A day ahead of Saudi Arabia’s controversial “Davos in the Desert” investment conference, it appears its website has been vandalized by hackers. The conference has been the topic of intense debate as high-profile attendees have dropped out following the scandal surrounding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The website for the Foreign Investment Initiative (FII) has not been recently archived by the Wayback Machine, a cached version captured by Google shows that it contained basic information on the investment summit that many of the world’s most powerful executives and governments were expected to attend this week. Many of those who planned to attend have publicly dropped out in the wake of credible accusations from the Turkish government that Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and U.S. permanent resident, was murdered and dismembered when he visited the Saudi consulate in Turkey. The Saudi government has claimed that the 59-year-old journalist died accidentally after getting in a fight with more than a dozen men who were sent by the government to confront him at the embassy.
On Monday morning, journalists, political activists, and others shared screenshots of the FII’s homepage where things were looked a bit out of the ordinary. A photoshopped image of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman brandishing a sword and looming over a kneeling Khashoggi, a clear evocation of beheading videos from terrorist groups like ISIS. Below it, a caption read:
For the sake of security for children worldwide, we urge all countries to put sanction on the Saudi regime. The regime aligned with the United States, must be kept responsible for its barbaric and inhuman action, such as killing its own citizen Jama khashoggi and thousands of innocent people in Yemen. The medieval Saudi regime is one of the sources for #Terrorism_Financing in the world.
Statistics accusing the Saudi government of supporting terrorist groups and orchestrating the deaths of thousands of civilians in Yemen and Syria were displayed at the bottom of the page. Hours later, the entire website was offline. It was restored just prior to publication. A quick search shows that if the website had basic security certificates in place, it had not been added to certificate transparency logs.
We’ve reached out to the U.S. Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ask if foul play is involved in the message and if authorities have been contacted, but we did not receive an immediate reply.
Khashoggi’s death has sparked a weeks-long political crisis in which the U.S. government has been slow to offer judgment and private companies have been quick to distance themselves from the crown prince who remains at the center of the scandal despite denials of his involvement by the Saudi government. Tech giants like Google and financial institutions like J.P. Morgan Chase have canceled their plans to attend the FII as it’s become clear that the Saudi government is at least not telling the truth about what happened to Khashoggi.
On Friday, reports claimed that Twitter had banned hundreds of bots working to spread pro-Saudi propaganda. Mohammed bin Salman may not be the progressive reformer he’s been touted as being, but it appears he’s led his country into the age of cyber-information warfare.