” Their tactic: post and repost tweets and hashtags to be top trending on the site and thus generate greater visibility. For analyst Ben Nimmo, “It’s a numbers game: once you trend, you reach an audience that not everyone else can.[3]” Before his death, journalist Jamal Khashoggi donated five thousand dollars to them and tweeted, using the hashtag “what_do_you_know_about_bees”: “They love their country and defend it with truth and rights.”

The royal power cannot tolerate any opposition or challenge. The monarchy is extremely present in the cyberspace—which it wishes to control—and devotes large budgets to its surveillance and reaction mechanism. Thus, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane (MBS), the Saudi government has set up a veritable army of “trolls.” This force is mainly responsible for harassing a target on a given social network to discredit them in the eyes of other users. The objectives are also to give the illusion of a strong militant base or to aggravate debates in order to shift the central subject. “It’s not just a matter of promoting a certain perspective, but also of complicating access to accurate information in a sea of disinformation,” says Mohammed Kassab, an Egyptian contributor to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), an American think tank.

His Majesty of the Flies

In Saudi Arabia, the organiser of the Internet campaigns was Saud al-Qahtani, nicknamed “His Majesty of the Flies.” Saud al-Qahtani is one of Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane’s most trusted men. He has supported him in his rise to the title of heir to the crown. He was also present during the 2017 detention of some of the Saudi elite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. This event was advertised to the public as an anti-corruption operation. In reality, those incarcerated were pressured to give up property or money obtained illegally. At the head of his army of trolls and hackers, he served MBS’ interests by promoting his propaganda and attacking his opponents on the Internet. But since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Qahtani has disappeared from the public eye. According to Western and Turkish intelligence services, he was one of the organisers of the murder. This could make Jamal Khashoggi the first known victim of this cyberwar. Several Saudi officials interviewed by The Guardian newspaper said, “It’s no secret to his entourage or friends that he was only told (by MBS) to leave things alone for a while and wait for it to blow over. Nothing has changed, except that no one sees him anymore.” However, despite the demise of “His Majesty of the Flies,” opponents of the Wahhabi monarchy and MBS continue to be hounded on the internet. Indeed, the Saudi government has made several contracts with private companies—including Israeli ones such as NSO—in order to have the best cyber weapons. In particular, Saudi Arabia is said to have acquired and used the famous Pegasus spying software.

[1] This documentary film by Mark Monroe and Bryan Fogel, released in 2020, addresses the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the takeover of Saudi cyberspace by Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane (MBS).

[2] https://yac.news/blogs/news-translated-french/le-gouvernement-saoudien-reprime-le-mouvement-des-abeilles

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/saudi-electronic-army-floods-twitter-with-insults-and-mistruths-after-khashoggis-disappearance/2018/10/19/98044874-d311-11e8-a4db-184311d27129_story.html

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