Arab activist in Norway details his Saudi work before threat
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — An Arab activist living in Norway said Monday he’s been given protection by two different Norwegian entities after the CIA informed officials of an unspecified threat against him, which he said is likely linked to his research on Saudi Arabia.
Iyad el-Baghdadi is an outspoken commentator on Arab affairs on Twitter, where he has over 130,000 followers. He used a press conference in Norway to explain some of the Saudi-related projects he’d been working on that might have made him a target for the kingdom.
“The decision to go public was not something that was taken lightly,” he said. “The advice I received repeatedly from independent security experts was that publicity would be protection.”
He explained that he worked without pay or contract with a team of investigators hired by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos looking into a blackmail case against the U.S. billionaire, who also owns The Washington Post, where slain Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi was a contributing columnist. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last year.
Bezos had previously accused The National Enquirer magazine in the U.S. of trying to blackmail him by threatening to publish intimate details and text messages showing an extramarital affair he was having. He noted in a piece for Medium exposing the blackmail that his ownership of The Washington Post may lead some powerful people to “wrongly conclude I am their enemy.”
El-Baghdadi said the lead investigator hired by Bezos, named Gavin de Becker, contacted him after seeing his tweets and analysis about why Bezos’ personal texts might have been obtained. De Becker has since written in The Daily Beast that his team of private investigators “concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone and gained private information.”
Saudi Arabia has rejected allegations that it was involved in the dispute between Bezos and the parent company of The National Enquirer.
Additionally, el-Baghdadi said he’s also helming a project to document Saudi attempts to influence Arabic political commentary on Twitter. The project was originally spearheaded by Khashoggi before he was killed.
The two men were friends and fiercely critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose aides were behind the plot that led to Khashoggi’s killing.
The Guardian first reported last week that el-Baghdadi had been contacted by Norwegian security agency PST to tell him he may be in danger, before taking him to a safe place for a few hours. He was quoted as saying it is unclear what the threat was.
The Guardian said the CIA had warned Norway that el-Baghdadi faced a potential threat from Saudi Arabia.
Time magazine published a story days later saying that the CIA sent warnings to at least three associates of Khashoggi, among them el-Baghdadi.
The Palestinian-born activist told reporters in Oslo that in March he’d filed a police report in Norway saying he believed he was under threat based on information he’d received from various sources, which he did not publicly disclose.
“When the PST showed up at my doorstep on April 25th, I wasn’t the least surprised,” he said. “In fact, I think the first thing I said was something like ‘what took you so long?’”
The CIA has declined to comment, referring any questions to authorities in Norway. The Saudi Embassy in Washington has not responded to an AP request for comment.
El-Baghdadi rose to prominence during the Arab Spring protests in 2011, using sharp analysis and a steady stream of tweets to amass tens of thousands of followers on Twitter.
He was granted political asylum in Norway after his online activism prompted his expulsion in 2014 without charge from the United Arab Emirates, where he was a resident. His family was later pressured to leave the country in 2015.
“I’ve been advised by security experts that my family is a soft target,” he told reporters, referring to his parents who live in Malaysia. “I can no longer travel to see them. I need to bring them here for them to be safe.”