Joining online group may have triggered assassination squad
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was at the heart of an "online army" of Saudi activists fighting a misinformation cyberwar, according to friends who fear he may have been targeted because of his support.
Khashoggi recently gave $5,000 (€4,200) to "Geish al-Nahla" - or the Bee Army, an opposition movement offering cyber protection to Saudi activists needing a safe platform to speak out in the kingdom.
The Bee Army was the brainchild of Khashoggi's friend Omar Abdulaziz (27), a Canada-based Saudi activist, who claims he was also targeted with a plan to make him disappear.
The revelations come amid reports by experts of a massive increase in both the activity and presence of pro-Saudi automated Twitter accounts since Khashoggi's killing.
These bot or troll accounts, which activists believe may be linked to the regime, have threatened Mr Khashoggi's supporters and tried to replace Twitter hashtags about his vanishing, with ones praising Saudi's crown prince.
Mr Abdulaziz, who has claimed asylum in Canada, said the regime had tapped his phone and so knew of Mr Khashoggi's involvement. Other members also believe Mr Khashoggi was targeted because he had helped them.
"Part of what made [the regime] angry with Jamal was because he was specifically working on this project targeting social media. He was the one who was funding us," Mr Abdulaziz said. "Since 2016 the Saudi government started to create these bots that have been behind an online propaganda drive targeting us."
Mr Abdulaziz claimed he was targeted by a similar plan to "disappear" him in May when prominent Saudi figures tried to lure him to the embassy in Canada. When he refused he was targeted by spyware which tracked his phone calls, after which he was told to stop his online activism.
On September 21, Mr Khashoggi made a cryptic declaration of support for the Bee Army. Using its first tentative hashtag "what do you know about bees" he tweeted: "They love their home country and defend it with truth and rights." It was liked and retweeted nearly 1,000 times.
"He wrote critically in newspapers but it was only when we started to organise the opposition that [the regime] got upset," Mr Abdulaziz said. He said the Bee Army was designed to give people a safe platform to speak out.
"If people write any opinion or information on Twitter the government will know who they are, even if they use an alias," he said. The Bee Army gave people a "safe alternative" by teaching them how to use encrypted browsers and virtual private networks.
While the activists have stepped up their activity online so has the pro-regime side, purchasing software to create "armies" of trolls.
Dr Marc Owen Jones, a lecturer on Arab history at Exeter University has monitored Saudi bots for two years, said he has seen a massive surge in pro-regime Twitter activity and troll accounts since Mr Khashoggi went missing.
"There was a huge spike in October in bot accounts and the use of hashtags praising the crown prince," he said. "On some days there are tens of thousands of tweets from Saudi bots or trolls in Arabic."
Dr Jones said some of the Saudi organisations he believes to be behind the most prolific creation of automatic accounts have purchased specific software to help them. One such is Saudi 24, a news outlet that boasted millions of followers until it was suspended last week by Twitter.