Iraq President Barham Salih, KRG PM Masrour Barzani targeted by Pegasus spyware: reports

KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani (right) and Iraqi President Barham Salih meet on April 29, 2021. (Photo Credit: KRG)

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SULAIMANI — Iraqi President Barham Salih was allegedly targeted by Pegasus spyware, along with at least fourteen other heads of state or government, according to a report on Tuesday (July 20) by the Washington Post.

It was not clear what, if any, information was gleaned from Salih’s phone or who targeted him.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masrour Barzani may have also been exposed to the spyware, according to Daraj, another media outlet that is part of the consortium of groups working to process and report the Pegasus spyware revelations.

The outlet reported that his phone "was exposed to the possibility of being targeted by the UAE for a year and half."

Also "subjected to possible eavesdropping" was his security advisor Hamdi Sinjari.

The outlet indicated that a number of other figures in the Kurdistan Region were likely targeted, but  could not verify all of them.

Additionally, the Post reported that France’s President Emmanuel Macron, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and Morcco’s King Mohammed VI, along with three current prime ministers, Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Egypt’s Mostafa Madbouly and Morocco’s Saad-Eddine El Othmani were also targeted.

Former prime ministers Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr of Yemen, Saad Hariri of Lebanon, Ruhakana Rugunda of Uganda, Édouard Philippe of France, Bakitzhan Sagintayev of Kazakhstan, Noureddine Bedoui of Algeria, and Charles Michel of Belgium also could have been exposed during their time in office.

The NSO Group and its Pegasus malware -- capable of switching on a phone's camera or microphone and harvesting its data -- have been in the headlines since 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the United Arab Emirates.

A collaborative investigation by The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, Daraj, and other media outlets, based on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers, revealed the spying may have been far more extensive.

The leaked numbers are believed to be connected to people identified by NSO clients as potential surveillance targets.

They include one linked to a murdered Mexican journalist and family members of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It is unclear how many devices were actually targeted or surveilled and NSO has denied any wrongdoing.

But the claims that countries such as Azerbaijan, Hungary, India, and Morocco, where authorities have cracked down on independent media, spied on dissident journalists at home and abroad sparked widespread indignation.

The other countries that accounted for most of the numbers on the list were Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Pegasus is a highly invasive tool that can switch on a target's phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy.

In some cases, it can be installed without the need to trick a user into initiating a download.

NSO insists it is only intended for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and that any other use is the work of "rogue" operators -- claims rubbished by Amnesty International.

"The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO's spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril," Amnesty International chief Agnes Callamard said in a statement.

"While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it's clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse."

(NRT Digital Media/AFP)

This story was updated at 12:51 p.m. EBL