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While You Weren't Looking

Is Saudi Arabia Spying in the United States?

Riyadh is accused of exploiting vulnerabilities in telecommunications networks to track its citizens abroad.

A man checks his phone as he crosses an empty street in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on April 3.
A man checks his phone as he crosses an empty street in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on April 3. AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to the first edition of While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s new pop-up newsletter designed to keep you up to date on all the important non-coronavirus news you may have missed while you were reading about the pandemic.

If you would like to receive While You Weren’t Looking in your inbox starting Friday, April 10, please sign up here.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Saudi Arabia is suspected of spying on its citizens in the United States, U.S.-Iran tensions flare, and extremist terrorist groups seize upon the chaos caused by the coronavirus.


Leaks Reveal Saudi Arabia Is Tracking Its Citizens in the United States

Saudi Arabia appears to have taken advantage of flaws in global telecommunications networks to track the movement of its citizens traveling in the United States, according to millions of data requests leaked to the Guardian and published last week. Over a four-month period beginning in November 2019, Saudi Arabia’s largest mobile phone operators sent U.S. cell phone networks a combined average of 2.3 million requests for their users’ location data each month.

The requests were sent through a signaling system called SS7, which allows mobile operators to share information for legitimate purposes such as calculating international roaming charges. Experts told the Guardian that the volume of requests suggested that the system was being exploited to track citizens’ movements. With requests sent as often as 13 times per hour, the data could be used to pinpoint the location of a mobile phone user within a few city blocks.

Pattern of surveillance. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly used spyware to monitor mobile phones belonging to its critics. A Saudi dissident close to the journalist Jamal Khashoggi filed a lawsuit in 2018 claiming that Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli software company NSO Group, had been used by Saudi intelligence services to monitor the dissident’s conversations with the murdered Washington Post columnist.

Andrew Miller, a member of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, told the Guardian that the leaks indicate Saudi Arabia may have gone beyond just tracking dissidents. “I think they are surveilling not only those they know are dissidents, but those they fear may deviate from the Saudi leadership,” he said. “They are particularly worried about what Saudi nationals will do when they are in Western countries.”

Will this spur a move to end the vulnerabilities in the SS7 signaling system? This looks unlikely to happen any time soon. Lawmakers and researchers have sounded the alarm for years, but little progress has been made, as TechCrunch reports.

Keep your eye on the ball.

Sign up for Foreign Policy’s latest pop-up newsletter, While You Weren’t Looking, for a weekly update on the world beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Delivered Friday.

What We’re Following

Tensions flare between the United States and Iran. Last Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned that Tehran and its proxies were planning a “sneak attack” on U.S. troops in Iraq and vowed to retaliate by going “up the food chain”—suggesting that he might directly target Iranian forces. The same day, after reports showed that the United States had deployed Patriot air defense missiles to Iraq, Iran’s foreign ministry accused Washington of “warmongering during the coronavirus outbreak.” On Thursday, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, said that any U.S. provocation would be met with a fierce response.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal backed up Trump’s claim that U.S. intelligence indicated that Iran or its proxies are plotting a serious attack on U.S. troops in Iraq. And on March 30, Esmail Qaani, the man who succeeded Qassem Suleimani as head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, traveled to Baghdad to encourage unity between Iraq’s political factions. Despite Suleimani’s assassination in January, Iran has doubled down in Syria, as Anchal Vohra writes for FP.

Extremist groups take advantage of chaos. Militant terrorist groups are looking to attract more followers and plan further attacks as the world focuses on the fight against the coronavirus. Last week, the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram carried out its deadliest attack ever in neighboring Chad, killing at least 92 soldiers. Chad is a key Western ally in the fight against terrorism in Africa, as Will Brown reports for FP.

In Mali, the leader of the main opposition party, Soumaïla Cissé, was kidnapped in late March while traveling in the war-torn country’s northern region. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed Cissé’s bodyguard, but fighters connected to al Qaeda and the Islamic State are known to operate in the area. Terrorist groups in West Africa’s Sahel region are gaining ground as the United States looks to scale back its military footprint in the region, as FP’s Robbie Gramer reports.

New information on casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes. U.S. Africa Command will begin issuing quarterly reports on allegations of civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes in Africa, it said last week. The announcement by Africom Commander Stephen Townsend came the day before a report from Amnesty International accused the United States of having “zero accountability” after two civilians were killed and three injured by U.S. airstrikes in Somalia in February. Over the last decade, the United States has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against the Somali militant group al-Shabab, but it has only admitted to killing two civilians. Rights groups and local media suggest that the actual civilian death toll could be anywhere between 74 and 300.


Keep an Eye On 

Myanmar’s press. In the latest hit to journalism in Myanmar, government authorities arrested a prominent editor and charged him under the country’s counterterrorism laws for publishing an interview with a spokesman from the Arakan Army rebel group. Ko Nay Lin, the editor of the English- and Burmese-language Voice of Myanmar, could face life in prison if he is found guilty of “knowingly participating in a terrorist group,” according to the Irrawaddy, a local independent news site.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for his immediate release. “Reporting on armed conflict is not the same as being a terrorist,” said Shawn Crispin, the organization’s senior Southeast Asia representative.

Mexico’s homicide rate. March was Mexico’s deadliest month since it began keeping records in 1997, with 2,585 murders. That means 2020 is on track to be the most lethal year yet. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador campaigned in 2018 on a promise to curb violence by addressing root causes such as poverty, but his strategy of “hugs not bullets” has been criticized for failing to tackle the entrenched power of criminal gangs.

U.N. dues. The United Nations is strapped for cash as member states fail to pay their dues, Secretary-General António Guterres said in a letter to member states seen on Thursday by the Associated Press. The shortfall of $2.27 billion, which is compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, will seriously threaten the U.N.’s ability to do its work, Guterres said.


Odds and Ends

Bugs on the menu. Locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers could soon appear on menus across the European Union as the European Food Safety Authority looks set to approve edible insects as safe for human consumption. High-protein insect products, which are currently banned in France, Italy, Spain, and other countries, could be sold as soon as the fall.

Hitting the mark. Germany met more than half its electricity demand using renewable energy in the first three months of 2020, marking the first time renewables have accounted for a majority of its energy use for a full quarter. The milestone was helped along by high winds and a fall in energy demand due to coronavirus-related shutdowns.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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