Omar Abdulaziz, who was close to murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, told of threat posed by Saudi Arabia.
A prominent Saudi dissident who is living in exile in Canada said he was recently warned by Canadian authorities that he was a “potential target” of Saudi Arabia and that he needed to take precautions to protect himself.
Omar Abdulaziz, a 29-year-old activist who had a close association with Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Washington Post journalist, told the Guardian that he believed he was facing a threat to his safety and that the Canadians had credible information about a possible plan to harm him.
The video blogger and activist, who has nearly half a million Twitter followers, has spoken publicly about his fight against Saudi government propaganda and its use of internet trolls on Twitter.
In 2018, researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, who track the use of spyware, told Abdulaziz that they believed his phone had been hacked by a network they associated with Saudi Arabia. At the time of the alleged hack, Abdulaziz was in regular contact with Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was later murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
After the alleged hack, several members of Abdulaziz’s family and friends were arrested in Saudi.
While Abdulaziz has lived for years with the knowledge that he was one of dozens of Saudi dissidents in the crosshairs of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, the activist said that the recent warning indicated a current and credible threat.
“[The Canadian authorities] received some information regarding my situation that I might be a potential target,” Abdulaziz told the Guardian. “MBS and his group or – I don’t know – his team, they want to harm me. They want to do something, but I don’t know whether it’s assassination, kidnapping, I don’t know – but something not OK for sure.”
Abdulaziz said it was the first time that he had directly been called by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the country’s federal police force.
“They asked me, ‘What do you think about it?’ I said, ‘I’m happy,’” Abdulaziz said, laughing. “I feel that I’m doing something. You know, if you’re not doing anything that bothers MBS, that means you’re not working very well.”
An attorney for Abdulaziz confirmed the account.
“In his previous contacts with the Canadian government, he was always informed about the general threats and risks to him, but this time it is different,” said Alaa Mahajna. “The warning about serious threats to his life was different this time. It was formal and conveyed with a clear sense of urgency and advice to take precautions. It felt more credible and more concrete.”
Abdulaziz said he believed that such alleged threats emanated from the kingdom as a way to stifle dissent, but that he would continue to challenge the Saudi government. “I don’t want to tell you that I’m scared. I’m not, honestly. But you have to take some precautions to be ready,” he said.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. US intelligence agencies have reportedly found with a medium to high confidence that Prince Mohammed ordered the murder of Khashoggi but the kingdom has blamed rogue Saudi agents for the killing.
A spokesperson for Canada’s RCMP said: “Only in the event that an investigation results in the laying of criminal charges would the RCMP confirm its investigation, the nature of any charges laid and the identity of the individual(s) involved.”
A spokesperson for the Canadian government said: “Canada remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and continues to follow human rights cases. Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights and we will continue to advocate for them – strongly, firmly and clearly. Canada will always raise the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia, both in public and in private.”
In an op-ed in the Washington Post last year, Abdulaziz said he believed the Saudi government’s “coordinated campaign of harassment” was related to his work to combat Saudi trolls on Twitter, which he and Khashoggi called “electronic bees”. Abdulaziz and Khashoggi had been seeking to mobilise an army of volunteers to counter the trolls before Khashoggi’s murder.
The rise of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince in 2017, Abdulaziz said, had changed the nature of Twitter in Saudi Arabia, where it had been used relatively “freely” by Saudis to express their opinions.
“That all changed with the rise of MBS. Saudi Twitter gradually morphed into a propaganda platform, with the government deploying trolls and pressuring influencers to amplify its messages,” Abdulaziz wrote in the Washington Post last year. “More than 30 influencers told me that the Saudi government blackmailed them with material obtained by hacking their phones. They were given two options: Tweet propaganda or have your private content, including pictures, released on Twitter.”
Abdulaziz was considered among the three most influential users on Twitter. He wrote: “I’m now in exile; another got arrested, and the third user vanished. His tweets were all deleted.”
Despite the recent threat, Abdulaziz said he still felt safe in Canada. “At the end of the day, I’m fine. I’m OK here in Canada. I hope that they’re not going to do anything stupid,” he said.
The news comes as the son of another Saudi exile living in Canada, Saad Aljabri, has expressed concerns over the prospect of being targeted by Saudi agents in Canada.
In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Khalid Aljabri said: “There have been genuine concerns about attempts to induce harm.”
He did not offer further details. Canadian authorities have expressed concern about the arrest and detention of Saad Aljabri’s two adult children in Saudi, who disappeared from their home in March and have not been seen. Aljabri previously served as a high-ranking member of Saudi intelligence, and served as a right-hand man to Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince who was deposed by Mohammed bin Salman.
Canada’s relationship with Saudi has been chilly since 2018, when the then foreign affairs minister – now deputy prime minister – Chrystia Freeland criticised Saudi’s crackdown on dissent.