World Politics

Israeli Pegasus spyware saga could sow diplomatic rifts in Africa

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Key Points
  • An intelligence leak has alleged that agencies have been using Israeli company NSO Group's Pegasus software to monitor the phones of thousands of politicians, dissidents, journalists, business executives and various public figures around the world.
  • NSO Group has staunchly denied the claims, arguing in several lengthy rebukes that the investigation includes "uncorroborated theories" based on "misleading interpretation of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information."
  • NKC African economics analyst Francois Conradie said the revelations will inevitably have some impact on international relations.
DAVOS, Switzerland - Rwandan President Paul Kagame (L) and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attend a session during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 24, 2019, in Davos, eastern Switzerland.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

The Pegasus spyware saga has embroiled several African governments and could prompt further diplomatic fallouts, experts have suggested.

An intelligence leak has alleged that agencies have been using Israeli company NSO Group's Pegasus software to monitor the phones of thousands of politicians, dissidents, journalists, business executives and various public figures around the world.

The investigation, conducted by nonprofit group Forbidden Stories along with Amnesty International, The Washington Post and 16 other news organizations, alleges that the military-grade spyware was used to hack and surveil targets' smartphones from afar.

"Not only does it expose the risk and harm to those individuals unlawfully targeted, but also the extremely destabilizing consequences on global human rights and the security of the digital environment at large," Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard said in a statement Friday.

"NSO Group is just one company. This is a dangerous industry that has operated on the edges of legality for too long, and this cannot be allowed to continue."

NSO Group has staunchly denied the claims, arguing in several lengthy rebukes that the investigation includes "uncorroborated theories" based on "misleading interpretation of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information."

NSO said the spyware is used only to surveil 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 called on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to pursue an inquiry into the allegations raised in the report, which indicated that Macron was being surveilled by Morocco.

Reports claim that Morocco was the most enthusiastic user of the Pegasus software, with more than 10,000 of the 50,000 numbers contained in the leak deemed of interest to the country's secret services.

The phone numbers of several journalists now jailed in Morocco also were divulged, along with those of former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and European Council President Charles Micheland WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

NSO Group has denied this, claiming the likes of Macron, Ghebreyesus and Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who also appeared on the list, had never been "targets."

PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron (R) waves as he leaves with Morocco's Prince Moulay Hassan (C) nd 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 using Pegasus spyware, calling the reporting "mendacious, massive and malevolent media campaign."

A government spokesman also told the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper that the allegations were "unfounded" and said Amnesty International had been "incapable of proving any relationship whatsoever between Morocco and the aforementioned Israeli company."

However, NKC African Economics Analyst Francois Conradie said the revelations will inevitably have some impact on international relations.

"Morocco depends to a high degree on French diplomatic support in advancing its interests in multilateral fora like the UN and may now find its former friends in the Quai d'Orsay less inclined to be helpful," he said.

Ramaphosa and Rwanda

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's number also appeared on the list, allegedly targeted by Rwanda. Relations between Kigali and Pretoria have been somewhat strained since exiled former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, a critic of President Paul Kagame, was assassinated in Johannesburg in 2013.

However, the two countries had been working to restore bilateral relations, and Rwandan 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 Rwanda may have been seeking more leverage in pursuit of other regime defectors. Carine Kanimba, daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who famously sheltered refugees during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, was also allegedly on Rwanda's list.

Since leaving Rwanda in 1996, Rusesabagina has become a prominent critic of Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front government. He was arrested in August on nine terrorism charges in relation to his affiliation with the armed wing of an opposition party, which claimed responsibility for fatal terror attacks in Rwanda in 2018.

KIGALI, Rwanda - Rwandan soldiers wait to board a plane for Mozambique in Kigali, capital city of Rwanda, July 10, 2021. The Rwandan government on Friday started deploying a 1000-member joint force of army and police personnel to Mozambique to support efforts to restore state authority in the latter's restive region.
Cyril Ndegeya/Xinhua via Getty Image

"The tensions between South Africa and Rwanda – of late heightened by the way Mozambique has clearly preferred a Rwandan intervention in Cabo Delgado to a South African-led regional one – will remain in place," Conradie said.

Rwandan troops are deployed to assist local security forces in fending off a jihadist insurgency in Mozambique that has threatened the country's key natural gas hubs.

"And overall, the revelations lead to the depressing conclusion that life for journalists and dissidents worldwide, but especially in authoritarian places like Morocco and Rwanda, will only keep getting more difficult," Conradie concluded.

Rwanda has also categorically denied that it uses the Pegasus system and claimed in a response to the Guardian that it does not possess the technical capacity to carry out espionage on such a scale. It accused the reports of being part of an "ongoing campaign to cause tensions between Rwanda and other countries" and to sow disinformation about the country.