Morocco’s government said it will accept nothing short of a clear response with material evidence backing the claims AI alleged against the country.
By Safaa Kasraoui and Morgan Hekking
Rabat – Morocco reiterated on Thursday its call for human rights NGO Amnesty International (AI) to provide material evidence to support its allegations that the Moroccan government waged “cyber-spying attacks” against Moroccan activists and journalists.
During a government council meeting on July 2, Moroccan officials discussed the claims of spying Amnesty International espoused in its latest report on the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in Morocco.
The report, published on June 22, alleged that the Moroccan government used the Israeli spyware to “harass” journalist and activist Omar Radi.
The council recalled that Moroccan authorities issued a press release on June 26 demanding evidence of the alleged “cyber-spying attacks” against Radi.
“As it was expected, the NGO did not provide any evidence or response that proves the allegations to date,” the Moroccan government said in a statement at the end of the meeting.
AI’s biased agenda
The government said the NGO’s allegations “are in line with the strategy Amnesty International has been employing for years against Morocco’s interests, attempting to undermine the country’s internationally-recognized progress in the field of human rights.”
Amnesty International’s prejudice against Morocco has gone beyond all borders, the statement continued, adding that the NGO is trying to become a “political actor” in the country.
In recent years, AI has continuously published debatable reports on human rights in Morocco, which the government has often met with condemnation and official statements rebuking the NGO’s allegations.
The organization is now attempting to take advantage of the position of a Moroccan journalist by claiming he was subjected to cyber attacks, the statement asserted.
AI has repeatedly claimed the Moroccan government targets journalists critical of the government, such as Maati Monjib, who believes he is under digital surveillance by Moroccan authorities. Morocco has denied such allegations.
The statement stressed that Radi, the alleged victim of government-sanctioned “cyber-spying attacks,” is currently the subject of judicial investigation for his alleged involvement in actions to undermine “the integrity of the state,” and for his connection with an officer from a foreign country whose identity Morocco is not prepared to reveal, “in line with the customs and traditions of the international community.”
The National Brigade of Judicial Police (BNPJ) summoned Radi on June 24 as part of an official investigation to determine his alleged involvement in a case of obtaining foreign financing related to “intelligence services.” In a previous case in March 2019, Radi received a four-month suspended sentence and a MAD 500 ($52) fine after lashing out at a judge over sentencing activities regarding the Hirak Rif movement.
Morocco’s government reiterated its rejection of the report’s allegations due to the report’s links to agendas that have nothing to do with human rights.
“Morocco will take the necessary actions to defend its national security and to enlighten national and international public opinion against the rejected fallacies,” the statement warned, saying Morocco “was subjected to an unjust international defamation campaign.”
The June 22 report quotes Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, Danna Ingleton, who alleged that Moroccan authorities are increasingly using digital surveillance to “crack down on dissents.”
“This unlawful spying, and the wider pattern of harassment of activists and journalists must stop,” she said, sharing no evidence to support the sweeping allegations.
The Moroccan government is demanding tangible evidence to back AI’s claims that seek to tarnish the country’s reputation.
“For this purpose, the Head of Government [Saad Eddine El Otmnai] contacted the Amnesty International NGO to inquire about all of the allegations and fallacies fabricated against Morocco without evidence,” the statement concluded.
A pattern of ambiguity
Morocco World News contacted Amnesty International with several questions regarding the report and its claims against Morocco.
Four days and four attempts later, Neil Durkin, an AI media and PR manager for the UK, referred us to his colleagues in the MENA region.
Three days after MWN sent another email, Mohammed Abunajela, an AI media manager for the MENA, vaguely addressed just three of our five questions.
In response to our request for tangible evidence of the Moroccan government’s alleged “spying,” Abunajela directed us to the section of the June 22 spyware report titled: “Who is behind these attacks?”
The section in question “clearly outlines the evidence as to why we conclude that the Moroccan government actively remained a customer of NSO Group until at least January 2020 and continues to unlawfully target human rights defenders, such as in the case of Omar Radi,” Abunajela said.
This section is, however, ambiguous, and provides no conclusive evidence linking the Moroccan government to NSO Group or proving it is behind the alleged attacks against Radi.
“Forensic data extracted from Omar Radi’s phone indicates network injection attacks occurred on 27 January, 11 February, and 13 September 2019. This type of attack is possible using two techniques: deploying a device commonly referred to as a ‘rogue cell tower’, ‘IMSI Catcher’ or ‘stingray’, or by leveraging access to the mobile operator’s internal infrastructure,” the report says.
“It is currently unclear which of these two options have been used against Omar,” the report states. The report insists that the evidence speaks for itself, but later adds that the Israeli malware is “notoriously difficult to spot.”
In response to our request for examples of other activists and journalists subjected to cyber-spying attacks by the Moroccan government, Amnesty International directed us to an October 2019 report alleging Pegasus cyber attacks against Moroccan activist Maati Monjib and human rights lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui.
The report cites the two as saying they believed the Moroccan government was behind the attacks. However, like the June 22 report, it provided no evidence that the Moroccan government was the culprit, basing its allegation on speculation and assumptions.
MWN’s inquiries also requested comments regarding AI’s rationale behind not disclosing the identities of its donors, and to what extent donors influence the NGO’s mission and the view of the countries covered in its reports.
Abunajela said “the overwhelming majority of Amnesty’s income comes from individuals the world over. These personal and unaffiliated donations allow Amnesty to maintain full independence from any and all governments, political ideologies, economic interests or religions.” Abunajela added a link to the NGO’s “Finances and Pay” page, from which he directly copied his response.
Other institutions, such as Reseau International and NGO Monitor, have called these claims into question. Their reports point to suspicious funding from certain Western countries which AI approaches with a less critical lens. Amnesty International’s “Finances and Pay” page claims the organization is fully independent “from any and all governments.”
Additionally, AI claimed it contacted the Moroccan government before publishing the spyware report, but on June 26, the government denied “any contact with Amnesty International” and “completely rejected the allegations” in the report. Abunajela declined to acknowledge MWN’s request for comment on the government’s statement.
Amnesty International also launched an unprecedented sponsored campaign on its social networks, calling on Moroccan “human rights defenders” to follow particular guidelines to see if their iPhones were subjected to “cyber-spying attacks.”
The NGO targeted English-language social media users with a different version of the campaign, focused not on any government but on NSO Group.
Amnesty International has provided substantial evidence that the Israeli company’s spyware is active in cyber attacks against journalists and activists around the world. It is unclear why the same threshold for evidence does not apply to a state with a demonstrated commitment to improving respect for human rights within its borders.