Israeli Pegasus spyware saga could sow diplomatic divisions in Africa

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DAVOS, Switzerland – Rwandan President Paul Kagame (L) and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attend a meeting during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on January 24, 2019 in Davos, eastern Switzerland.

STOFF COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images

The Pegasus spyware saga has affected several African governments and could have further diplomatic consequences, experts have suggested.

An intelligence leak has alleged that authorities used Israeli company NSO Group’s Pegasus software to monitor the phones of thousands of politicians, dissidents, journalists, business people and various public figures around the world.

The investigation, conducted by the nonprofit group Forbidden Stories along with Amnesty International, The Washington Post, and 16 other news organizations, claims the military spyware was used to remotely hack and monitor the smartphones of targets.

“It shows not only the risk and harm for the illegally attacked people, but also the extremely destabilizing consequences for global human rights and the security of the digital environment as a whole,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard in a statement on Friday.

“The NSO Group is just one company. This is a dangerous industry that has operated on the edge of legality for too long, and it cannot go on like this.”

The NSO Group has vigorously denied the allegations, arguing in several lengthy rebukes that the investigation contains “unconfirmed theories” based on “misleading interpretations of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information.”

NSO said the spyware is only used to monitor terrorists and other criminals and denied that the leaked list of around 50,000 phone numbers had anything to do with the company.

Macron and Morocco

French President Emmanuel Macron has changed his phone number and urged Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to continue an investigation into allegations made in the report that suggest Macron is being monitored by Morocco.

Morocco was reportedly the most enthusiastic user of the Pegasus software, with more than 10,000 of the 50,000 numbers in the leak viewed as of interest to the country’s intelligence agencies.

The telephone numbers of several journalists currently detained in Morocco have been revealed, as have those of former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and President of the European Council Charles Micheland, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The NSO Group has denied this, claiming that Macron, Ghebreyesus and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who were also on the list, were never “targets”.

PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron (R) waves as he leaves with Morocco’s Prince Moulay Hassan (C) and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (L) after attending a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2018.

ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP via Getty Images

The Moroccan government has denied the use of Pegasus spyware, calling the coverage a “mendacious, massive and malicious media campaign”.

A government spokesman told the Guardian newspaper the allegations were “unfounded” and said Amnesty International was “unable to establish any relationship between Morocco and the aforementioned Israeli company”.

However, Francois Conradie, an analyst for NKC African Economics, said the revelations will inevitably have an impact on international relations.

“Morocco relies heavily on French diplomatic assistance to advance its interests in multilateral fora such as the UN and may now find its former friends on the Quai d’Orsay less helpful,” he said.

Ramaphosa and Rwanda

The list also included the number of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, which Rwanda allegedly targeted. Relations between Kigali and Pretoria have been strained since exiled Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, a critic of President Paul Kagame, was assassinated in Johannesburg in 2013.

However, the two countries had worked to restore bilateral ties and Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta met with South African counterpart Naledi Pandor in Pretoria last month to discuss cooperation on various regional issues. The Guardian reported that Ramaphosa appeared to have been selected for surveillance in 2019.

Conradie suggested that Rwanda may have sought more leverage to persecute other defectors of the regime. Carine Kanimba, daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who was known to host refugees during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, is also said to be on Rwanda’s list.

Since leaving Rwanda in 1996, Rusesabagina has become a prominent critic of Kagame’s government on the Rwandan Patriotic Front. In August, he was arrested on nine charges of terrorism for belonging to the armed wing of an opposition party that claimed responsibility for deadly terrorist attacks in Rwanda in 2018.

KIGALI, Rwanda – Rwandan soldiers wait in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, to board a plane to Mozambique on July 10, 2021. The Rwandan government began dispatching a 1,000-strong joint army and police force to Mozambique on Friday in an effort to restore state authority in the latter’s troubled region.

Cyril Ndegeya / Xinhua via Getty Image

“Tensions between South Africa and Rwanda – which were recently exacerbated by Mozambique’s clear preference for a Rwandan intervention in Cabo Delgado over a South African-led regional intervention – will remain,” said Conradie.

Rwanda’s troops are being deployed to assist local security forces in repelling a jihadist uprising in Mozambique that threatens the country’s major natural gas hubs.

“And overall, the revelations lead to the depressing conclusion that life is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists and dissidents around the world, especially in authoritarian places like Morocco and Rwanda,” concluded Conradie.

Rwanda has also categorically denied that it uses the Pegasus system, claiming in a response to the Guardian that it does not have the technical capacity to conduct espionage on this scale. She accused the reports of being part of an “ongoing campaign to create tension between Rwanda and other countries” and spreading disinformation about the country.