Updated: Dec 16, 2019
The slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi was funding an "electronic army" to fight with Saudi state propaganda, while describing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a "beast," according to his private Whatsapp messages published by CNN International.
CNN reported Dec. 3 that it has been granted exclusive access to the correspondence between Khashoggi and Montreal-based activist Omar Abdulaziz, before the journalist was killed in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
The 400 Whatsapp messages shared by Abdulaziz, which include voice recordings, photos and videos, paint a picture of a man deeply troubled by what he regarded as the petulance of his kingdom's powerful young prince, also known as MBS.
"The more victims he eats, the more he wants," says Khashoggi in one message sent in May, just after a group of Saudi activists had been rounded up. "I will not be surprised if the oppression will reach even those who are cheering him on."
The exchanges reveal a progression from talk to action -- the pair had begun planning an online youth movement that would hold the Saudi state to account. "[Jamal] believed that MBS is the issue, is the problem and he said this kid should be stopped," Abdulaziz said in an interview with CNN.
But in August, when he believed their conversations may have been intercepted by Saudi authorities, a sense of foreboding descends over Khashoggi. "God help us," he wrote.
Two months later, he was dead.
Abdulaziz on Dec. 2 launched a lawsuit against NSO Group, an Israeli company that invented the software he believes was used to hack his phone.
"The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say," Abdelaziz told CNN. (VIDEO)
"The guilt is killing me."
The pair's scheme, dubbed "cyber bees," involved two key elements that Saudi Arabia might well have viewed as hostile acts.
The first involved sending foreign SIM cards to dissidents back home so they could tweet without being traced. The second was money. According to Abdulaziz, Khashoggi pledged an initial $30,000 and promised to drum up support from rich donors under the radar.
According to the report, in almost daily exchanges between October 2017 and August 2018, Khashoggi and Abdulaziz conceived plans to form an electronic army to engage young Saudis back home and debunk state propaganda on social media, leveraging Khashoggi's establishment profile and the 27-year-old Abdulaziz's 340,000-strong Twitter following.
In one exchange, dated May this year, Abdulaziz writes to Khashoggi. "I sent you some ideas about the electronic army. By email."
"Brilliant report," Khashoggi replies. "I will try to sort out the money. We have to do something."
A month later, another message sent by Abdulaziz confirms the first $5,000 transfer has arrived.
Khashoggi replies with a thumbs up.
But in early August, he says he received word from Saudi Arabia that government officials were aware of the pair's online project. He passed the news to Khashoggi.
"How did they know?" asks Khashoggi in a message. "There must have been a gap," says Abdulaziz. Three minutes pass before Khashoggi writes back: "God help us."
The fact Abdulaziz's phone contained spyware means Saudi officials would have been able to see the same 400 messages Abdulaziz exchanged with Khashoggi over the period.
The messages portray Khashoggi, a Saudi former establishment figure, becoming increasingly fearful for his country's fate as bin Salman consolidates his power.
Describing the crown prince a "beast," a "pac-man" who would devour all in his path, even his supporters, Khashoggi says: "He loves force, oppression and needs to show them off, but tyranny has no logic."